Arthur Fleck Laughing Despairingly on a Bus (Joker 2019) Arthur Fleck Laughing Despairingly on a Bus (Joker 2019)

Themes, Messages, and Symbolism from the Movie “Joker”57 min read

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Warning – There be Spoilers Ahead!

Spoiler Alert!!
Spoiler Alert!!

You have been warned.
You will read forth at your own risk. =)


A. Background

I first heard rumblings of the “Joker” movie with Joaquin Phoenix (Wikipedia, IMDB) online a little bit, but I was not immediately impressed at the thought of it and I did not really look into it further. OK, yes, this new Joker movie was in the superhero genre, so yea, I expected to want to see it. However, to be fair, I still have not seen the previous Joker movie Suicide Squad with Jared Leto as the Joker. I was fairly nonplussed with Jared Leto and the idea of that movie even with its star-studded cast.

Also, in my mind was: How could you possibly top Heath Ledger’s Joker from Dark Knight (2008) which was a posthumously Oscar wining performance following his tragic death? If you have not seen The Dark Knight with Heath Ledger, then please go watch his amazing performance.

Then I heard about the movie from a co-worker who said it was going to be a very different and darker movie that was rated “R” and that had a political message which, if you can imagine, intrigued me.

So, I went to watch the trailer that had just dropped and I was quite surprised. Here is the final trailer for the movie if you have not already seen it yet:

Trailer for Joker with Joaquin Phoenix (Oct 2019)

Wow! This was going to be a very, very different take on the Joker, especially with a political message, and its R rating. All of those facts got me really excited to see the movie.

Go Get'em Brother.
Go Get’em Brother.

B. Seeing the Movie and Writing This Post

I just saw the movie (Wed, 9 Oct 2019) and then was able to watch the movie again a week later (Wed, 16 Oct 2009) with my mother, and was able to take some quick notes to help fill out this rather large post (~34 pages). I really, really wish I had a blue-ray of this or was able to stream this so I can do this movie and post some real justice! There is so much more I am missing, but alas, with limited time and limited access this is the best I can do!

I am sure I have some stuff wrong, especially the quotes, so feel free to correct me, so I can correct my text.

I also want to apologize. Normally I would spend a month on researching, writing, and editing a post, so if this post seems rough… well… it is…
Because, I wrote this in one week.

I. Three Notes on the Movie’s Narrative

A. Unreliable Narrator

1. What is Unreliable Narrator?

“What is an Unreliable Narrator?” you ask. It is a method of presenting a narrative that has been compromised because the point of view:

  • is not reliable
  • is delusional
  • does not have all of the information
  • or where they have a heavy bias

… which ends up coloring the narrative and presentation of the story so that it may end up being not so true or accurate. You can read more about this literary technique in the link above.

2. Unreliable Narrator in Joker

When you are watching this movie you will want to be aware that they do use Unreliable Narrator powerfully to seamlessly mix objective reality with his illness and delusions. It can be hard to tell which scenes or parts of scenes are real and which are not if you are not really paying attention, and sometimes we may not know for sure if what is happening is real or not. It is a really trippy ride.

As a clue, most likely any scene where he is:

  • fitting in
  • related to well
  • smiling
  • or there are clown masks

… are most likely wholly or are at least partly delusion.

3. Unreliable Narrator in Mr. Robot

The Unreliable Narrator technique is used significantly through out the amazing series Mr. Robot with Rami Malek on the USA Network which also has a main character who has some mental illness and whose story also has a political statement of sorts too. Hmmm….

Mr. Robot with Rami Malek
Mr. Robot with Rami Malek

If you have not seen this series then watch this too, because it is pretty amazing.

B. Period Piece – 1981

The movie is set in the infamous home of Batman, the fictional city of Gotham, in about 1981 or so, so you will not see modern technology and you will see movies, designs, and other slight references to that time period. You will even see some black and white TV’s too. The movie’s director, Todd Phillips, confirmed this time period.

C. Draws Inspiration from 3 Powerful Sources

This movie draws heavily from 3 sources:

  • Comic Book:
  • Two Martin Scorsese films which conveniently also star Robert De Niro:

II. The Movie’s Negative Press


The significant negative press surrounding this movie has been manufactured for 1 powerful reason: the movie acts like a large dystopian Reflecting Mirror which lays bare the corrupt soul of our contemporary society by reflecting on 3 primary areas:

  1. Reflecting on the Self
  2. Reflecting on America
  3. Reflecting on Inequality, Corporations, Media, and the Rich

Lastly, we will take a look at the media’s attacks on the movie:

  • The Media’s Attacks on the Movie

Here are 2 videos talking about both of these topics:

A. Reflecting on the Self

A large reason for some of the negative press that this movie has received is due to the movie forcing us to hold a mirror up to reflect upon ourselves, our country, and our potential role in the events that transpire in the movie.

