Caution: Spoilers ahead for Joker
Love it or hate it, Joker is a film that forces the audience to question how much of what they witnessed was actually real. As Warner Bros. and DC gradually move away from a shared universe approach and towards a looser model of filmmaking, a rare beast has forced its way into the mainstream movie release schedule: a truly standalone comic book movie. Free from franchise restrictions, the confines of a specific comic book story or the need to set up a sequel, Todd Phillips' Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, is remarkably baggage-free for a movie of its stature.
Ironically, baggage is one thing Joker himself brings with abundance, and this is perhaps true of Arthur Fleck more than any previous iteration of the villain. As an R-rated affair, Joker is given free reign to delve deep into the psychology of the Clown Prince of Crime, taking light inspiration from The Killing Joke and The Dark Knight Returns and twisting Joker's comic origins into something completely new. This grounded, unflinching approach yields a movie that is not just dark in a "the end of Avengers: Infinity War was pretty dark!" sense, but that creates a genuinely disturbing aura of discomfort.
As a direct consequence of this complete disregard for convention, Joker is attracting wildly diverse reviews (all while raking in cash, it should be said) but while fans were never likely to agree on the merits of the Joker movie, there's also no real consensus on what actually happens in it, since the Joker is a typically unreliable narrator. With this in mind, how much of Joker is real, and how much is fantasy?
Arthur's Relationship With Zazie Beetz's Sophie
Whatever your interpretation of Joker's ending and the film's relationship to the overall Batman story, there's something not quite right about Arthur's neighbor, Sophie, and this is the one of a select few overt instances where Joker admits to its deception. Arthur and Sophie first meet as they share an elevator cab to the floor of their respective apartments. As Sophie's young child starts to annoy her mother, the two adults share a telling glance and Sophie makes a "shoot me" gesture as a joke. This triggers an obsession within Arthur, who begins stalking the woman. Later at the Fleck apartment, Sophie confronts her neighbor about his creepy behavior but, strangely, Beetz's character decides she's not too bothered about the stalking and hints at a possible future date between the two.
After committing his first murders on the subway, Arthur is emboldened to make a move on Sophie, and the two begin a whirlwind romance. Everything seems to be going swimmingly until Arthur lets himself into Sophie's apartment after his mother's death and...she barely recognizes him. Viewers then see alternate versions of Sophie's scenes where Arthur is interacting with thin air, clearly indicating that the entire relationship was a fabrication.
Since something must've triggered Arthur Fleck's obsession with Sophie (and she does at least recognize him as a person who lives nearby) it's safe to assume that the elevator scene did actually happen. But while Arthur began a fantasy romance after bumping into this complete stranger, Sophie thought nothing of the interaction and went on with her life in blissful ignorance of her dangerous neighbor. The rest of Zazie Beet's scenes (aside from her murder) likely take place all within Arthur's delusion and there are several telltale signs of this. Firstly, being okay with a strange man stalking you and your child is something that could only ever happen in a madman's mind, and secondly, Sophie's child seems to magically disappear whenever her mother and Arthur spend time together. The audience might assume the youngster has been left with a relative, and this is part of how the twist is so convincing, but it quickly becomes clear that Arthur has written the child out of his personal reality.
Arthur's First "Appearance" On Murray Franklin
Another clearly signposted daydream sequence is Joker's appearance as an audience member on the Murray Franklin talk show. As Arthur and his mother settle down to watch their favorite TV host, Arthur begins experiencing a reverie in which he is plucked from the audience by Franklin himself to come down and appear on the show. While Joker makes little attempt to paint this scene as reality, the sequence does hint towards several parts of Arthur's psyche that become vital later in the story.
Not only does Arthur idolize Franklin, he mentally holds the TV personality up as some kind of father figure, which explains why Joker reacts so badly when Robert De Niro's character mocks Arthur's stand-up comedy routine and laughing condition. The scene also foreshadows Arthur's love of the limelight and desperation to be recognized, as well as his belief that appearing on the Murray Franklin show would represent the pinnacle of his entire life. All of these elements combine in explosive fashion in Joker's finale.
