Alan Moore's and Brian Bolland's 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, tells the most popular version of the Joker's tragic backstory as a failed comic who had “one bad day.” However, by the end of the novel we learn that the Joker is not sure if the tale he told is entirely true as he famously quips, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another...If I'm going to have a past, I'd rather it be multiple choice.” Thus showing that in both in terms of that particular recounting of his past and his place in the official DC Comics universe, the Joker does not have definitive backstory.
This fact fits in well with the release of Joker this past weekend starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character and directed by Todd Philips, and is meant to be a stand-alone story which is not part of the DC Extended Universe.
In it, Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a part-time clown performer who aspires to be a standup comic, but who cannot seem to catch a single break in his life. He lives a life bereft of close ties to any family or friends, save his mentally ill mother with whom he lives. Furthermore, he himself is being treated with medication and a publicly-funded therapist for his own psychological issues of depression, an uncontrollable laughing reflex, and having violent and “negative” thoughts.
In the background is a Gotham city that is supposed be reminiscent of the New York City of the 70's and early 80's, complete with a trash haulers strike, a stagnant economy, and out of control crime. Meanwhile, the city's elites, such as Thomas Wayne (the father of Bruce Wayne) or late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (wonderfully played by Robert DeNiro), offer up stilted but ultimately empty platitudes about caring about the downtrodden, while remaining safely ensconced away from the crime and filth of the city.
It is in this backdrop that Fleck in his clown costume is, after yet another setback, assaulted by three Wayne Enterprises employees on a subway ride home when he uncontrollably laughs at them. After shooting two in self-defense with a gun given to him by a coworker, he chases down and executes the third. After which, the image of a clown subway vigilante that stood up to the rich elites becomes a kind of Guy Fawkes folk hero among Gotham's struggling class—and some even don clown masks in support.
Shortly following his killings and his mother's hospitalization, an entire series of subplots come together, including grim revelations about his past, Fleck decides to give up being downtrodden Arthur Fleck and to take on the persona of Gotham's newest anti-hero who wins the support for what has grown into a movement, complete with Antifa-like protestors, which turns into outright rioting by the film's end.
After video footage of his failed standup routine is shown on the Murray Franklin show, he is later asked to appear on the show. It is at that point that various elements that we have witnessed in his life, some of which the audience is made to question whether they were true or not, come together to form his new persona “Joker.” In full makeup, green hair, and purple suit, his gleefully exits his apartment and makes his way to his television appearance, and the movies climatic ending.
While most movies have one overarching theme that are worth commenting on, Joker is a very well-written film with many possible avenues from which the film could be examined, but here are three short ones that stand out the most.
“Why So Serious?”
Setting aside all of the chatter of the woke crowd, which for many has already turned into nothing more than a kind of Muse-zak or background noise, Joker still generated a lot of hype. Aside from concerns that the film's premier would be marked by violence, based on some faulty connections made to the Aurora theater shooting back in 2012, many of the comments on the film have been over whether the film would send the wrong message to incels or other social malcontents.
This sort of obsessive warning labelism has been a creeping cancer of late and has brought us the whole “woke” and now “cancel” cultures. Interestingly enough, poet Robert Bly wrote in his 1996 book The Sibling Society that America, and in particularly Right-Wing religious America, was in danger of imbibing in what he called a “concentrated literalism”, whereby he meant an inability to think symbolically.
Oh the sweet irony of how the tables of turned, as we have been overrun by a barbarian horde of an overly-educated class of critics that are so ensconced in their materialist-lefty-multi-culti conditioning, that they are now the ones who see the world in a rigid and dogmatic literalism.
It pains me to have to state the obvious but Joker is a movie, a fictional account that is, like all stories we tell each other, meant to make us think and contemplate about the ideas contained within it. Moreover, when it comes comic book stories in the Marvel or DC Universes, it is fair to say that we are talking about modern myths that even the hearers of the ancient myths would have known not to take completely literally.