It forces people to reflect on those who they may know or see in their lives who may be struggling with a mental disorder or poverty, which may have them potentially feel guilty about how isolated and powerless that person may be, and how we may have contributed to their feeling invisible and unheard, but also feeling somewhat powerless to help their situation.

For some people where mental illness and poverty are all too real this movie may even hit a little too close to home. It also forces those of us who are NOT impoverished or currently suffering from mental illness to reflect on actions we may have taken which may make us feel bad about ourselves because we may be doing OK sitting in middle class or higher and yet feel guilty for being there when others are suffering so despairingly and without power or hope.

B. Reflecting on America

Joker tackles dark and sad subjects such as mental illness, income inequality, poverty, and class differences all of which creates cognitive dissonance by challenging a person’s delusions of American Exceptionalism – that idea that America is perfect and without flaws. It forces people to see that they may have to replace their red, white, and blue colored glasses with glasses colored by the blood of the discarded, the voiceless, and the oppressed which are abound despite the United States being the richest country in the world with 40% of global wealth concentrated within our borders while we still have the highest level of income inequality in the first-world, as well as a 14% poverty rate which means millions of people are suffering with mental illnesses and in poverty right now.

C. Reflecting on Inequality, Corporations, Media, and the Rich

Perhaps the most important of these 3 areas is how powerfully the Joker’s Reflecting Mirror reflects upon inequality and the role that corporations, the media, and the rich play in it, and this is most important part which the media needs to derail at all costs, for if they do not then people may then start to understand the truth about their role in inequality, poverty, mental illness, crime, and corruption.

Perhaps the 99% may even start to ask real questions and want real answers or possibly start to even be a bit riotous and want real change such as corporate reform, media reform, healthcare reform, criminal justice reform, electoral reform and so on. Corporations, the rich, and the media, that unholy trinity, cannot have the 99% fomenting for real change otherwise the trinity may lose their money, power, and luxury. An awakened and sympathetic public is a threat to their bank accounts and therefore this movie must be destroyed.

D. The Media’s Attacks on the Movie

1. Protecting Themselves

Complaints about violence are patently ridiculous. There are soooo many movies and TV series which are much more graphic than the 3 or so scenes in this movie. How about such examples as: Game of Thrones, John Wick, or Deadpool anyone?

The media is also trying to paint this movie as an Incel (Involuntary Celibate) training manual for violence. There are no themes of romantic rejection or other such things.

These are all just an emotion laden smokes screens to prevent your awakening. What they are really afraid of is that this movie’s Reflecting Mirror more clearly shows what is wrong with the world as well as who may be responsible. It gets people to think and to talk. They do not want this, especially when their role in our problems is also laid bare. They must start the damage mitigation early and often so that the people will not consider the truth and so they will either not watch it at all or, if they do watch it, then their impression will already have been poisoned due to the negative press it has received. This negative press is good for corporations because then the viewers emotions will cloud their critical thinking so that it is more difficult to pull out messages and themes, and to even make people afraid to even talk about them because they will know someone who will be pissed about the movie because of the media’s deceptions and manipulations.

What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fuckin’ deserve!

Arthur Fleck says this to Murray Franklin on live TV right before murdering him (Joker 2019)

2. The Media Wants Something to Happening

Also, consider that the media wants something tragic to happen, because tragedy is what really sells, it is what makes headlines, it is what makes them money. By attacking the movie they are stoking fears, priming the pump, and putting the ideas into people’s heads so that something really bad happens in an attempt to exploit and manipulate the public for profit. If something happens then it proves their fear mongering right and they make a lot of money and if nothing happens they poison the movie’s messages.

III. Mental Illness is a Co-Star

A. Mental Illness as a Core Driver for Movie Events

Mental illness should have been given credits in this movie as Joaquin Phoenix’s co-star because it stars in this movie front and center and is a powerful force and driver for his character, his experience, and every presentation of the movie’s narrative. From his mother being mentally ill or him being mentally ill, to exemplifying how the mentally ill are a marginalized and powerless demographic, as well as showing funding and social support for the mentally ill being cut due to a complete lack of compassion and social responsibility to our fellow humans who suffer painfully and are at the mercy of their devastating illnesses, many of which may end up homeless or worse.

In the movie we find out that his mother has severe mental illnesses. Likewise, Arthur suffers from mental illnesses most likely stemming from potential brain damage and PTSD from childhood abuse that his mentally ill mother was unable to protect him from (and potentially participated in), nor was able to prevent from happening to herself. (Yes, I do know that abuse is a much more complicated issue than this.)

Why are they not taken care of? The usual answer for this and many other social issues is a single unitary answer – money. There is never enough money to do what is right and to take care of our fellow humans who are all but invisible, marginalized, and powerless, but there is always enough money to murder or exploit innocent Humans for profit here at home or in other parts of the world. Exploitation and murder is always profitable, whereas helping people out or doing good is not at all.

