Send in the Clowns:

Todd Phillips’s Joker

Coulrophobia. A fear of clowns. It’s kind of an ironic fear when you consider the idea that clowns are humanity’s way of making fun of its own mortality. For the longest time, I actually thought I got that notion from A.A. Attanasio’s afterward in James O’Barr’s The Crow. However, Attanasio didn’t write those words. The closest thing Attanasio did write about the pale-faced, black smiling, manifested spirit of righteous vengeance is that, among other things, the Crow’s “clown-white and feminine features harken all the way back to the ivory crow-goddess of a hundred thousand years ago.” The Crow, as a mythological figure is also a trickster deity: a being that brings trial and tribulation to someone, along with advice, through a series of hard lessons. A trickster deity can also be cruel, have its own rules, and suffer from madness and violence: yet at the same time it is possible to discern in these acts a pattern of behaviour, or a rationale behind them.

I always saw James O’Barr’s Crow and Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson’s Joker as flip sides of the same coin: one being as Attanasio suggests an answer to violence and murder, and the other an attempt to show the nihilism in society and reality through arbitrary destruction and chaos. It’s all the difference between avatars or harbingers of trickster gods that teach the folly of one’s actions, and those — such as Loki — that would undertake the steps towards Ragnarok itself. But the comparisons and implications can go further. And they really come to mind and take root in Todd Phillips’s Joker.

Before we go on, here is a joke. What do you get when you talk about a film that has been out for a while, and you want to read on past this point? You get what you deserv — I mean, you will get spoiled.

So, for a while, after watching the film, I’ve been trying to figure out what I think of it. There have been challenges: in addition to the various media covering the movie before its release, there are also many pieces that have examined and dissected it after its release and viewing that have more or less said everything that needs to be said. I mean, you have the clear cinematic influences of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy informing some of the narrative beats of the film: especially with regards to creating a permeable, questionable sense of reality from an unreliable narrator’s perspective. And, of course, there is the eerie, painful smile carved onto the face of a child by the elite of a society in The Man Who Laughs to consider: a silent film that apparently informed the creation of the Joker in the comics, and also influenced his depiction by Brian Bolland in the seminal The Killing Joke.

I will admit that the first part of the film felt fairly heavy-handed for me. There is a lot of emphasis on Arthur Fleck, the man who would become the Joker, on his mental illness to the point of being almost a stereotypical cliché. This goes the same for outlining the vagaries of his life: his beating by the children that steal the sign he’s holding at the beginning of the film, the various unspecified medications he is on, his impersonal social worker, his sick mother that he takes care of on a meagre salary, and his inability to relate to society and the world around him. Even his potential romantic interest, along with Fleck’s other fantasies about being featured on his favourite comedy show, are fairly predictable in what they will ultimately entail for him. I’ll admit, I was actually spoiled months before the film by some rumours that proved to be accurate.

It doesn’t detract from a piece of literature to know how it ends.. Like the ancient Greeks of old, an audience often knows all the great stories, the tragedies and comedies of life before reading or viewing them. The key to art is to take these universal narratives, these established arcs from literature, such as comics, and to create a unique take on them: another artistic perspective with which to explore.

We know that Arthur Fleck is going to become the Joker. We know that eventually, one day, he will terrorize Gotham City. But sometimes, in order to understand a story, or tell it, you need to know how it begins. And, sometimes, stories begin where others start to end. I said that there are many articles and videos that analyze Joker, but Joker is also a deconstruction of its own material. What we see in the Gotham of 1981 in Joker is a city in progress of dissolution, a teardown before the process of its set-up in becoming the place that many readers and viewers will recognize.

It is a contrast to the Gotham of Tim Burton’s Batman, ironically enough filmed in 1989. Burton’s Gotham is a throwback to the aesthetics of the 1930s and ‘40s, where the comics began as well (even though Burton’s story itself takes place in the late 1980s). But Phillips’s Gotham is in the midst of major social upheaval from the ‘80s. There is little order to the majority of the city: with garbage strikes, civil unrest, failing social programs such as the services Fleck needs to continue his therapy and medication, and near lawlessness. The savagery on the streets of Gotham is almost akin to something seen in Gangs of New York: all elemental, tribalistic, and brutal where anyone not in power has to fend for themselves. In the meantime, you have the more affluent parts of Gotham such as the theater where Thomas Wayne and his wife watch a comedy that seem more polished, and organized.

