This article contains nothing but Joker movie spoilers.
In some ways, the Joker movie appears to have a pretty straightforward final act. Arthur Fleck passes the point of no return when he realizes he feels no remorse for the murder of three drunken finance bros on a Gotham City subway; he loses hope for his future as he sees his comedic ambitions mocked on TV by his idol; Arthur’s home life, perhaps his last remaining tether to sanity, is destroyed when any illusions he had about possibly being the son of Thomas Wayne are shattered by Arkham Asylum’s hospital records, revealing his mother had not only been lying to him his entire life, but likely enabled the abuse that left him so damaged.
As Gotham’s “Kill the Rich” movement builds to a violent crescendo, Arthur goes on Live With Murray Franklin, emerging from his cocoon as “Joker,” the name Franklin unwittingly gifted him. The angry mob in the streets of Gotham, who have already taken Arthur’s subway shooting as a sign of the coming class war, are further inspired as they see their newfound icon not only claim credit for his previous crimes, but commit an even more ghastly and coldblooded new one, all while playing the victim card. Of course, Arthur is caught and sent to Arkham Asylum where he belongs.
But it’s not so simple. Let’s start with that final scene in the white room at Arkham.
“Remember? Oh, I wouldn’t do that. Remembering’s dangerous. I find the past such a worrying, anxious place.” – The Killing Joke (1988)
The final scene of the movie takes place at an unspecified time after Arthur’s capture. When his therapist asks what he’s laughing about between drags of his cigarette, Arthur quietly responds “you wouldn’t get it.” (He then apparently murders her offscreen moments later.) It seems that the events of the entire movie had been replaying in Arthur’s head, or perhaps he has been recounting it to her. The simplest explanation is that Arthur finds all the sadness, murder, and mayhem of his pre-Joker life hilarious. After all, he spent the first 30 years or so of his existence being miserable, and now he has the freedom to not care. But there are moments from other Joker comics and movies that indicate that there’s far more at work here.
The Joker’s origin has been told many times in comics, movies, and television, and while there are often similarities, mainly a chemical bath that permanently gives a criminal the distinctive pallor of the Joker, none have ever been truly consistent. When the Joker’s origin was first told in Detective Comics #168 (1951), it was revealed he was formerly a master criminal known as the Red Hood, who inadvertently disfigured himself when making his escape from Batman during a chemical plant robbery by swimming out through the vats.
But with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke in 1988, there was a twist added: the future Joker wasn’t a master criminal at all, but a failed comedian roped into being a criminal patsy as “The Red Hood.” The results were the same. That origin is told in flashback as the Joker tries to break a kidnapped Commissioner Gordon, which would prove to Batman that all it takes is “one bad day” for someone to cross the threshold of insanity once and for all. But even in the course of this, Joker offers his own disclaimer…
“Something like that happened to me… I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another. If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
In other words, the Joker can’t be trusted to tell you the truth about his past. Just as Heath Ledger’s Joker offered conflicting stories of how his own face was disfigured in The Dark Knight (“wanna know how I got these scars?”), the comic book version of the Joker remembers details of his origin in whatever manner suits him at the moment. This means the story Arthur just told this poor, doomed Arkham doctor (and thus the one that we as an audience just watched) may not even be true. Elements of it very well might be, but they didn’t necessarily play out the way we saw them happen on screen. Even if we assume that the movie’s story is essentially “true” we now have to assume that they have been seen through the Joker’s warped sensibilities. The movie had already let Arthur deceive the audience with its depiction of his “relationship” with his neighbor (Zazie Beetz). There were no dates, nor did she come see his act at the comedy club.
With all that in mind, it’s possible that Arthur Fleck (if that were ever his real name, and remember that the Joker’s true name has never been revealed in the comics), was not such a sympathetic character in the first place. While his murder of the three men on the subway in this film is almost portrayed as an act of self-defense, that might just be the story he wants to tell this time. The reality could be a far more coldblooded act (if it happened at all). Taking that even further, aside for his hatred for Batman, we know that ALL versions of the Joker have it in for Gotham’s prominent citizens, so the cartoonishly douchebaggy behavior of the finance bros might just be how Joker sees the rich. This might explain why the film is so tough on Thomas Wayne, too, making him a distant, taciturn, authority figure rather than the kindhearted philanthropist he’s depicted as in nearly every other version of the Batman legend.