B. Messages That are NOT Being Told, Thankfully!

Depending on how you take the many possible messages on mental illness present in the movie I would like to make list some of my thoughts on that topic here:

I do not like the potential message or potential correlation that some may take from this that crime is caused by mental illness. It is not that it can’t be caused by that, but causes of crime are much more complicated than that. Fortunately, the other powerful messages and the movie’s evocative narrative is set so that it does NOT work towards showing that.

I am also not comfortable with the correlation that we may potentially find about trauma leading to mental illness which then leads to crime. Again, it is not that this cannot and does not happen, but we need to realize that we cannot create a causation that all who are abused or traumatized are automatically criminals. Again, fortunately, the other powerful messages and the movie’s evocative narrative is set so that it does NOT work towards showing that.

C. If It Affects One, It Affects All of Us

If it does not affect me then why should I care?” which is what many people think, especially in the political world. Out of sight and therefore out of mind. If it does not affect me, then I need not worry about it or support it. This is too much of what is happening in politics especially when it comes to mental health. Having access to mental health care is seen like a charity or nicety and not an absolute necessity or human right. Those who think like this need to change their thinking to be something more like: No one should suffer without mental health care not only because it is the right thing to do, but because I or someone I care about will have a mental illness at some time in their lives which will need support and treatment. If I work towards taking care of others I also work towards ensure I am taken care of in the future too. Plus, how much will I and society at large suffer if there are untreated mentally ill people running around endangering themselves or people I care about, especially when it is legal for them to own a gun. =O

D. Stigma Against Talking about Mental Illness

In the United States there is a tremendous stigma against talking about mental illness and this is significant problem. We must realize that at some time in our lives that we ourselves or someone we know and love may fall victim to a mental illness from something as is unfortunately common in today’s world as anxiety and depression, to something as life destroying as Alzheimer’s. This is the sad reality of the state of things and what drives much of the voicelessness and powerlessness of those with mental illnesses. This stigma needs to end.

There is also a massive stigma regarding mental illness especially among men who: just need to be strong, not have or show emotions, just be a man, cannot ask for help, cannot cry, or are told to just rub some dirt on it. Believe it or not, but men are people too, and the corruptions and pressures of our broken culture affects us too, even if we may project a facade of happiness, calm, or indifference.

We see this all too well in the suicides of the many veterans who have returned home from the horrors of corporate created wars to the high profile suicides of stars like Robin Williams, Kurt Cobain, and Anthony Bourdain.

This is what depression looks like: Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Whitney Houston (singer), Mac Miller, Robin Williams (actor), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (actor), Chris Farley (actor), Marilyn Monroe (actress), Amy Winehouse (singer). Chris Cornell (singer), Ernest Hemingway (author), Lucy Gordon (actress), Simone Battle (actress), Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Gia Allemond (actress), Anthony Bourdain (chef and celebrity)
This is what depression looks like: Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Whitney Houston (singer), Mac Miller, Robin Williams (actor), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (actor), Chris Farley (actor), Marilyn Monroe (actress), Amy Winehouse (singer). Chris Cornell (singer), Ernest Hemingway (author), Lucy Gordon (actress), Simone Battle (actress), Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Gia Allemond (actress), Anthony Bourdain (chef and celebrity)

It does not matter what your socioeconomic level – whether rich or poor – or what job you do – soldier or entertainer – mental illness is coming for you or someone you care about, but it is the many, many people who have been forgotten and abandoned by society that will suffer the most from it because they will not have access to the needed therapy or medications.

IV. Potential Social and Political Messages in Movie

A. Messages Abound for the Politically Aware

For those of you who are politically aware or who are involved in activism and are familiar with the issues of mental illness, class warfare, inequality, poverty, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, biopsychosocial issues, as well as the harms of monetary systems then you will find a lot of powerful messages ad symbolism in this movie. There are also some amazing quotes in here too which reflect them too.

There are so many, many issues, symbolism, and ideas brought forth by this movie through its fluid mix of narrative reality and delusion. There is much more in this movie than I am going to be able to notice or write about, so yes I have either not noticed or did not have time to write about something you may have noticed. This is such a deep and evocative movie I could not possibly notice everything, so please forgive me! =)

Here are some links for you to learn more on some of these social and political issues:

B. Society and Class Callousness, Separation, and Oppression

1. Idolizing People of Power for Acceptance

Because of Arthur’s extreme desire to be accepted by society and his completely broken daddy issues, Arthur idolizes two rich and powerful white men, Murray Franklin and Thomas Wayne, and wants to be noticed and loved and accepted by both, but yet neither care about him or his problems at all.