This is a class-struggle-based film, there is no avoiding it. That is the backdrop of this entire movie, with a more narrow intersectional emphasis — “race” and gender are not particularly, or specifically touched upon — but the major clash between the upper and lower classes, with a fraying or vanished middle-class is fairly clear. Gotham in 1981 of Phillips’s film is something that attempts to hold itself together, and just barely: trying to keep up appearances, while its upper half hates its lower half and vice-versa, and no longer capable of even the barest of civilities, or understandings. Usually, in the DC Universe one generally thinks Batman is the product, the son of Gotham, but in this film it is clear that Arthur Fleck is Gotham’s first born child, even if he isn’t that of Thomas Wayne.

Arthur Fleck is a mess. He has been institutionalized in the recent past, as the viewer is told, and finds himself on several medications just to function on a basic level. He holds down a job where few particularly respect him, and he gets blamed for failing one occupation when his sign is stolen, and he gets a brutal beatdown by a gang of children: kids that even he doesn’t blame for acting this way as he knows there is something wrong with how Gotham is administrated. As I mentioned before, he takes care of his mother Penny — who suffers from her own mental health issues — and attempts to maintain an emotional bond with her despite her distant, detached behaviour. He even desires to begin a relationship with his neighbour, single mother Sophie Dumond, but he can’t find it in himself to relate to her. The only things that get Arthur through his days are the idea that he might make it big as a stand-up comedian, watching the evening talk show of his celebrity idol and role-model Murray Franklin, and his fantasies of having genuine, human warmth and contact in his life. And despite him saying that he never had a good day in his life, he is surprisingly good with entertaining children as a clown: as if those children can see something in him that adults are either blind towards or they just can’t understand.

He tries to be functional, to deal with the world around him such as it is, even as his coworker gives him a gun — to defend himself from possible further physical attacks on the streets of Gotham — only for it to fall out of his costume in a hospital’s children’s ward. It’s partially poor judgment on his part, and a disconnect from human connection, and social interaction. He follows Sophie, stalking her for a short time, after she takes her daughter to school and goes on errands — only seemingly to have her confront him with interest. It’s the same thing that happens when he is sitting watching Murray Franklin’s show, and sees himself in the audience being accepted by Murray and applauded: with Murray going as far as to wish he had a son like Arthur.

Of course, these latter events — Sophie becoming his girlfriend, comforting and consoling him through his struggles, and Murray, his hero, a father-figure in the absence of his own, accepting him into a new life — are delusions. They never happened. They are not real. Perhaps they are the results of coping mechanisms to get through the reality of a life where he is thrown under the bus to protect others, where he finds himself in a situation where his counselling such as it is ends because of government cutbacks, where he loses access to his medications, where people judge or fear him for his erratic behaviour without a sense of empathy, and where his mother — whom he takes care of — is emotionally distant, and doesn’t even believe in him. She doesn’t even think he’s funny.

Arthur Fleck may be an unsuccessful standup comedian, and a failed party clown, but you get the idea that his whole life is practically a Comedy of Errors, of misrule: a joke. He is fired for carrying a gun to protect himself from the violence that his previous employers didn’t even believe happened to him, he fulfills his duties of writing in a journal and attending social services only to have them taken away — and being told he is not “the only one with problems” — Murray, the man he admires on television, ends up taking the time and effort to make fun of his standup routine at a comedy club — making him the “punch-down punch-line” of his own show — and his mother, the one person he has been caring for this entire time, his whole life, is revealed to have adopted him just to pretend he is Thomas Wayne’s illegitimate child, and proceeded to let her boyfriend savagely beat the both of them: and she has the audacity to give Arthur the nickname of “Happy.” And the one person he thought loved him, not only never loved him at all, but had never been in his life to begin with.

But all this is just a dress rehearsal: for Gotham, and Arthur Fleck. And I think the best way to tie all of this together is to look at Arthur’s involuntary laughter. As a result of Arthur’s mental illnesses, he laughs at inappropriate times, a thing that is a spiritual influence of The Man Who Laughs: with a smile carved into the protagonist Gwynplaine’s face whether he is happy, or not. When I first encountered it in the trailers, it felt very contrived, almost fake, but that was before I saw the context of it. After a mother on a bus admonishes Arthur for “bothering her child” while he had just been making funny faces at him, he breaks out into that laughter for the first time, and has a card explaining his issue. This happens a few other times in the film, and it is portrayed as almost a fit, a reaction. It looks more painful than joyous for the individual whom his adopted mother calls “Happy.” It’s something he doesn’t want. He doesn’t want this. He doesn’t want any of it.