Arthur's Laughing Condition
Obviously, it's rarely appropriate to discredit a person's medical issue, but Arthur Fleck is a serial killer, so questioning the validity of his laughing condition is, frankly, fair game. First and foremost, Pseudobulbar Affect is a genuine medical condition whereby a person's outward expressions don't reflect their true emotional state, and this can indeed result in unwanted hysterical laughter at inappropriate times. Joker also strongly suggests that Arthur's condition might be the result of a head injury suffered during childhood.
Somewhat similarly to Tourette's syndrome, Arthur's laughing seems most likely to occur during periods of great stress, such as his first comedy show or when confronted by a woman on the bus. The more confident "Joker" persona Arthur adopts in the film's final act suffers far fewer outbursts. While it's possible that Joker is merely less prone to stress than Arthur, and therefore less likely to trigger his condition, it wouldn't be a huge stretch to imply that the entire laughing condition could be psychosomatic. Arthur's preoccupation with comedy and making people laugh might've directly led to him unconsciously laughing in awkward situations - a kind of dark humor that the Joker would be proud of. It also wouldn't be too difficult to print and laminate a bogus medical card.
Penny Fleck & Thomas Wayne
Thanks to Arthur liberating some medical records from a disgruntled admin assistant, viewers know that Arthur was adopted by Penny Fleck, a woman who was at one time diagnosed with a severe mental illness and found to have neglected and abused the child in her care. The same records state that Arthur's biological parents aren't known, which fits with the traditional backstory of Joker in terms of his identity being a mystery.
Penny, however, maintains that Arthur is not only her son, but that Thomas Wayne is his father, with Penny having worked for Wayne Enterprises in the years prior. Like Thomas himself, the audience is encouraged to dismiss Penny's words as the ramblings of a deeply troubled woman but, as with everything in Joker, the obvious answer isn't necessarily the correct one. Joker's Thomas Wayne is far less virtuous that the character's usual portrayal and if he did have a secret affair with a worker, it wouldn't be outside of Wayne's considerable influence to have records altered in order to protect his reputation and prevent any illegitimate children inheriting a slice of the family fortune.
Alternatively, Arthur could be the son of Thomas Wayne and a second, mystery woman. The businessman then might've had one of his workers adopt the kid to conceal its parentage, perhaps even picking a mother with medical issues so that no one would believe her story. This would explain why Penny insists Thomas is Arthur's father, even as an older woman who is clearly of sounder mind than she was in the past, and would also account for the T.W. initials on the photo of Arthur as a child.
The Entire Movie
While Joker's ending can certainly be interpreted in a variety of ways, many are suggesting that the vast majority of the movie takes place within Arthur's mind. The theory argues that only the scenes featuring Arthur in an asylum are actually real, and that the remainder of the story is being imagined by Fleck from his padded cell. Evidence for this includes the asylum clocks telling the same time in two separate scenes and the fact that Joker is told entirely from Arthur's perspective, with no scene taking place without him present. Perhaps Arthur is playing out a story in his head for amusement, or more likely he's imagining an idealized life. It's also feasible that Arthur is imagining the events of Joker as a flashback, and that the entire film did happen, just a couple of decades in the past.
There are a couple of sticking points to this theory. Firstly, if Joker is almost entirely a daydream, why is Arthur's relationship with Sophie revealed as a separate deception? Perhaps because Joker is mentally rewriting his own fantasy after coming up with something better. Sitting in the confines of the asylum, Arthur is envisaging Joker's story and gives himself a love interest. Partway through writing this story, Arthur realizes it would be more "fun" to kill his neighbor than to romance her, so revisits all the scenes he pictured featuring Sophie and changes them to scrub her out. He then returns to his place in the tale and includes Sophie as another victim, rather than a lover.
A second obstacle to the theory that none of Joker really happens are the Wayne murders. If the clown riots are just part of Arthur's dream, how can he imagine Bruce Wayne's Batman origin story exactly how it happens in the comic books, with accurate details such as Zorro playing at the cinema and Martha's necklace being broken? If Arthur is sitting in Arkham going back and rewriting his life, it's logical to assume that Joker's asylum scenes take place much later than the 1980s. If this is true, the Wayne murders would be public knowledge in Gotham City and Arthur had likely heard about the crime even from inside a medical facility. Given his established preoccupation with Thomas Wayne, it's understandable that Arthur might want to make himself the author of the man's death, at least within his fantasy world.
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