If you combine his dream sequence of Murray Franklin saying he wanted someone like Arthur as a son while showing Arthur’s clip on live TV and then talking down to and demeaning him, maybe this also really reflects the cycle of abusers (niceness followed by abuse) from which he had most likely suffered from his mother’s boyfriend (and his mother too) years ago.

When Arthur finally meets Thomas Wayne he demeans Arthur, rejects him, and even directly hits him which completes the cycle of abuse (nice, verbal abuse + rejection, physical abuse) between the actions of both of his father figures.

This also shows that when those who need help go to ask for help, they are often denied it, sometimes violently, by those who are rich or are in positions of power even though they may have the ability to do so.

2. White Savior Complex

Typically they cast Bruce Wayne’s parents, specifically his father, as a good rich man, a philanthropist even, who means well, however this movie takes a important, powerful, and different tack. They cast Thomas Wayne (Batman’s father) as the typical disconnected and callous rich white male with a massive white savior complex through thinking he can save the city by running for mayor without directly tackling the issues of inequality, poverty, crime, disease, and mental illness straight on at the source by providing that which the people needed with their billions and billions.

They may not realize it, but I am their only hope.

Thomas Wayne in a TV interview (Joker 2019)

His mother says something similar showing the powerless, downtrodden, and oppressed who are desperate for a voice and for change putting their hopes in the rich and entitled who have all of the power and who do nothing but disdain them and try to benefit from their misfortune.

Only he can save the city.

Penny Fleck says about Thomas Wayne who is running for mayor of Gotham (Joker 2019)

This also may bring up the interesting possibility of a different unreliable narrator in Bruce Wayne who might typically remember his father as a good man even though in reality he was a callous, entitled, and demeaning asshat. A child’s memories of their parents, especially an affluent one, where their parents died young may be more positive and happy than they actually were. This could create a powerfully different narrative for Batman much like we see from another DC comic, the Green Arrow, where Oliver Queen has to deal with his father’s and mother’s corruptions and broken legacies.

They explore this very idea in a Flashpoint comic where The Flash goes back in time and accidentally creates a new “Flashpoint” (a new time line) where Bruce Wayne is the one that dies in the alley and Thomas and Martha Wayne survive. Following that tragedy Thomas Wayne becomes a brutal Batman who doesn’t mind killing and then Martha Wayne, following suffering from a severe mental breakdown, becomes the Joker. If you want to see how this may play out then check out that comic.

3. Thomas Wayne and the Callous Rich

Thomas Wayne, when talking to the press about the murders while running for mayor, is demeaning of those below his socioeconomic class (the poor and oppressed from which he has made his fortune upon) by angrily calling them clowns. The rich and powerful (1%) use us (99%) when we are useful only to abuse us and throw us away we are no longer useful because they have the power and resources to do so.

They also show Thomas Wayne’s indifference, isolation, and callousness by showing that their former employee (Arthur’s Mother) who was mentally ill was eventually fired and abandoned not only by Wayne Enterprises but also by the government mental health institutions. This situation stands out in stark contrast to his statement on TV where he says that “All Wayne Enterprise employees are family.“. This shows the hypocrisy of their positive words and their contrary and destructive actions, points it to performative sociopolitical theater.

Penny still had her adopted child and did not have medication or other support in dealing with her still present delusions (as far as we were aware). Now, she may have be able to function, but her delusions about Thomas Wayne, assuming they were delusions, were still affecting her and powerfully influencing Arthur’s life directly and indirectly. This shows that even the people closest to us, our family, may be suffering and we cannot tell or do not want to see it because we are too close.

When Thomas Wayne is presented with a case of someone who was in desperate need of help and when he significantly has to power to help he abandoned them (Arthur’s mother), covered it up, or he punched them right in the face (Arthur) and walked away. Albeit, Thomas Wayne may have felt threatened or in danger, which I get, however, we need to consider his actions from a larger message picture. Instead of helping he cast them aside like refuse, abandoned them, or attacked them.

4. Uncaring Government and System

They show quite well how much Arthur is in need of help, but how little help he actually received, and that little help eventually ran out (social worker and medication). He was abandoned to deal with the horrors of mental illness alone. This happens all too often even today from the Reagan administration’s gutting mental health care and with insurance companies trying to find any reason to not cover care, to county and city health programs continuously having their funding and resources cut leaving many mentally ill people homeless, poverty stricken, suffering in silence, unseen, without a voice, and without the care they so desperately need. Arthur is just another victim of a system that just throws those in need away because they cannot be profited from.

This quote from his social worker says it directly:

They don’t care about people like you.
They don’t care about people like me.

Debra Kane (Social Worker) told Arthur Fleck this.

5. Entertained by ‘The Hobo’

The rich, dressed all up in their tuxes and evening gowns while laughing and watching Charlie Chaplin’s silent movie “The Hobo” which is a movie about a man struggling under the oppression of factory work. A perfect view of the callousness and uncaring view of the 1% towards the struggles of the 99% – an entertaining show.