In fact, it is this very reaction that finally puts the “s” before “laughter” when some Wayne Enterprises employees begin a brutal beatdown on Arthur, on a subway car, that results in him taking out the gun he had been given, and killing all three of them. The first two killings are also reactions, but the last one — with the survivor that runs — is the beginning of Arthur Fleck actively, and consciously, hunting down one of his tormentors, and ending his life.

But this isn’t where the Joker manifests. This isn’t like another comic-book-derived movie, or some fictional plot where the character completely gives themselves into the darkness. It is still a process. It’s still, as I mentioned, a dress rehearsal. After all, Arthur Fleck still exists under this cheap clown costume, this prototype to what the Joker will potentially look like. He is just a man wearing a costume when all of this happens, and his dancing in the restroom to where he runs is only his first choreograph: a slow, sensuous, exploration compared to the merry Vaudevillian jig of his advertising job at the beginning of the film.

It all comes back to clowns. I mentioned earlier that clowns are the result of humanity laughing at its own mortality, with their deathly pale skin, their blood-red smiles, the oversized and exaggerated earthly vestments that hang off of them, their sublimely ridiculous acts of real-life mimicry, and slapstick violence displaying the arbitrary nature of everything people do. But I’d like to add that, perhaps, clowns also symbolize the fool — the court jester — the person that functions as a litmus test, a liminal being that shows the truth about society and the world around them by their mere presence. Usually, the clown or the comedian makes fun of all social and cultural conventions, but remaining “socio-politically” separate, garishly “outsider” enough to not challenge the status quo. They are just there for entertainment, after all. They just exist for laughs. Clowns aren’t just anyone. They are someone else. They are something else. They are the “Other.”

That is what Thomas Wayne seems to think in this version of 1981 Gotham, at any rate. He thinks that those people who envy the upper class or the “successful” in Gotham, those who don’t “try enough” in that contemporary system — a structure that is “clearly not problematic, or unequal, or unequitable” — are simply “clowns.” This comment, in itself, is inflammatory as all get out, given that Arthur Fleck just killed three of Wayne’s employees in a clown costume, while in the midst of mass protesting and riots going on throughout the city. This is where we see a zeitgeist — of a “Spirit of the Times” — develop. In what appears to be a flash mob mentality akin to the Guy Fawkes masks of V For Vendetta, protesters begin wearing clown masks in homage to the man who has killed the rich’s upper-class employees, and to spite the billionaire elitist insensitivity of Thomas Wayne himself. Later, it escalates further when police begin to chase Arthur down after they continue to suspect his role in the killings, and he hides on a subway car filled with clown-mask protestors: instigating an officer firing his weapon into the crowd, and the subsequent attack on both policemen. It remains yet to be seen if this mob — who seem to lift him up and worship him — will become something like those that commemorate the idea of V in V For Vendetta, or a twisted form of Fight Club with a series of “Mayhem Projects”.

The best part about all of these developments, about this exposure to Gotham for what it has become and is becoming — to the dark city ruled by bizarre acts and fear that readers and viewers have seen for years — is that it is still a continuation of a Comedy of Errors. Arthur Fleck never plans it to happen. He doesn’t consciously take advantage of the situation, or even seem to attempt a seizure of power for himself: that last act is something men like Thomas Wayne would undertake. In fact, when he is invited onto Murray Franklin’s show after his own standup disaster becomes “viral”, it is telling that Murray blames Arthur for the rioting when this entire time it’s the inequality caused by men like Thomas Wayne (and their own clueless comments) that caused this entire situation. At the very least, both Arthur Fleck and Thomas Wayne should have been held complicit in Gotham’s turmoil, based on how they present themselves in this situation.

While Thomas Wayne utilizes the deaths of his employees, and the protests and riots to support his own mayoral campaign (and Murray makes no comment on this), Arthur Fleck goes through various aesthetic iterations of what will become his Joker costume — the Joker nickname based on what Murray calls him from mocking his standup routine, marred by his own involuntary laughter and insecurity — to essentially channel, or condemn Murray’s own attitudes: his own “punching down” comedy. This indictment of Murray making fun of an impoverished, mentally-ill individual is an ironic development itself given Todd Phillips’s own comments in Vanity Fair about “woke” comedy and his reason for leaving it to make Joker.

