WARNING: Major spoilers for Joker.
Joker's ending leaves the truth of the DC villain's origin almost as mysterious as before it began. What was real and what was just in Arthur Fleck's head? And what was his final joke? We're here to explain what exactly was going on in Todd Phillips' very-against-type comic book movie - and what it really means.
Ostensibly telling the Clown Prince of Crime's backstory, Joker follows the outsider Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) in his descent into insanity. Fired from his job as a clown for taking a gun into a children's hospital and cut off from his social care, the struggling standup comedian begins to lose track of himself. He shoots and kills three Wayne Industries employees when attacked on a train, sparking a working-class protest movement, and comes to believe that businessman-turned-politician Thomas Wayne is his father.
Discovering the truth - he was adopted and abused as a child - sends Arthur over the edge: he suffocates his schizophrenic mother (Frances Conroy), stabs a former co-worker (Glenn Fleshler) who gave him that gun, and discovers his relationship with Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) was a lie. Invited on The Murray Franklin Show after footage of his failed standup becomes a hit, he transforms into Joker and makes the proclamation to the on-edge Gotham. He shoots Murray (Robert De Niro) in the head on live television, becoming the poster child of riots that, among other crimes, kill the Waynes.
Joker ends with Arthur locked up in Arkham Asylum, once again receiving unhelpful care, and this time far beyond help. But things are far from as simple as that summary suggests. Here's what was really happening during Joker's ending.
How Much Of Joker's Ending Is Real (And How Much Is In Arthur's Head)?
The real question with Joker's ending for those who've been paying attention isn't as much "what happened?" as it is "what was real?" As Gotham burns, the Waynes bleed out and Arthur hides his final joke, there's an unsettling sense that far too much of the previous two hours were a figment of the villain's imagination.
Joker is a highly unreliable narrator in whichever form you take him: The Killing Joke, from which Joker pulls a not insubstantial influence, tells a standup comedian origin story, only for the clown to eventually declare "if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice"; Heath Ledger's take in The Dark Knight had various versions of how he got those scars. But this ambiguity is also rooted in Joker's cinematic influences. The film is, as much a DC adaptation, a mashup of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Both star Robert De Niro as a deranged social outcast driven to crime - a mentally ill vet and wannabe standup comic, respectively - and paint an unsettling portrayal of the characters' mental states, making the audience question the reality of what's been shown before an ending that skews fantastical, giving the protagonist an unearned happy ever after. Is it dream or reality? That's the difference between bleak and cynical or tragic and just.
In Joker, Phillips plays with reality in a very similar manner to Scorsese. As naturalistic as the film appears at first, that starts to fray as Arthur's mind splinters. Aspects of the world hang weird. Arthur sees himself in an imagined flashback to his mothers' psychiatric assessment, he imagines himself on the Murray Franklin show but the audience sees only him alone (another nod to The King of Comedy), Alfred Pennyworth is a British bruiser. Arthur even says he felt like he has "never existed".
The biggest, though, are the sequences where Arthur's mind takes over. Early on, he imagines himself on The Murrary Franklin Show as an audience member called up to the big leagues. Then, as he stands on the precipice of sanity, Arthur discovers his romancing of Sophie was entirely fictitious. She never saw his standup, went on a date, helped him care for his mother: to her, he's just the weird guy down the hall. Even then, there are big questions unanswered: was the gun to the head exhaustion, something that plays into Joker's later assassination, real or just playing into Arthur's desires; and what did he do to the clearly nervous Sophie after leaving her apartment?
Those are the only parts of Joker that are explicitly in Arthur's head, but you're certainly meant to be left asking that of the finale also. Was the invite on The Murray Franklin Show genuine or a coping mechanism? Did he really kill Randall in his flat? Was the reaction to Murray's murder truly so destructive? Did the clown-masked rioters raise their accidental creator up as a messiah figure? The hopeful answer to all those questions is that everything was in Arthur's imagination, a fantasy where he systematically got revenge on those who'd wronged him and become the accidental hero of his own story. But that's neat, and the world of Joker is ragged and from the very start paints it as a distinct possibility.
What we can say with some certainty is that Joker's final scene, with Arthur in Arkham and questioned by a psychiatrist, is happening. It's the cap to the story, suggesting that regardless of what crimes he actually committed, Arthur does end up captured. But as we'll see, even in that moment there are some big questions left about what we're shown, not least the chilling image in his mind of a young boy stood above his dead parents...
