If you have been watching the superhero movies for the last few years, its highly likely that you worship Heath Ledger, as I do, for his portrayal of The Joker in Nolan’s masterpiece ‘The Dark Knight’. After he rightfully got his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor; for being the Clown Price of Crime; it seemed almost impossible to match what he achieved with the character, let alone outdoing him. The earlier attempt by Jared Leto fell flat on its face, just like the movie itself; the less I talk about that movie, the better (Sorry Margot but you couldn’t save it).
So when the news got out that Joaquin Phoenix was being cast as The Joker, with Todd Phillips at the helm, it was received with mixed feelings, well by me at least. But when I watched Joker this Saturday, I realised after the movie that I did not even think about Ledger’s Joker for even a second. Two reasons for that – one, Joker movie focuses on the character’s struggle that leads to him becoming The Joker, unlike Ledger’s Joker who was terrorizing Gotham like he had been doing it all his life; & two, Phoenix’s version was so good in its own right that you don’t think of comparing the two. It is like the Messi Vs. Ronaldo debate; enough comparisons; just enjoy the brilliance of both, whilst you can!
Being the excellent film that it is, its been intentionally kept ambiguous at points to leave you to do some thinking on your own. Some of the big questions that must be bothering you right now – is Thomas Wayne really Arthur’s father? Did Joker murder the psychiatrist & escape from Arkham Asylum at the end? Did he murder Sophie too? But the biggest question of them all is – how much of the movie actually happened? Did Arthur imagine it all while narrating it to the Psychiatrist at Arkham? Or it actually happened & The Joker’s origin story is finally created & shared with the world? The answer, unfortunately, is not out there (yet) but you think long & hard about it (which of course you will) you can build some theories; some of which I am trying to list down here. [These are, in all likelihood, just few of those interpretations, which may or may not be correct. & it goes without saying that these are my views based on the movie & the research I did after watching it.]
Arthur Fleck is what’s called an unreliable narrator in film terms; someone whose account of details is highly compromised & cannot be trusted. You see him fantasizing about multiple situations/people throughout the movie so you don’t know which parts you can believe in. Some of the famous examples of unreliable narrators in movies are Verbal from The Usual Suspects played by Kevin Spacey, or Leonard from Memento played by Guy Pearce, or even Amy from Gone Girl played by Rosamund Pike.
There are two big incidents in the film that make Arthur an unreliable narrator. The first & obvious one is at the beginning of the film when he imagines himself at the Murray Franklin show, being called on stage. The second one is much more carefully hidden till about the end of the film; Arthur’s imagined relationship with Sophie. We get to know he has imagined all of it (except only the elevator scene perhaps), when he goes into her apartment & she asks him if his name is Arthur & tells him that he is in the wrong apartment. As he has imagined these incidents, is it likely that there are more incidents in the film, which are happening in Arthur’s imagination & not in his reality? The history of the character in the comics or in earlier films backs this theory, as Joker has never revealed his true origin story. While there have been different versions of it, we never see it being laid out as clearly as Batman’s origin story.
The above frame from the iconic issue; The Killing Joke; encapsulates The Joker in the best way possible. In the same way, Ledger’s Joker has various backstories for how he got the scars. So, if you consider Arthur imagining his whole life as shown in this film, perhaps it goes well with the character.
Alright, enough chitchat then, let’s dive into the three major possibilities. In each of the possibilities, I will look at 3 factors – 1. What part of the movie did Arthur imagine? 2. What does that mean for his relationship with the Wayne family? 3. What’s the joke then, which he says the Psychiatrist at Arkham won’t get?
Scenario 1 – All of it was fiction? (Except of course the final scene at Arkham)
Arthur is an unreliable narrator because of the instances where he has shown imagining things, like going onstage on Murray’s show & his make-believe relationship with Sophie. It becomes tricky to believe any of the details he shares with us. Some of the things don’t really add up or they seem out of place. E.g., Arthur’s clothes when he is at Arkham (getting his mother’s records), the colors look oddly similar to the interior of Arkham. Additionally, the final scene which is again at Arkham (not sure if its confirmed but most likely) shows the interior to be all white; but not in earlier scenes. That can’t be a coincidence when rest of the movie is thought through, can it?