But Arthur himself, at this point, is a man left with nothing to lose. In fact, in a lot of ways, he doesn’t even consider himself a man, or an individual anymore. After his attempts to legitimately subsist and gain success are thwarted by the society he fails to fit into, after realizing that Thomas Wayne is not his father — and is the result of his mother’s own delusions — that he isn’t even his mother’s biological child, and that his entire life has basically been a lie, it isn’t so much that Arthur Fleck doesn’t exist anymore: it’s that he never existed at all.

There is something freeing about these moments of discovery, a thing that makes him begin to destroy all the dead weight of an identity that he’s been forced to stuff himself inside, like a dead, rotting carcass of a skin suit. He kills the woman who used him and lied to him for years, who called himself his mother. He swiftly and efficiently slaughters the man who gave him a gun and then pretended to know nothing about it: who came to him under the guise of friendship only to try to get him to turn himself in so that he and his fellow former coworkers can get themselves off the hook with the police investigations. It’s as though those awkward movements, those gestures that might be the result of brain damage from the physical abuse Arthur experienced as a child, or the nervous ticks developed from that and years of mental abuse coalesce into smoother, swifter, movements motivated by a lack of caring: of a life that is about to be over.

Arthur Fleck becoming the Joker in these moments, as he dances down the stairs, isn’t so much a dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight so much as it is the beginning of a daytime slapstick comedy routine: Charlie Chaplin’s critique of industrialized working class society in his film Modern Times that Thomas Wayne has the audacity to watch when Arthur confronts him about potentially being his son.

It’s on Murray’s show, however, that another interpretation of the clown can be seen in motion. It’s no accident I referred to the Crow as an avatar of the trickster; of the deity or spirit that bridges the gap between the living and the dead, of an older goddess of wisdom and cunning, but also a scavenger of old, dead things repurposed into something new. A few of these qualities can be attributed to the clown, or trickster in general, especially in how they can channel the unconscious of a society to its consciousness. It is an almost shamanic trait, and one element of a shamanistic transformation is the death of a self before something new can manifest to replace it.

Arthur Fleck dies in this metaphorical manner a few times. He is no longer a party clown that he wanted to be, or the standup comedian he failed to become. His delusion of being a favourite or surrogate son of Murray Franklin is dashed, and he definitely isn’t Sophie’s boyfriend. He isn’t Thomas Wayne’s son, or his mother’s for that matter. Every shred of identity he attempts to cling to is knocked away. Arthur Fleck is just a legal name, not even a dead name as it has, again, been imposed on him. What manifests is, arguably — as gender is a complex series of traits and cultural perceptions — someone that embraces a sensual, artistic, emotional being wearing makeup and lipstick. Many shamans, as well as god-figures, are said to embrace both the masculine and the feminine as they change, or know that they are no longer bound to one particular form of representation. And Arthur himself attempts to leave Gotham with one final message: to actually kill himself on live television as a last spiteful hurrah, to show how flawed the system that made him actually is.

Of course, it doesn’t end like that. He does, in fact, reveal his truths about Gotham society. He finds himself beginning to own his choices. The person that used to be Arthur Fleck, or wanted to be him, realizes that he is proud of killing the people that caused him pain, of revealing that Thomas Wayne is a terrible person for what he represents, and that Murray Franklin is part of that problem. He’s now bolder. His jerky movements, either the result of trauma or neurodiversity, become sinuous and a whole other person’s. And his laugh, which he has tried to stifle for so long, to choke down, he finally embraces, and sees that — despite Murray’s own words to the contrary — he is the symptom of Gotham’s problems. It’s when he finally kills Murray, on his own show, televised, this former father-figure ideal he looked up to, during the chaos burning in Gotham, that the illusion of Arthur Fleck is gone, and the childlike, almost horribly innocent and destructive elemental force of this iteration of the Joker has fully come into existence. As the film ends, the show finally begins.

There is a lot of media about how dangerous and / or potentially misguided the themes of this film actually are: everywhere from inspiring theatre shootings, to incels, to even something as dismissive as “white man’s pain”: as though a white, presumably heterosexual, and cisgender man can’t be a representative of a society in chaos. I think that one danger is the fact some might believe that the Arthur Fleck Joker can be seen as “heroic” as a protagonist of his own story, and that it rationalizes all the horrible things he does, and champions them as the right thing to do.

