Film Theory: The Joker Is Not Real (Joker 2019 Spoiler Free)
In the world of "Joker", today's
theorywill show that the biggest joke of all... is on us. Hello Internet! Welcome to Film Theory, where we just encourage you to smile. Just keep on smiling, keep smiling, keep SMILING. Now I gotta be honest, when I first saw an announcement about a Joker solo movie shortly after the release of Suicide Squad, I thought it was all one bad joke. I mean, let's just say that most people weren't super thrilled with that movie's characterization of such an iconic villain. "this handsome HUNKA-HUNKA!" "You don't want no beef?
You don't want no beef?" "I SMELL LIKE BEEEEF" So coming back for yet another version of the character so soon was... a.. surprise to say the least, then the trailer came out and I was stunned. This wasn't gonna be a
filmabout billionaire superheroes with bat nipples beating up thugs in rainbow colored streets, instead it was gonna be a dive into the psychology of a man. A man named Arthur Fleck. A man plagued by mental illness, a man forgotten by government and abused by society, a man just like any other, completely unremarkable ...except for one small detail.
We're told by the title of the movie that he's gonna rise to take the title of comics' greatest super villain, the Joker. It's the sort of deconstruction of the genre that I love, and that I think we're all desperate for. Don't get me wrong, I love the spectacle of superhero movies, but after more than a decade of flashy CGI battles with big villains (and even bigger budgets), what gets me most excited are the ones brave enough to show us something darker, stuff like "Logan" or "The Boys", stories set in universes of superheroes, but where good and evil aren't so clear-cut.
Where the heroes aren't always the good guys. Films that don't just gloss over the rotten underbelly of the society that needs heroes to rescue it in the first place, and Joker seems to tick all those boxes. But there was something else that I found interesting about Joker when watching the trailers. I don't think it's
real. Now obviously, the movie exists, that's not what I'm saying here. No, what I mean to say is that anytime you have a
filmtelling such a close personal story of a character, who's clearly struggling with mental illness, it leaves open the possibility for misdirection, for the film to suddenly descend into hallucinations.
For the camera itself to be an unreliable narrator as it depicts not
reality as it's truly happening, but rather reality as its characters, or in this case, Arthur Fleck, wants to see it. For an example of what I mean, just look at Fight Club, the ultimate example of a movie that's lying to you the entire time. And the more I looked into the trailers, interviews around this film, and the source material that inspired it, the more convinced I became. What we're going to end up seeing in "Joker" isn't going to be entirely real.
The movie, or at least a sizable portion of it, is gonna be playing out in Joker's own mind. What we're gonna end up seeing on screen may not be what's actually happening in Gotham around the setting of the movie. But how, and why? Let's look a bit closer, shall we? Let's start by dissecting Arthur himself. The trailers introduce us to Arthur Fleck, which, it's worth noting, is a new name for Joker's character. No official name has ever been given to the Joker in the main canon DC Comics, and Jack Napier from the Tim Burton movies, and the alternate universe "White Knight" is about as close as we've ever come before.
In fact, the team working on "Joker" made it pretty explicit that this story is entirely original, so no digging through deep comic lore is gonna be helping us out this time around. It's immediately communicated to us from the trailers that Arthur is suffering from some form of mental illness. Not only do we see him in therapy, but if you look close at his notepad it outright confirms it. Reading "The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don't." This is also confirmed by numerous interviews done with the casting crew of the film.
According to actor Marc Maron in an interview with website NME, "The approach that Todd Phillips has taken is more of an origin story," "and a character study of a mentally ill person that becomes the Joker." So we know that Arthur Fleck is dealing with some mental disorder, but what sort of illness is it? Clearly not all mental illnesses function the same way, so to better understand this character, and thus the movie he's a part of, we have to first understand his diagnosis. Looking at the trailers, we see a few curious details that could be symptoms of Arthur's illness.
First, he appears to have inappropriate emotional responses. Laughing without any sort of stimulus, laughing after being beat up, switching into and out of laughter instantly. *laughing* And while out of nowhere uncontrollable laughter is indeed a real medical condition, known as "Pseudobulbar Affect", there are more symptoms here that don't line up with that initial diagnosis. Symptoms such as moments of violent outbursts or inappropriate actions, smashing himself against protective screens, smashing himself against mirrors, painting his own tongue. Generally speaking, Arthur's movements feel awkward. Watching him walk and dance in both trailers feels uncomfortable. Feels disjointed.
