“I don’t believe in anything.”
These words of defiance are broadcast on Gotham TV right before an explosion of public instability swallows the city whole.
As the masses watching attempt to wrap their heads around the chaos, those truly understanding of the plight of Gotham’s most vulnerable know that ascribing meaning to the actions of one Arthur Fleck is as much of a lost cause as answering the question, “Do you know how I got these scars?”
In the Todd Phillips rendition of Joker, the audience watches in horror as Joaquin Phoenix’s Fleck descends into madness, no longer willing to accept the role of an invisible man in Gotham who simply wants to bring joy into a miserable world.
A sad clown broken by the cruel hand life has dealt him sheds his altruistic skin for a vacant smile and a vengeance to set fire to what tethers him to this world. On its face, it can come off as hyperbolic and irreverent as the opening verse of a Father John Misty single, but this film is interested in having multiple conversations.
This is not the Joker origin story; it's a Joker story. This distinction isn’t meant to denigrate the quality of the film but rather to separate it from previous iterations while also recognizing it as authentic.
In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse, the audience is presented with several individuals who identify as a Spider-Man/Gwen/Ham, none of which is any less authentic than the other. In Joker, we are presented with multiple personas as well: Arthur Fleck and then Joker.
Phoenix distinguishes the two opposing identities extremely well. As Fleck, he communicates innocence. Fleck desperately attempts to evade sorrow until a moment of impulse gives him an exciting, unfamiliar taste of power.
But this is not simply a man-child finding clarity through violence; this is not a monster overcome with greed or envy. Even calling the man who laughs a man does him a disservice, as it establishes meaning unreciprocated by Joker. Arthur Fleck had a motive; Joker never did.
In Phoenix’s portrayal of Fleck, countless comparisons can be made to dejected and enraged characters like Travis Bickle, Tyler Durden, Lester Burnham, William Foster and even Phoenix’s near-anonymous Joe from You Were Never Really Here.
Fleck is a man on the verge of losing his job as a clown who goes home to a seemingly nurturing mother to watch a talk show where the humorous host signs off with “That’s life!” It sucks, and then you die.
Joker is an entity divorced from Fleck; it is not something that is assigned to him but something that he creates and accepts. And with this creation, he endows a purpose built on the total absence of purpose.
Joker is telling a joke his audience can’t quite get. Instead, they form false punchlines — through political rhetoric, news media, propaganda, hearsay and speculation — that are easier to understand.
They’re too shocked by the violence that they don’t bother to ask why it is happening. Those in power have no idea what is happening either. Why look as vulnerable as everyone else when you can make up a solution to a nonexistent problem? Why bother searching for answers when you can build a wall and make those who suffer pay for it with their lives?
There is nothing to this clown that attaches him to the world. Fleck set fire to those ties. And because of this, assigning meaning to him or his actions is completely futile. And that is what makes him Joker.
When the people of Gotham struggle to maintain order and search for reasons as to how such a tragic event could have transpired, Arthur Fleck might be willing to respond. Fleck might be willing to help put an end to the suffering of those around him believing that they all deserved and still deserve better. When asking the same question to Joker, he would pause, chuckle softly, lean close and ask with a smile on his face, “Isn’t it beautiful?”