A Look at Joker’s Open Questions

“Oh my gosh, Brogan Chattin, of thetwingeeks.com!” You say to yourself in complete confusion after walking out of the film Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips. “I need answers! I need analysis! I need the questions and themes of the movie explained to me!” That’s okay dear reader, I’m here now.

I reviewed the film traditionally, but I wanted to be able to talk about some of the other stuff going on behind it beyond the standard good/bad talk. This film has a lot going for it despite its flaws, and we’ll explore these through the commonly asked questions you might have wondered after leaving the theater.

First, there will be spoilers. Second, these are just my opinions and speculation after a single viewing of the film. I’m certain people will be able to dissect scenes and details later down the line, but to make sure everybody’s safe I will bravely explore these topics now while the analysis iron is hot.

Also, I don’t have a great selection of images for this Joker article, so instead of stills from the new film, I’m going to use Joker stills from other films. Be thankful I’m not gonna use Jared Leto.

What’s the Deal With His Laughing?

Classic academic Joker analysis: Romero’s mustache is a metaphor for… Being too lazy to shave before makeup?

Let’s start off with a warm-up. His condition in the film is a variant of the Pseudobulbar Affect. The Pseudobulbar Affect is where the person’s reaction or expression is different from what emotion they’re actually feeling. For Arthur here, it’s laughing at inappropriate times. It’s important to note that not all the times Arthur laughs are a result of the effect. It’s most commonly done when he’s under great stress or crying (like great stress, but water comes out of your eyes).

Arthur fakes his laughs often. This is most easily seen and conveyed during his clown job crew jokes. He laughs loud and distinctly. He will still do it for too long or at the wrong moment, but that’s because he doesn’t know when the right time is to laugh. The clear distinctions come when he does this laugh and then walks out of earshot of the crew and changes demeanor entirely. He was acting there to belong. A similar thing happens when he’s watching a comedian perform stand-up. He laughs at the wrong time, but it’s usually slightly after the rest of the audience laughs, so he thinks the comedian is being funny. His notes aren’t of how the comedian structures his jokes or anything. They’re all superficial. The comedian drinks, the crowd loves sex jokes, a bunch of notes that someone would make if he thinks that appearance is the key to being funny.

This is an interesting idea to explore, that Arthur has no actual idea of what’s funny. No understanding of timing or irony. He only knows that he laughs and smiles and could try to get a crowd to do the same so he wouldn’t feel out of place.

Arthur finds his own humor by the end of the film. Probably the darkest yet humorous moment comes from his former coworker being too short to reach the door lock and needing to ask Arthur for help after he just murdered someone right in front of him. This was the first genuine laugh from the audience I was with too. It’s the reason why Arthur says comedy is subjective on the Murray Show. He wasn’t making a standard claim, he was actually saying he finds the morbidity of the situations funny. It’s honesty. If comedy is subjective and artists should be true to themselves, why does everybody clearly see that Joker is wrong? This is core to even the comic book version of the Joker. Joker’s brand of funny is dark and cruel, but it comes from a genuine place for the character.

His true laughter comes at the very end of the film, inside Arkham Asylum. I’ll go on to talk about it later, but by this time he’s abandoned the Arthur identity and is completely Joker. The genuine laughter comes from his “true self” and the ironies he’s reflected on in the dark place that is his brain.

Who did Joker Actually Kill?

More classic analysis: Jack Nicholson used tan makeup for many scenes because it was easier than the white paint… I might be noticing a trend.

So Arthur Fleck is an unreliable protagonist. Like the film’s main inspiration The King of Comedy (1982) there are multiple moments throughout the film that are Arthur’s own imagination running wild and giving him exactly what he wants. We’ll get into more of an analysis of the Scorsese film with a different question, but needless to say even beyond the absurd moments there’s a fine line between real and fake. You’re meant to question almost every major interaction Arthur has. The murders most of all.