This is certainly one time where I can appreciate my Catholic heritage which upholds the traditional “senses” scripture which brings the Bible to life in a way that a completely literal reading cannot. Joker is a dark movie and it can be hard to watch, but when you place it within the context of an established DC mythos, it provides a springboard for fruitful conversations without ever having to adhere to or “identify” with or “normalize” those ideas. Seriously, who thinks like that?
“Things fall apart...”
The one thing that popped right out in the movie was how dirty and rundown Gotham city is. It reminded me of 70's movies like The Warriors or Taxi Driver (which makes sense since Martin Scorsese was originally part of the project). Everything from the streets, to the subways, to the insides of apartment buildings are all show to have seen better days, and it gives the whole film a feeling of a city in decline. This is why the tension of the clown-mask protestors works so well when it is contrasted with the clean and crime-free areas where the people like the Waynes live and work.
What the setting does is highlight how broken the city, the society, and the people are. It is clear that Fleck and his mother live, like so many people today, isolated and lonely lives which are devoid of close connections or loving relationships. Their own familial bonds are weak (and later shattered) and there is no sense that Fleck has any close friends, save for the single mother whom he meets in his apartment building named Sophie (which is also shattered but in a different way). Glaringly absent are any notions of the church or even private charities that would put the Catholic principle of subsidiarity into practice.
The Problem of Evil
Whether the writers set out to make the point is unclear or not, but one way the film could be misinterpreted is if it was saying that anyone of us would turn out like the Joker is we had had a life like his.
This is one point where I think all the literalists get the whole movie wrong—they are confusing consequence and culpability. All of our actions have consequences but we are not culpable for all of them; sometimes people react to things we do in ways that we cannot predict or control. Despite what figures like Sam Harris like to think, we are are not blank slates or moral weather vanes that are at the mercy of all of the forces that affect our life. We have free will, which to be fair, can be weakened due to living in horrible circumstance.
Fleck is certainly mentally ill and after his treatment and medication is taken away due to budget cuts, he is shown to drop further into despair, he nonetheless still made deliberate decisions. This was clearly shown in the movie when two former coworkers come visit Fleck after they think Fleck's mother has simply died, and Fleck kills the one who had tormented him at work and let go the one who had always treated him nicely.
As a quick aside, his losing treatment and medication, has been seen as a message about the need for universal health care, but this is pure woke hype. As writer Andrew Klavan rightly pointed out, the last time he checked, most of the mass killers that we have heard about in the last decade have been on medication and under treatment, not the opposite.
However, to return to the point of the Joker's backstory, there were some who felt that the Joker didn't need and shouldn't have a backstory. It is certainly a product of our overly-literal and psychologized culture that we love to learn about the origins of inspiring or infamous historical or fictional characters.
However, when it comes to why people do what they do, there are times when the answer is just a mystery. This is best shown in one scene in Joker, Fleck's boss is yelling at him for a complaint he received about Fleck, and when Fleck asks why the person who hired him would say such a thing, his boss yells back, “Who the f*** knows why people do what they do?”
This is what St. Paul called “the mystery of inequity”, the problem of evil, the reality that we do and cannot know the answers to all things. It may be that someone like the Joker is mentally deranged, but to call him insane, as though he doesn't know what he's doing, is itself insane. The character is evil, and he acts accordingly; and if he were a real person, his desire for multiple origin stories would be seen, not as an inability to remember them, but as a means to conceal the truth about them.
In other words, the Joker is a liar. As M. Scott Peck said in his book about the psychology of evil The People of the Lie, “the problem of evil is not a defect of conscience but an effort to deny the conscience its due. We become evil by attempting to hide from ourselves.” This is the rubric under which Joker should be seen, not as a story about a man that passively descends into madness, but as someone who lacks the grace to strengthen his will to ascend to goodness, and chooses instead to descend into evil.