He's jerky. His feet are moving in strange patterns. The illness also seems to be hereditary, with his mother needing at-home care, despite appearing rather young, and in what otherwise would seem to be good health. All of these symptoms Seem to point to Joker's vague mental illness being more precisely diagnosed as Schizophrenia, a chronic mental disorder characterized by a breakdown between what someone perceives as reality and what's really happening around them. Look at this list of characteristics and think back to what we just talked about with regards to Arthur. Inexact motor skills, jerking arm movements, awkward gait, unusual gestures or postures, feelings of detachment, sudden anger, social isolation, it's almost an exact match for the behavior that we see Arthur exhibiting throughout these two trailers.
And Schizophrenia does indeed have a strong genetic component. Even the handwriting on his joke pad is a clue to his real diagnosis here. Notice how the writing gets more and more disorganized as it goes on? Well, compare that to what we see in this study from the paper, "Differences in Handwritings of Schizophrenia Patients" and you can clearly see the exact same style of traits, the size and pressure of the pen marks differ, it's messy and outside the bounds of the lines, the letters are poorly formed. Without treatment, people with schizophrenia tend to have problems in society because of a feeling that they've lost touch with reality, in large part due to Schizophrenia's key symptom, delusions and hallucinations.
And it's those two symptoms that seem really pertinent to our
theorytoday, about what is and isn't real in this new Joker movie. You see in the lead up to the premiere of Joker, you keep seeing one other movie constantly being mentioned. 1982's "The King of Comedy", a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Now, for as famous of a director as Martin Scorsese is, delivering iconic movies like "Goodfellas", "Taxi Driver", "The Departed" and "Raging Bull", "King of Comedy" tends not to be one of his better known works.
And yet here it is, being cited as a key point of inspiration for what we'll end up seeing in "Joker". "There's a connection obviously with the whole thing, but it's not as a direct connection." This is according to actor Robert De Niro, who plays the main character, a struggling stand-up comic in "King of Comedy", and, wouldn't you know it, is also a major stand-up comic TV show host that we see in "Joker". But outside of sharing this one actor in somewhat similar roles in a setting of a New York style city in a crime filled 1980's, the connections between the two films seem to go deeper.
Much deeper. In "King of Comedy" we have ourselves Rupert Pupkin, a socially awkward and mentally ill comedian. *laughing* "Always coming up with these great lines, I love 'em!" Who idolizes a stand-up TV host, eventually turning violent as he kidnaps and holds the TV host hostage, just so he can get his 15 minutes of fame on the show. "I have a gun..." "...at my head..." "...if a man who identifies himself as... ...the King... "Hold on, I'm reading from cue cards." "Tonight's show..." "...you'll never see me... "...alive...again." "It...it''s not grammatically correct, but I think you have the idea."
He does this, at least in part, to impress a young woman named Rita that he finds himself in love with. And what do we see in the "Joker" trailers? Well, we have ourselves a socially awkward, mentally ill comedian, who becomes a villain that we know is prone to violence, a villain who somehow manages to wind up on the TV talk show of a famous TV comic, a man who, based on the trailers, is trying to use his comedy to impress a young woman that he happens to have romantic feelings for. So we have ourselves a lot of key plot elements shared between the two movies, but even some scenes feel like they're direct parallels.
Both characters live with their mothers, "Rupert! Are you crazy, what's the matter with you?" "C'mon mom!" "People are sleeping, lower it!" Both characters have exact wishes for how they'd like to be introduced. "Now, this is my introduction and I'd like Mr. Randall if he could speak it word for word, I would appreciate that." "This is Randy's introduction to your monologue?" "Yes it is." "One small thing." "Yeah." "When you bring me out, can you introduce me as Joker?"
Even shots like this of the Joker getting ready to walk out on stage, is similar to a motif of shots used throughout "King of Comedy." "Right now, Jerry is strapped to a chair, somewhere in the middle of this city." "Go ahead, laugh!" "Thank you, I appreciate it!" "Now tomorrow, you'll know that I wasn't kidding and you'll think I was crazy," "But look, I figure it this way: Better to be king for a night then schmuck for a lifetime." *applause* So why do all these parallels matter?
Well, throughout "King of Comedy" mixed in with the real-life events of Rupert kidnapping his TV idol, are Rupert's fantasies. His delusions are blended seamlessly with the scenes that are happening around them, There's no visual cue that we're suddenly in the middle of one of Roberts fantasies, no special filters, no dream sequence fade, nothing. "There you go, sweetheart." "Thanks Mr. Pupkin." "Don't mention it." "Rupert! Rupert, who are you talking to?" "Mom!" "What is it? "Please stop calling me!" "It's terrific.