But the film doesn’t romanticize him, or his actions. His killings are still horrible. Thomas Wayne, for all of his bluster, genuinely thinks he is probably helping Gotham. Murray Franklin probably just does his job and thinks that there really are decent people in Gotham itself. Penny Fleck has genuine issues, and as terrible as she has been, you have to wonder just why the justice system of Gotham let her keep custody of her obviously abused adoptive son. And it goes further. Arthur isn’t an innocent person. He does stalk Sophie, and he does enter her apartment, even though Todd Phillips himself confirms that he doesn’t kill her or harm her child towards the end of the film. But he is also a stranger touching a young boy  — Bruce Wayne  — making him smile. He is dangerous, and he does get spiteful and want vengeance, and he believes some things are his due.

Many media outlets and reviewers also point out that Arthur Fleck is a tragedy of his society — of a corrupt system that “gets what it deserves” — or a cautionary tale as to what will happen if social inequality continues, and I can agree with that to some extent. It isn’t perfect, and at points it is clunky. It brings a conversation to mind. Martin Scorsese almost directed Joker yet he eventually turned down the position, as he states in a BBC interview with Husam Sam Asi, because he didn’t know if he could “make the next step into this character developing into a comic book character [...] He develops into an abstraction.” While Scorsese does make a distinction between Joker’s script and narrative from “superhero films” — of which he’s been pretty outspoken — there is that form of abstraction, of an ideal, that the Arthur Fleck Joker does become. Even before his full transformation, there is flatness, or a caricature of a person as opposed to an individual. Arthur does feel fake, maybe a little over the top, or again it’s that ham-fisted depiction of his life at the beginning of the film with which I had trouble relating as a viewer.

But there is something else that Martin Scorsese says that sticks with me. In his recent opinion piece in The New York Times, Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain, he states that in his era of film-making “cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves. It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.”

That is a lot to unpack, and while I vehemently disagree with the notion that superhero films such as those of Marvel or DC can’t have this sense of character complexity, and cinematic artistic development, I can see how his words apply to Joker. In addition to the almost arthouse quality of the character’s depiction, the attention to detail for the setting, and that sense that we are following an incredibly unreliable narrator — and a sense of reality itself that might not even be real in how events or people are portrayed through Arthur’s sensibilities — we do get that moment where the being that used to be Arthur Fleck does, in fact, have a spiritual revelation. In the death of his preconceived self, in stripping away all of his false hopes and dreams, the contradictions between his intentions and his actions exploding so awkwardly, painfully, and violently, he does face himself — his true self — something that he has denied for so long, and there is something, despite all the destruction it causes and heralds, truly liberating watching the Joker as a character flourish from the shell imposed on him: letting the dessicated illusion of a failed self spiral down to be subsumed wholehearted by the ideal of something greater, the acceptance of a heart of darkness, something become viral and memetic over the lives and souls of others. It is terrifying, but also cathartic.

It is the look of a man seeing who he really is, and what he thinks his world truly is, or can be. And that painful laughter is the knowledge of a sadness that doesn’t have to pretend anymore, and those jittery movements are a dance and dancer waiting to happen, and that bloody smile and white face paint are a promise of repressed anger and revolution welling forth in celebration. The trickster hides in plain sight, but can travel from the underworld — figuratively and literally — carrying the voices that no one wants to hear, into the light of day.

Joker isn’t a perfect film. Even now I’m trying to define it in my mind, like Batman or other detectives attempting to figure out the Joker’s motives or origins. But there is just something quintessential about this Joker, closer to the origins of slapstick and folly, of a being born from trauma, and embodying the fractured soul of his city’s psychogeography whose antics will take him right into the sunset of our minds, leaving us disquieted, thoughtful, and entertained. Because that’s what tricksters, and fools, and clowns do after all. They make us uncomfortable. And, deep down, they amuse us in poking fun at that discomfort.

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Matthew Kirshenblatt is a graduate from York University, Toronto, Ontario, and is a writer and blogger living in the city of Thornhill. He is a comics and mythology fanatic; having written his Master's thesis, "The Spirit of Herodotus in Gaiman and Moore: Narrative Spaces and their Relationships in Mythic World-Building," he also contributes science-fiction, horror, and revisionist short stories to Gil Williamson's online Mythaxis Magazine. Nowadays, he can be found writing for G33kPr0n, and creating and maintaining his Mythic Bios: a Writer's Blog, in which he describes his creative process and makes weird stories, strange articles, reviews, overall geek opinion pieces and other writing experiments.

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