Even Arthur laughed as he was watching the movie when he was able to temporarily join their ranks perhaps showing the corrupting force of ascending the socioeconomic ladder. When a person ascends higher they start to lose their perspective of those who are now below them (a different and additional mental problem), those who are suffering, where they once also stood, but it also shows that ascending the ladder does not get rid of mental issues and only creates more – sociopathy.

6. Media and Corporate Exploitation of People

We see this directly with the Murray Franklin Show booking Arthur just to mock him and make fun of him because the audience requested it. This shows the separation and callousness on two levels:

  1. The people asking for Arthur to be on because he was so bad even though he was obviously mentally ill most likely because they were better off than he was (see the last part of the above section for that rationale).
  2. Murray Franklin and the network willing to exploit a mentally ill person just because they could profit from it.

We are only useful to each other or to the corporations and media as long as we are exploitable.

7. Struggling to be Seen, Heard, Accepted, and a Part of Society

One of the themes present in this movie is about struggling to be seen and heard, to not feel isolated and alone due to mental illness and/or poverty – a great message that presents Humanity’s Terminal Disease – the Disease of Separation. Our society is dysfunctional because of the separation we have between each other and many suffer because of this and we look to medicate them to appease ourselves and so we do not have to actually solve the problem.

We can see the isolation and voicelessness through class oppression and disdain slathered all through the movie which is shown in the following situations:

  • starting with the sanitation strike, the voice of the workers not being heard
  • the clown face as a mask which hides the suffering self through putting on the façade of happiness or normalcy
  • The only people who acknowledge his existence in the very beginning of the movie was the gaggle of kids who just abuse him and beat him up.
  • Dreaming that his show hero (Murray Franklin) embraces him and wants a kid like him only to have the host in real life just make fun of him and cast him down for his attempts at being seen.
  • Wanting to have Thomas Wayne as his father only to have to beaten up and rejected – again the rich and powerful abusing those of a lesser station.
  • the fantasy of having the neighbor lady as his girlfriend
  • a social worker who does not listen to him and only goes about her required process only to have the funding for the program cut, which shows that the system and society and government have not heard his cries and needs for help
  • having issues with the sliding door allowing him through to the hospital, symbolic of the system no seeing him
  • The 3 White Wall Street thugs on the train being incensed that the lady on the train with her eyes cast down (their socioeconomic lesser) would not acknowledge their abusive tauntings
  • Then we have the 3 Wall Street Thugs who, due to his uncontrollable laughter, beat up Arthur (of lesser station) for seeming to mock them for them being ignored and NOT noticed or acknowledged by the woman. This shows that those in a position of privilege have the power to punish those without power for being ignored, to punish the unseen for inflicting upon them what they live with every day.
  • Riots are the language of the unseen and unheard – we see that with the movement building up surrounding Arthur and his clown personae and then the eventual full on riots
  • the only way to be seen is through violence or that just even trying to be seen results in public scorn for trying to be seen
  • Arthur cares not about the revolution or the movement he potentially spawned, he cares not for the politics. He is just happy to be finally seen which can show how violence, crime, and metal illness may be the end result of people not having power, feeling like their lives do not matter, or not feeling like that are seen or accepted by society.

You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. How’s your job? Do you have any negative thoughts? All I have are negative thoughts!

Arthur Fleck to his social worker (Joker 2019)

For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But, I do, and people are starting to notice.

Arthur Fleck to his social worker (Joker 2019)

I contend that the cry of “black power” is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1966

Here is a video that talks about this quest to be seen in the movie:

V. Symbolism in the Movie

A. Great Video on the Movie’s Symbolism

There is a great breakdown here of some of the movie’s symbolism here:

B. The Name ‘Arthur Fleck’

The movie sets up expectations just by the name of the main character, Arthur Fleck, which evokes that dichotomy of class differences through:

  • Arthur: evoking King Arthur with such concepts as: the rich, nobility, royalty, respect. castles, power, everyone knows them, bastard child
  • Fleck: evoking something that is small, disposable, insignificant, or garbage. Something that when you see it, it annoys you, and then you throw it away to never think about again.

C. Arthur’s Mother’s Name: “Penny”

His mother’s name “Penny” has the connotation of not being worth much – worth a penny – again adding to the cast away and not wanted theme. It also casts a character who is downtrodden and has mental illness as being a person to which corporations cannot make money off of and throw away.