It's great." The only way that you can tell that these are Rupert's delusions is because of the subject matter. Rupert is best friends with the TV host. He gets married to Rita, he charms the audience on the show. And this technique of mixing the fantasy and the reality throws the entire ending of the movie into question. We're told that Rupert gets out of jail and becomes a wildly successful because of all the press that his kidnapping scheme generated, But again, this is a movie where hallucination and reality blur. Is this all in his mind as he sits there in his prison cell?
It could be, but it could also not be. The ending leaves it ambiguous. "Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentlemen, let's hear it for Rupert Pupkin!" "Wonderful! Rupert Pupkin, ladies and gentlemen!" At the same time it raises questions about "Joker", and what we've seen in the trailers. Certainly, the dark scenes of Arthur being beat up seem to jive with the reality of an 80's era Gotham, but what about the scenes in which massive crowds all wear clown masks, while protesting the government? At first glance, one might think that this is a pretty typical scene in a Batman film.
The main villain has enthralled the city with some kind of political message. Perhaps turning them against the Bat. But this isn't a Batman film. That little kid right there, that is our future Batman. So it seems highly unlikely that he's gonna suit up to take down Mr. J. So that leads to the question, what's really happening here? Has Gotham actually turned against the Waynes in this movie? Or is Arthur fantasizing about some kind of grand revenge, where everyone in Gotham takes up his image and fights the power? We have some hints that it might be that latter option.
Throughout the trailers, we're treated to two very different images of Arthur as a clown. One makes him look like the sign twirler he appears to be at the beginning of the trailer, while the other makes him look like the Joker as we traditionally know him. Whenever he's in the more standard suit, Arthur's life seems to be grounded in reality. He lives in poverty, he cares for his mother. He's barely making ends meet. He's struggling to become a stand-up comic. But whenever we see him in his Joker suit, suddenly everything changes. He's on stage, he's walking through crowds of people dressed like him.
He's dancing around on stairs. Everything he does in this Joker suit seems to be his goals. His fantasies. Which is why I believe they're exactly that. Fantasies, delusions, hallucinations. If he were truly the leader of this rebellion, would he be allowed to walk through the crowd in his clown makeup? While everyone is protesting in one direction, would he just be allowed to walk in the other direction? Consider this: all the signs in the crowd are about capitalism in the working-class. Pause the trailers and progress frame by frame through them, and you can see these protests are for workers rights.
Does that seem to be the type of message that Arthur Fleck, the Joker, would be the figurehead for? Or is he just inserting himself into these protests as some sort of power fantasy? This scene of him kissing the girl that he's trying to impress, does that sort of confident behavior look like it's coming from a man as shy and mousy as Arthur? I don't think so, I think these are all part of his hallucinations. The delusional world where he lives because of his mental illness. As he himself says in the final trailer: "For my whole life, I didn't know if I even really existed."
Let's face it, the comic book industry is no stranger to misleading trailers. Heck Marvel's turned digitally altering their trailers into something of a sport, giving us a two-eyed Thor in "Ragnarok"s trailer, 2D Hulk-ing of Mark Ruffalo in the "Endgame" trailers, amongst dozens of other changes. Remember, I even made a theory about where the Soul Stone was based entirely on digitally edited shots from "Infinity War". Yeah, thanks Marvel! Not gonna forget about that one anytime soon! But showing straight-up fantasies from the movie is a brilliant way to misdirect fans.
DC has even used this tactic before, showing an intimidating Superman in "Batman vs. Superman"s trailer, that actually just came from one of Batman's dream sequences. Because we know that the Joker is gonna struggle with mental illness in this movie, There's some good reason to believe that he's not gonna be entirely connected to reality. I think there's a very strong possibility that every time we see Arthur as the Joker in this new movie, it'll only be in his head. A delusion. We know that there's a villain called Joker at some point, and that there is a clown themed rebellion in Gotham, but it's about labor disputes.
The trailers want us to believe that Arthur is the mastermind behind it all, which I'm not so sure about. Arthur Fleck just doesn't seem to be a social engineer like the Joker the trailers are making him out to be. Arthur is a tragic dreamer just like Rupert in "King of Comedy" before him. Men whose greatest achievements exists sadly inside their own minds. Or who knows, I could be wrong. But based on some early reviews that came out literally as we were editing this video, "One of "Joker" strengths is that anyone will be able to argue their side about what was real and what was imagined."
It certainly seems like our theory may have predicted the punchline. *laughing* But hey, that's just a theory- a Film Theory! Aaaaand cut.