First, I think it’s obvious to say the Wallstreet guys were murdered by Arthur. Too much of the film relies on this premise, and it’s essential to Arthur’s descent into madness. This event is the first bit of social recognition he’s ever had, so the reaction and further character development do not match if the murder was fake. That being said, I think there’s an angle where you’re supposed to doubt his discussions with his therapist, you might want to question how he actually received and how interested he was in guns before and after the gun was gifted to him.

Originally, Arthur was going to go home after the murders and become nauseous. Instead, he celebrates by dancing as he hides away in a bathroom. This character rewrite was entirely appropriate because Arthur enjoyed killing those men. I question how terrible those men actually were as opposed to what Arthur imagined they were like.

He certainly murdered his mother, the rage and relief emotions that followed with him felt too visceral and cathartic for him. We also learned minutes before how terrible she really was to Arthur. He also murdered the guy who gave him the gun and let the little person go. We also learn in that scene that Joker has a truly dark sense of humor and he spares lives when he feels they deserve to live.

But the real speculation comes from his pretend girlfriend Sophie and her child. A large majority of Sophie’s screen-time in the film comes from Arthur’s imagination. Arthur craves human recognition and compassion and Sophie offers that for him. The real Sophie however, is completely terrified and knows very little about him. He breaks into their apartment and sits on the couch hoping to be consoled, but Sophie asks him to leave.

I go back and forth on whether or not Sophie and her daughter died. I think I want to say no, so I try to make more arguments for no. I think what points it towards yes is what he thinks about people with no compassion. He feels like he’s entitled to some sort of affection after what he’s been through, and he doesn’t get it from her. We don’t see him get angry with her, but we see him get angry with Thomas Wayne for not sympathizing with him. It’s within the realm of possibility, but I think there are some issues. Arthur has been proven to kill people he feels deserve it and spare those who haven’t done anything. If it happened it would happen off-camera, and most importantly he feels good after killing somebody. The scene following this is him still breaking down and cry-laughing (there’s gotta be a better word for this) in his own apartment. Killing Sophie wouldn’t do anything for him, and killing got him things he wanted every other time. As far as I’m concerned, I think that the final Sophie visit is Arthur realistically considering what would happen if he walked into that apartment trying to be consoled.

And also, what about Murray Franklin? While the events after are a bigger mystery, yeah I think it’s safe to say Murray actually did invite him on the show. The moments where Murray contacts Arthur firmly happen after fantasy. Sophie literally leaves the room of his imagination when Murray plays Arthur’s tape. Arthur cools down in the fridge and wakes up to the news that he’s got an invitation. The audience members and crew members around Arthur seem to be cautious around him. Maron’s character, some sort of producer or showrunner for Murray, doesn’t want him on at all. Murray even starts grilling him when he realizes what a monster Joker is. These sorts of dissenting opinions and opposition change how Joker thinks about what he’s going to do. If this was fantasy, he would’ve shot himself. Instead, his urges got the best of him and he murdered impulsively, fully transforming into Joker.

Is Thomas Wayne the Baby Daddy?

Finally some real analysis: Ledger’s makeup looked like it was applied exactly once and he just never washed up or applied it again. True acting means you like your makeup.

First, every piece of information about Arthur’s parentage given to Arthur and the audience is dubious. I can’t trust any of it. Bupkis. His mom was mentally unstable and obsessive no matter the details, Thomas Wayne is an asshole that doesn’t want to associate with poor people and would totally cover something up if he did anything wrong, and the folder at the asylum goes right along with the cover-up. The photo of Penny signed by Thomas could also just be a total fake Penny drafted up. Maybe it’s all real, maybe it’s all fake. Who knows?

I don’t. I think all the threads are misdirection because this aspect of the plot is about two things: Arthur’s self-identity and his relationship to Bruce Wayne. Arthur identifies himself proudly at the start of the film as a man that takes care of his mother. He finds it admirable, but as the plot continues he questions this value he places on taking care of her. She clearly abused him and is responsible for Arthur’s current conditions. She might’ve even just adopted him so Thomas could give her money, then when she got sick she kept him around to take care of her. These are the primary reasons why he kills her. He no longer feels like a Fleck, he feels used. The Waynes, his only possible connection to a real father, completely reject him without consideration or compassion. The unknown adoption and questionable past make him feel like he’s lost his identity, and Joker is the only identity Arthur has left.