“You get what you deserve.”
From the pages of DC Comics to the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy of films, the death of the Waynes has long been portrayed as a turning point in the history of Gotham City. It’s the moment when the city began a spiral into increasingly violent crime and corruption that it couldn’t even begin to emerge from until Batman came on the scene.
Joker doesn’t have to know that Bruce Wayne is Batman and that this was the transformative moment of his arch-enemy’s life in order to want to take some measure of credit for the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. A narcissistic ego like his would simply want to place himself right at the center of such an important moment, and take credit for a city’s slide into chaos.
Because the Joker is such an unreliable narrator, we have to question whether the murder of the Waynes indeed took place on the same night Arthur truly became the Joker, or if their deaths were even a byproduct of his own violent influence on the “Kill the Rich” mob. So if that moment in the film felt out of place to you, it’s with good reason. It’s even questionable whether there was a riot, or at least one so successful that Arthur was freed from police custody for a night. The easiest way to explain how he wound back up in a psych ward is to consider he never escaped that cruiser to begin with. The adoring masses were about as real as Sophie’s laughs at the comedy club. Even the final shot with its old-fashioned Hollywood styled “The End” title card drives home the potential that much of the movie was a lie.
There are other hints of Arthur’s unreliability as a narrator planted far earlier in the movie.
“I take good care of my mother.”
In the film’s very first act, we witness Arthur’s daydreams about being recognized by his hero on Live With Murray Franklin. When he’s called on stage, this idealized version of Franklin admonishes the crowd when they titter at the fact that Arthur lives at home with his mother. Instead, Franklin tells the crowd Arthur should be celebrated, and Arthur offers an impressively self-satisfied, “I take good care of my mother,” which nets applause. In other words, Arthur expects acclaim, even fame, for performing the most basic act of human decency: caring for a sick parent. It not only immediately puts the pathetic Arthur in a less sympathetic light for the rest of the film, it makes the speech he gives during his actual appearance on Live With Murray Franklin, which touches on a lack of empathy and understanding in society, ring even more hollow.
Much has been made about how Joker portrays a reprehensible villain in a sympathetic light, or how it glorifies an unhinged loner finding his place in the world through violence. And perhaps the moment where a bloodied and broken Joker is truly happy, basking in the adulation of the “Kill the Rich” mob could be seen that way. Hell, even the “Kill the Rich” movement seems like a Fox News fever dream: a mob of masked, leftist terrorists committing violence against anyone they see as more privileged. Combine that with the film’s depiction of Thomas Wayne as a scowling, almost Trumpian figure, and you could see how some might try and paint Joker as some kind of “people’s hero” (a label Joker himself would probably embrace).
But by this point in the movie, Arthur had already revealed himself repeatedly as the ultimate narcissist. For all of the moments where we may empathize with his foibles or awkwardness early in the film, this is still a man who thinks that taking care of his elderly, sick mother deserves not just praise, but literal fame. He never takes responsibility for his own behavior or failures, such as when he brings a gun to a children’s hospital. He not only murders three men in cold blood, but he draws power from the act, and the obsessed fantasy life he enjoys involving his neighbor spills over even further in the wake of that crime. It culminates in the murders of both his mother and his former co-worker. Only then does he feel he has the strength to venture out into the world and become a true performer.
The last thing we see before the final scene in Arkham is the newly-minted Joker standing on the roof of a police car, a reflection of the rage of an angry mob. But Joker is only a movie. We only have to turn on the news to see the similarities to another narcissist who rose to fame on the back of populist anger, and whose crimes, whether committed in plain sight or confessed to with the entire world watching, only make his supporters even more devoted.
That guy is an unreliable narrator, too.