I also find his mother’s name a little too convenient and an interesting tie to Alfred Pennyworth, Thomas Wayne’s butler and spec ops servant and confidant. Her first name “Penny” to his last name “Pennyworth” potentially lending some thematic evidence that perhaps there really was a cover-up. Most likely this is just a coincidence because of how they choose her name and also were NOT able to choose Alfred’s name since that was already set by comic book history. You be the judge. =)

D. Arthur Being a Clown

Arthur Fleck forcing a smile while in clown makeup - a single blue tear (Joker 2019)
Arthur Fleck forcing a smile while in clown makeup – a single blue tear (Joker 2019)

One of the first scenes in the movie is of Arthur putting on his makeup after having been beaten up by those kids, building up that facade, that mask of normalcy ready to hide the pain, fear, isolation, and loneliness. In testing his mask he starts with a frown and then forces a smile. Then with his fingers he forces a wide smile, then a wide frown, then another wide smile this time with a tear running down. It looks like he is trying really hard to force the smile and to prevent the tidal wave of desperation and despair from exploding forth, like perhaps the makeup is all that is keeping the cracks in his mental foundation from completely unraveling. This is a powerful and unsettling scene.

Arthur being a clown and this previous scene is powerfully representative of the movie’s main messages – having a mental illness and trying to act like he doesn’t have one. Him being a clown shows that we are all trying to put a facade, a mask of happiness, even though we are a depressed and isolated mess underneath – trying to hide our pain and fear. The clowns, especially with the masks, paints the masses as being faceless and nameless, everyone is hiding pain, putting on a show while battling something. It also shows that the people underneath the mask or makeup are hidden and not known, especially to the system, the rich, the corporations, and the government, and even to each other. Do we really know anyone at all until we know their struggles, that sequestered truth which lies beneath their mask?

I can’t believe I missed this following concept the first time. Even my wife was like duh, bro. Arthur being a clown also represents that sometimes those who are the greatest entertainers and are seemingly most happy people have the greatest pains and suffering to hide even though it doesn’t seem this way because they are trying really, really hard to “put on that happy face” and to “make people smile“. We have lost some of the greatest entertainers to depression and mental illness I added this graphic earlier when talking about mental illness above, but I will add it again to emphasize the point:

This is what depression looks like: Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Whitney Houston (singer), Mac Miller, Robin Williams (actor), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (actor), Chris Farley (actor), Marilyn Monroe (actress), Amy Winehouse (singer). Chris Cornell (singer), Ernest Hemingway (author), Lucy Gordon (actress), Simone Battle (actress), Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Gia Allemond (actress), Anthony Bourdain (chef and celebrity)
This is what depression looks like: Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, Whitney Houston (singer), Mac Miller, Robin Williams (actor), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (actor), Chris Farley (actor), Marilyn Monroe (actress), Amy Winehouse (singer). Chris Cornell (singer), Ernest Hemingway (author), Lucy Gordon (actress), Simone Battle (actress), Layne Staley of Alice in Chains, Gia Allemond (actress), Anthony Bourdain (chef and celebrity)

There is also this sad dichotomy of Arthur being a clown so he can be noticed and so he can make people laugh while not being able to be funny. His wanting to be a stand-up comic so he can be seen and so that his laughter might actually allow him to fit in even though it is a severe detriment because, in comedy, timing is everything and due to his disease his uncontrollable laughter and inability to understand social cues makes being a comedian next to impossible. Plus, any attempt to be seen with your disease is met with public ridicule and being cast down – further increasing isolation and dis-empowerment. This also shows that those with mental illness or other disabilities are often prevented from doing the very things that they really want to because of their disability.

E. Arthur was Rejected by Paternal Figures

Assuming this is actually true, even at birth Arthur was discarded and we do not know who his parents were or why they gave him up for adoption. This fact adds to the throw away and garbage theme. Then he was adopted from an orphanage by a mentally ill woman (Penny – his adopted mother) who did not protect him or herself from abuse. How she was able to adopt him given her condition I have no idea. Perhaps her conditions were not known until after that?

Then we have the potential delusion by his mother that she had an affair with Thomas Wayne and that Arthur was his son. There we would have the second case of being thrown away and rejected not only of Arthur, but also of his mother when it was known that she was sick. Now, with Thomas Wayne being so rich and powerful he could have had the records forged to cover-up the truth.

Also, following Arthur’s transformation into the Joker he finds a picture saying “Love your smile. – TW” which could lend credibility for the cover-up, but we do not know if this is a delusion or not. If it was true then we have Batman and Joker as half-brothers which creates a huge motivation and powerful drive for antagonism and rage verses each other due to Arthur having been cast away and denied everything that Bruce has had, and then Bruce having his parents killed by the Joker’s actions. In either case, he crumples it up as if it does not matter, because at this point that part of him (Arthur Fleck) was now gone and all that remained was the Joker. I am thinking that this was a delusion to say that the internal question of his parentage and his desire to belong and to fit in no longer matters to him because he has completely cast off his past and previous identity of Arthur, and has full embraced his real self – the Joker.