Yet, his relationship to Bruce is fascinating. If Penny is right, Bruce is a brother to him. He’s a child still learning and yet to experience how cruel the world can be. Arthur wants to go back in time and be Bruce.

Some people complain about seeing the Wayne murders again, but this time actually serves a different purpose than explaining what makes Bruce sad. This time, it’s the joke Joker’s actually laughing at in the asylum. The joke is pretty explicitly suggested because during Joker’s reflection on the joke it cuts to Bruce and his parents on the ground. The joke is that his actions have made a brother out of Bruce’s DNA or not. Bruce is now no longer a child. The trauma has scarred him just as bad as it did to Arthur. This is one of the best ways a film has so far depicted the Batman/Joker dynamic. We don’t even see Batman, we just see a little kid for about three minutes out of the two-hour run time. It’s crazy.

So, What’s Up With The Ending?

I could’ve analyzed Leto’s tattoos or grill. Instead, I’ll just say I’m glad Joker’s evolved to having respectable makeup…

This is probably the most open question. I say with confidence that a majority of major events in the film surely happened, but I’m not sure of anything. Technically, everything could be imagined in Arthur’s head, but my gut tells me that’s not the case.

The first moment people start to truly question the reality is during the car crash Joker wakes up from during the riot. Many think Joker dies here, and the adoration of the crowd is imagined. The Asylum is his own personal hell, which looks like heaven because that’s just how craaaazy Joker is. It makes a little sense, the final shot is particularly dreamlike or heaven-like. The doors at the end have a bright heavenly light.  Still, there’s a problem here.

To go back to Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, that film ends in a similar way. Rupert Pupkin is arrested for kidnapping and other charges, but he gets out of prison with a book deal and a promising career in show business as the crazy comedian that held up a talk show. This ending is widely considered to be within Pupkin’s head as the rest of the film is. It’s a little dreamlike, and Pupkin’s own set at the very end is reminiscent of a jail cell, possibly suggesting his true location behind his madness.

There’s something I strongly believe with ambiguous endings or plot points in media. Typically, you should consider all the possibilities and draw your own personal message from them. Pupkin’s ending may seem dreamlike, but there are enough moments that suggest that it could be very real. Pupkin’s reaction changes at the very end from excited after achieving his dreams to tired and carrying a false smile. That irony doesn’t make sense with a fantasy but makes plenty of sense considering his idol Jerry’s opinion on his own career. Not to mention the implications and themes of the film resonate more with the possibility (not even the truth, just the possibility) of it being real. Scorsese himself sees the reality behind it. “He becomes successful without being good. That’s the scary part. He’s good enough.”-Martin himself.

In that spirit, we should consider both realities. If he dies in the car crash or imagines the film, the Joker remains an imaginative persona that a deeply troubled man has escaped to. The system has failed him so utterly that their only choice is to lock him up. If he is truly adored by fans and the events of the film were mostly true, then we see the super-villain we were expecting. There is no Arthur anymore, but the Joker as we see him locked away in Arkham Asylum until he escapes again. Both are worth considering.

If I had to choose one, I would choose the ending as reality. I consider the cynical core of the film to be very similar to King of Comedy, the implication being that society (oh no I said the word) rewards violence and doesn’t reward modest living. Both Pupkin and Fleck could have imagined everything, but they didn’t get what they wanted by being the same people at the start of the film. They both changed, and what they learned throughout was that their immoral behavior was rewarded for better or worse. If every single moment of Arthur’s life was completely miserable or a happy lie, then the Joker is either the happiest lie of all or Arthur’s own self-actualization. If the Joker is a lie, we can sleep at night and not learn anything. If people actually give the Joker that sort of adoration and attention… We should probably do something about mental health or, God forbid, gun control.

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