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  • Bruce Klein

The Joker: Grotesque and Sad But Comes with Lessons

The Joker is Batman’s wicked foe in DC comics. But this movie portrays the Joker (Juaquin Phoenix) in biographical detail way beyond the comic book Joker. Batman is only a point of reference in this story.

The Joker is the alter ego of Arthur Fleck. He has been haunted and victimized throughout his life. To defend himself, he keeps repeating the mantra his mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) gave him. She told him you were born to spread joy and laughter. The mantra gives him little to no protection from pain. He repulses others and they project their angst and demons on him. Although treated with medication, his serious mental condition is uncontrolled. At his social worker’s suggestion, he keeps a journal which he punctuates with quips. He has not given up on himself or his dreams. But despite his rotten roots or because of it, he understands kindness, decency and respect for all. In many ways, he is a good person but deeply disturbed. Life is unkind to Arthur as he states, “I just don’t want to feel so bad anymore.” He wishes that his “….death makes more sense than his life.”


Gotham, mythical home of Batman and the Joker, is a metropolis very similar to New York. In this movie, it resembles a 1970s, a period of crime and decay. Arthur lives with his bed-ridden mother. When Arthur’s boss scolds him for bad behavior after he is attacked on the street, a fellow employee gives him a gun to protect himself. He returns to his slum apartment and checks the lobby mail box. When he reaches his floor, he meets an attractive young woman who lives down the hall. Surprisingly, he hits it off with her.


Arthur goes into his apartment. While watching a Fred Astaire movie, he joins in the dancing and joyously fires the gun given to him. Afterwards, he gives his mother a bath. Once again she mentions waiting for a letter requesting help from Thomas Wayne, her former employer. Thomas Wayne is the father of Bruce Wayne whose secret identity is Batman.


Fleck goes to a children’s hospital where he joyously entertains the patients. Taking the subway home, he witnesses three men menacing a young woman. Arthur deflects the men’s attention from the girl so they go for him instead which leads to a confrontation. Arthur returns home dancing along the way. When he reaches his apartment floor, he sees his lovely neighbor again, and they kiss passionately. Mobs gather in Gotham’s streets as Arthur goes to visit his social worker. She tells him that city services cut off medications for the mentally ill.


His mother is hospitalized with a stroke. She mentions to him that Thomas Wayne is his father. He finds that to be untrue but discovers a much darker scenario, and he goes into a rage. Dancing with abandon in the streets, Arthur joins the mob.


Todd Phillips', the writer/director, first film was a documentary about a punk rocker who was a violent drug abuser. This film is the dramatization of his documentary. Prominent themes in The Joker are neglect of the mentally ill and hatred toward the rich. It’s an adult film with gory scenes. Phoenix inhabits his character and scares the hell out of the audience. Although Phoenix’s portrayal is heart stopping, stay away if you would find constant graphic violence disturbing.