Joker Created Batman - And That's What He Remembers Of The Riot
Although Joker is very much a standalone origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime, it's still intrinsically tied to the DC Comics universe. This is present from very early on thanks to Penny Fleck's obsession with Thomas Wayne, laying the groundwork for the false suggestion Arthur is really his son and, by extension, Bruce Wayne's half-brother.
But it's in Joker's ending where things really start to line up. The riot caused by Murray's murder occurs as Thomas, Martha and Bruce are leaving a movie theater playing Zorro, the Gay Blade (and Excalibur, a surprising reference to Batman v Superman). And any Batman fan knows what's next: the Waynes are shot, leaving Bruce watching them slowly bleed out as he takes his first steps towards becoming the Dark Knight.
Except this isn't the Batman origin we're accustomed to. For one, the gunman is specifically targeting Thomas Wayne for his words and actions against the working class; Martha's pearls are destroyed as a by-product. But more importantly, this entire sorry state of affairs is sparked by Arthur Fleck - his murder of the Wayne employees was laying the gunpowder, now his on-air execution has lit the fuse. In this universe, Joker created Batman.
Now, this isn't the first time this has happened in media: Batman 1989 had a young Jack Napier stand-in for Joe Chill, and a pre-makeup criminal played a key role in Phantasm's origin which ran parallel to Bruce's journey of discovery. But this is nevertheless a striking, seismic twist on the comics. It targets the ills of Gotham directly at young Bruce - a character who, in his single previous appearance, was shown as incredibly passive almost as if medicated. Batman has always been born out of his city's darkness, but Joker has the suffering it takes to get there be directly linked to Gotham's sudden collapse, a sign of things having to go to their horrific apex before salvation.
This entire idea is not without a final wrinkle. When asked what joke he's laughing at by the hospital worker at the end, the first thing Joker's mind flashes to is Bruce with his dead parents. It's a strange edit, apart from where Arthur's mind is presented as having gone; he's still concerned with the Waynes, that one double-murder out of all the pain and hurt caused is the pinnacle for him. And, even though it's not focused heavily on, that photo of the family torn from the newspaper with a shy Bruce in the corner is in his notebook before shooting Murray, a reminder and possible motivator.
So, Does That Means Arthur Fleck Was Thomas Wayne's Son?
The flipside of the Bruce Wayne obsession is the lingering question of if Joker is Thomas Wayne's son. It's certainly built up to as a seismic twist, his mother a scorned lover forced to live in poverty, but digging deeper seems to disprove that: Thomas shoots down the delusion before Arthur can say anything; and Penny's psychiatric records reveal her schizophrenia and an adoption certificate (with no name, keeping some mystery to Joker's past). From that point on, Arthur comes to almost accept it, killing his mother and losing all lock of clarity on the world that the discovery almost gave him.
But not everything adds up: a photograph Joker looks at before heading to Murray's show is signed lovingly from a "T.W"; it's from Wayne, not the official records, that the idea of adoption is first planted; blink-and-you'll-miss-it, but the photos of young Arthur look eerily similar to Bruce (indeed, actor Dante Pereira-Olson played a younger version of Joaquin Phoenix's character in You Were Never Really Here). That's al slight as concrete evidence, but in the framing of the Waynes being essential and a need to not trust everything you see, it's a distinctly open possibility that Thomas Wayne aggressively covered up the truth that Arthur Fleck was his son.
That is, of course, not a subject in the latter part film, and if it's true, it's not what drives Arthur in the final act. It's not essential for cracking Joker's true meaning. But it even being a discussable possibility only highlights the distance and depth of Joker's fall... and how strange it all lines up.
Is Arthur Fleck The One True Joker?
As a whole riot of men wearing masks terrorizes Gotham, there's one alternate possibility to this so-dubbed "origin". Is Arthur Fleck the true Clown Prince of Crime who will go on to become the foil to Batman? Or is he just the inspiration for another, unknown man to take up the true mantle? It's something that those involved have carefully sidestepped in interviews, and perhaps with good reason.
There's sly evidence against Arthur Fleck being the one true Joker. Although Phillips hasn't confirmed the character's age, logically he's in his early-to-mid-thirties (younger than the 44-year-old Phoenix); of Bruce is around 10, then that means Joker will be 50 or older by the time the Dark Knight emerges (no deal-breaker, as Nicholason at 57 showed, but a notable gap). And while Joker being the name of the movie is a case for it being about, well, Joker, the lack of the definite article - something that DC is heavily leaning into with The Batman and The Suicide Squad - has an openness that removes it from being a single person.