If you think about various instances in the film, some more odd things stand out. Like how a stranger (Arthur) can walk up to the Wayne Mansion, not just talk to the young heir but also put his fingers in his mouth to make a smile? Or how he is able to overpower Alfred who is usually shown as a part of British Army? Even curious is the depiction of Murray Franklin who as a host of a famous show, wouldn’t want to bring on someone on the show who seems to have history of mental issues & even agree to his weird demands? Surely he can’t be desperate for viewership, right?
This also means that he imagined his connection to Thomas Wayne as well. This could partly be because of his obsession with Batman/Bruce Wayne. So he has made himself the reason for Batman’s origin instead of, as most background stories go, Joker’s origin because of Batman. (More on this in next scenario)
And finally, the joke here is that he is fooling the psychiatrist by telling her the wrong story & having fun on her behalf. Again, the counselor in the earlier part of the film also happens to be black. Possible that Joker imagined her because he is telling his imaginary story to this psychiatrist?
Scenario 2 – Part between Murray’s murder & Arkham scene is fiction?
In this scenario, we focus primarily on his obsession with Batman. As mentioned above, he is trying to be the origin of Batman’s creation by imagining that one of his followers killed Bruce’s parents. However, he is not only inserting himself in Batman’s story, he is also elevating himself as a hero (to an extent). His accident & subsequent dance on top of the car & being worshipped by so many of his followers; shows that he considers himself as a hero risen who has inspired so many people in the society.
There are again few things that don’t add up here. Why would the Waynes be at a theatre in the middle of a riot? They could be there much earlier but getting escorted without any car & driver or any protection, why would they be walking into a back-alley in such dangerous situation? Additionally, if his followers now surround the Joker, how does he still end up at Arkham?
Here’s how it gets tricky though- If only part of the story was fiction, then the whole Thomas Wayne situation did happen, including the letter to Penny (Arthur’s mother) signed T.W. by Thomas Wayne. Perhaps that part is left ambiguous on purpose. Does this mean Thomas was actually involved with Penny? Or did he only write that letter & Penny thought the rest on her own? Or may be Penny herself wrote that message? That last one possibly not true as apparently the handwriting in Penny’s letter Thomas (shown earlier in the film) doesn’t match with this particular message. This I haven’t checked myself (its out there in the Joker movie reviews available on the net) but I plan to verify this, next time I watch this film.
In this scenario, the joke is perhaps that Wayne family got killed because of Joker & Thomas brought it upon him by calling the poor people clowns. Or may be that Joker is now heir to the Wayne Enterprise as he is Thomas’ son.
Scenario 3 – Whole story is real but just extremely convoluted & ambiguous!
Yes, it’s a likely scenario that all of it was true & Joker is honestly narrating his true origin story. For Arthur to turn into Joker something bad must have happened with him & perhaps this is what happened in reality. His mother had him after her relationship with Thomas or may be adopted him, then went completely off the rails & became delusional. As a kid, he had to suffer all this abuse & neglect, which made him vulnerable. Then as an adult, one after the other, bad things kept on happening & he eventually spiralled down into this madness & started killing people. It’s a complex story & even being an unreliable narrator, we are shown what is truly the mystery behind Joker’s origin.
The joke is simply the fact that he is about to kill this psychiatrist at Arkham & she doesn’t even suspect it. Perhaps his plan all along is to tell his story, kill a bunch of people & escape from Arkham. He is the Joker after all.
As the movie did a great job in narrating the story & lets you, the viewer decide what to make of it; I am not going to cloud your thinking by telling you what I think. It is up to you to decide what was real & what was fiction. The beauty of this character is that it is so complex that somehow any of the above scenarios can become simple enough to believe. The film & specially Phoenix & Phillips have done a remarkable job is keeping things ambiguous to let you figure out what you believe.
Finally, I will punch out (yeah I had to use it) by quoting Leto’s Joker from The Suicide Squad (it is useful.. finally!), which is absolutely true about the Joker, be it Ledger’s or Phoenix’s.
“I am not someone who is loved. I’m an idea. A State of Mind.”
About the Author
A Digital Marketing Manager on weekdays & Movie/Tv Series watcher, Reader, Football Fan on weeknights & weekends. A DC comics fan (yes, I liked Batman V Superman too) but not crazy enough to argue that DCEU is better than MCU! Wouldn’t mind talking about theories around superhero movies all day! Gets disappointed easily when people don’t get my F.R.I.E.N.D.S. references. Watching Peaky Blinders currently & looking forward to Mr. Robot’s full season 4 getting released. Yeah, that’s all folks !