F. Arthur’s Uncontrollable Laughter

Of course, it literally represents Arthur’s very real childhood abuse and current mental disorder (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), but it also shows that mental disorders are something that people try to hide, but often can’t, and it sets them apart as different. They struggle against it while trying to try to fit in and while trying to find any level of normalcy in their life, but it ends up being something that can isolate them and set them apart from the rest of society. It is something that other people find difficult to deal with and may end up avoiding them which can end up compounding their psychological problems by adding in anxiety, loneliness, and depression to their already full stack of mental strain. This was powerfully put into words with a note in Arthur’s journal:

The worst part about mental illness is people expect you to act like you don’t.

Arthur Fleck – written in his journal (Joker 2019)

G. Those Stairs in Darkness

Arthur Fleck trudging up the long and darkened stairs - (Joker 2019)
Arthur Fleck trudging up the long and darkened stairs (Joker 2019)

Arthur Fleck trudging up and down those massive stairs back and forth from his home is a powerful and evocative symbol. The power from this shot is derived from the way the camera frames the shot from below the stairs and it does not show the actual base of the stairs, as if the shot was take in the middle of the it, which makes the stairs seem steep and to go on and on making you wonder about how long the stairs really are. The infinitude of the stairs makes it seem like it is a really long struggle and a lot of work to go through each and every day. The darker lighting and shadows help to accentuate that daily struggle by making it seem tight, enclosed, isolated, and lonely.

The steep and seemingly infinite stairs symbolizes the very real struggle that those who have mental illness have just to attempt to live every day while trying to fit in. It also symbolizes the enormous issues that many can face in getting the therapy or medications they need, especially in a society which has such a stigma towards mental illness and where those with mental illness may find it very difficult to have a steady job in order to have healthcare because of their mental illness – a vicious Catch 22 cycle. Everyday is a struggle just to maintain control. Everyday is a struggle just to try to get the help and assistance they need. Every day is a struggle to be seen as person and not as a disease. Every day is a struggle to feel like they belong and and not a burden or a “fleck” on society.

H. Arthur’s Dancing

As Arthur Fleck, his dancing was slow, restrained, and methodical, as if he was holding back, feeling oppressed, scared and unwilling to allow his real self, his unrestrained and free self, to be seen not even when dancing alone.

His dancing is symbolic of hiding one’s true self from a cruel and uncaring world, showing that they feel alone, thrown away, and isolated because of their illness or socioeconomic status, and because they fear judgement, pity, and spurning, feeling like they cannot be seen for who they are because they have a mental disorder.

Those despairing feelings do not go away when at home or when they are alone because such struggles are pervasive and visceral to one’s everyday existence and view of the world.

I. Gate at Wayne Manor

The gate itself represents the distinct separation between the rich and elite from the mentally ill and the poor and downtrodden. That scene also shows the callousness of the rich and their servants through the government and their various agencies which act as a their proxy and enforcers to cast the downtrodden and impoverished aside because they have no power or no ability to be heard.

J. The Rain

After having returned from the hospital and finding out the supposed truth about his mother’s illness and his abusive childhood he is walking through the rain which is symbolic of a baptism, of great change, that the old Arthur was gone and that a new one was about to be written.

K. Tabula Rasa

Once Arthur has embraced his Joker personae due to the foundation of his identity having been completely shattered through:

  • the loss of work
  • being discarded as a baby (adopted)
  • Thomas Wayne not his father
  • his father figure Murray Franklin mocking him
  • the death of mom

… all that is left is the clown, the Joker, the only part of him where he receives recognition (real or delusional). We see him Tabula Rasa, a blank slate, a pure white painted face with his new personae and identity ready to be written upon it.

L. The Clown Masks

You will notice that you will not start to see the masks and vigilante headlines until after Arthur shoots the 3 Wall Street Thugs. Now, this might just seem to make sense from a narrative sense because he may have just murdered 3 people and the people seemed to have taken this on as a symbol of their growing frustration with the corrupt establishment. But, the appearance of this is a really a two-fold symbol – of his growing confidence and of his mental walls breaking down. The masks show that he is coloring what is actually happening with his delusions so there is a mix of reality with delusional hues and forms added. It is enforcing his desire to be seen and noticed upon the narrative of his existence.

When talking to his mother before killing her Arthur states:

The laugh is not a condition. It is the real me.
I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I know it is a comedy.

Arthur Fleck to his mother (Joker 2019)

Then when the officers are chasing him following seeing him on the stairs as he is celebrating his evolution into Joker they chase him to the subway where there are people wearing the clown masks. There is some neat symbolism and meaning here with the masks and his clown makeup during that chase.

Check the section above on Arthur Being a Clown for what the clown face and the clown mask symbolize more fully – hiding the mental illness, isolation, pain and while trying to seem normal, like everything is as right as rain, etc.