But what's more powerful is the scope of the film and how this one Joker is far from the single villain with this particular modus operandi. The whole Occupy-esque protest subplot that simmers under the movie and when they raise up Arthur as some sort of messiah, the community becomes one. It's not a leap to have any of these characters be deemed the Joker. The collective damage is the true cost.
If Arthur isn't the Joker we know, then that completely reframes what the film is about: it's not an origin story to the famed DC villain, it's one for Batman's Gotham. Joker is a metaphor, a product of both a mentally ill man and a city that neglects him - Arthur is an influencer and conduit, but he's not the endgame. The Waynes are killed because of the clown movement, and the real Joker will, if this is true, rise out from it.
Joker's Final Scene Explained: What Is Arthur's Final Joke?
All of these questions are rooted in Joker's final scene, earlier determined as one of the film's undisputed moments of reality. In it, Arthur is being questioned by an Arkham worker about his progress, to which the patient begins laughing uncontrollably. When asked what the joke is, he responds "you wouldn't get it?"
What is the joke? Is it Thomas Wayne, and how Arthur's driving question ceased to matter. Is it Bruce Wayne, the legitimate son now robbed of his innocence as a result of Arthur's actions? Is it what he inspired, and how with nary a motivation the Joker ideology was able to tear Gotham apart? Is it on the psychiatrist herself, who Arthur presumably murders based on the red blood coating the soles of his shoes in the final scene? This remaining question may seem intended to go unanswered, highlighting how even after two hours in his presence, Joker is still ultimately unknowable. However, there is a clear solution.
Joker's final scene takes place in a white-walled room that looks suspiciously similar to the one he saw - or imagined - his mother in during the flashback 30 years prior, a sequence in which he incongruously placed himself. The psychiatrist is reminiscent of his social worker from the start of film, in terms of age, appearance and manner: both are casually (or carelessly) checking his wellbeing in its clear absence, focused on the echo-chamber journal. All of this seems to be evidence that the movie just witnessed was unreal.
So, Arthur himself is the joke. The most fitting conclusion to Joker is that his entire life - one he describes while suffocating his mother as a comedy - is what's causing him so much glee. Perhaps everything is a lie, a trick on the audience imagined in his head. Perhaps he's merely reveling in the new life perspective gained. But that is the closest to a truth in Arthur Fleck's life that can be reached. He accepts his Arkham fate as Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" plays over an unstoppable, fruitless fight.
What Joker's Ending Actually Means
One of the most well-worn memes about Joker is that the film's ultimate message is simply "we live in a society", but that's a rather reductive lesson to take. Yes, the film is definitely exploring that idea, from the documented underfunding of the mental healthcare system to a talk show host outwardly mocking a clearly unwell person, and underpins Joker's proclamation: "What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a system that abandons him and treats him like trash? I'll tell you what you get. You get what you f*cking deserve." But the film's angling from the perspective of that mentally-ill loner makes it more internal and the case study more extreme. The Gotham presented is already on the brink, but it requires a real stack of extremes for things to boil over.
There's something unsettling about Joker's presentation of mental illness for sure, but the ultimate plea is for greater care. In The Killing Joke, Joker infamously states "All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That's how far the world is from where I am. Just one bad day." The veracity of this claim is left open in the comic - he fails to break Jim Gordon, yet in the end Batman shares a laugh (and possible strangles his foe) - but Joker fully refutes it: Arthur is no sane man to begin with and his breakdown is a gradual one instigated from trauma at a very young age. When he says to Sophie he's "has a bad day", it's a gross understatement. His is a story of neglect from those who should be responsible.
On the flipside, Joker's impact on society is, crucially, unintended. Every action is taken for the self, its wider impact not considered until afterward. The riots are a backbone to the film, but he's utterly disinterested as they evolve from a proletarian revolution into mindless violence. And whether these are regular people swept up in the movement or other dangerous individuals lying dormant in society and given strength as part of a group (likely a mix of both), it shows the ease by which structure can crumble.
The point isn't direct, as Joker has intentionally confused politics. Thomas Wayne is presented far from the polished philanthropist many are used to; his sleazy manner and political run conjure up Donald Trump parallels (Alec Baldwin was once linked to the part), yet his use of "clowns" as a derogatory term reclaimed by those insulted instead reminds of Hillary Clinton's "deplorables" statement during the 2016 election. There's a duality there that further plays into the movie's unreal nature, suggesting this is Wayne as Arthur sees him, not as Bruce nor the world does.
Ultimately, Joker's subtly ambiguous ending underpins everything else being discussed. We have one man, lost to his psychosis and doomed to fight forever in his soft-focus asylum, and an unclear future for the world that both created and suffered him.
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