Also keep in mind that the police and the public seem incapable of distinguishing the difference between a mask and makeup. We see this also with the initial reports of the shooting which said there was a mask. The only potential witness was a lady who fled once the 3 Wall Street hooligans started to focus on Arthur because of his uncontrollable laughter. She was close enough to tell he had clown makeup on and she did look directly at him. Why is there this seeming confusion? Because thematically a mask and clown makeup are functionally the same – a way to hide sadness, depression, mental illness and suffering. Although, I would say thematically in this movie that those who have masks represents those who are suffering less severely than those who are wearing makeup, because makeup is harder to remove and seems conforms closer to who they are.

Now, when the officers chase him onto the train while he is in his full Joker ensemble we see lots of people there with clown masks on which represents the likewise repressed masses who are hiding their mental problems. Now the police are telling them the pull their masks up even though he most assuredly is NOT wearing one. The police did not care about the people’s issues or want to know their problems (what was below their masks) until they were looking for someone like them. The people were just a sea of nameless faces that they (the government and the system) did not care about. The Joker takes a mask to blend in and then, when he is free, he takes off the mask and his makeup is still there symbolizing that the Joker was really who Arthur was now – he has fully embraced and become the illness, his face and mask have become one and the same.

M. Those Stairs in the Light

Once he was freed from being Arthur and had fully embraced his identity of the Joker they shot this scene from the side and in broad daylight which makes the stairs seem shorter, wider, more open, more free, and easily doable. Going down stairs is significantly easier than going up them. The Joker was facing us, smiling, and freely and fluidly dancing his way down which also symbolizes his descent into madness through his release from the struggle of trying to be normal or to even attempting to deal with his illness.

Arthur Fleck's Descent into Madness (Joker 2019)
Arthur Fleck’s Descent into Madness (Joker 2019)

Then he was chased by police showing that those who fully embrace their illness are finally taken seriously because they are then a threat, but are not even seen as worth helping or dealing with until that moment arrives. This makes it even more poignant if you think that the only reason why so much effort was given to find him was because they 3 thugs he killed on the train were white Wall Street thugs who worked for a large corporation – Wayne Industries – ie – he challenged the affluent and their power.

Would so much effort have been put into this search if it was 3 people who are were not rich and powerful? Would the search and urgency have been the same if his victims were 3 impoverished people of color? Would it have even really made the news especially in such a crime ridden city as Gotham where deaths happen all too often?

N. The Joker’s Dancing

Once he takes on the personae of the Joker as his identity since the rest of his potential identity markers have been torn down, then his dancing is confident, free, fluid, and perhaps even a bit exuberant!

O. Race

I noticed the use of race in the movie which is very specific, I think, but I am not completely sure what to make of it.

Pretty much all of the direct antagonists are white. Perhaps this is pointing to white supremacy (lowercase ‘s’ on supremacy) where all of the people who are in positions of power and can choose to make a difference or to abuse their power are white.

The people of color in the movie are not really antagonistic, or if they are, it is really mild. This may reflect how Arthur feels a kinship to people of color who are similarly downtrodden and abused through rampant racism, abuse, and poverty from those same white people in power, but yet is still rejected by them because of his illness.

His social worker, Debra – a black woman, tells Arthur something important to this topic after telling him that this is the last time they will be meeting because the funding for this program was cut:

They don’t care about people like you.
They don’t care about people like me.

Debra Kane (Social Worker) told Arthur Fleck this.

This quote pulls these 2 demographics together (people of color and those with disabilities) by stating the reality of it – there is a significant bias against them in government and society.

The kids who who attack Arthur in the beginning are a mixed race group – African American and Hispanic which may symbolize that we are all affected by and lash out against each other because of poverty, income inequality, crime, and mental illness. Perhaps, it also points to people who have mental illness are avoided and attacked by people of all colors. We are all victims and we are all part of the problem.

People of Color:

  • kids who attack Arthur
  • mother on the bus in the beginning
  • Sophie, the faux girlfriend
  • both social workers
  • clerk at hospital or asylum

Here is an interesting post on this topic:

VI. The Mixed Reality of the Unreliable Narrator


I was going to go through a list of scenes that were most likely delusions, but this would end up being an Inception level of delusions within delusions sort of a thing. From one perspective there are scenes that are clearly delusions like the scenes where Arthur is dating his neighbor, Sophie. Things get even muddier when you really start looking for clues to delineate between what scenes are reality and which scenes are not. As a clue, most likely any scene where he:

  • is fitting in
  • is related to well, is smiling
  • or there are clown masks most likely a delusion.

This link below and it’s comments help to bring that to life:

Below are some potential examples to get you thinking about the possibilities of this matryoshka doll delusion rabbit hole:

A. Home Life with His Mother

How about the scenes with his mother? Was she actually there? I definitely think she was. Was she actually nice? From her hospital file it seemed like she might NOT be a nice person because she was a partner to his childhood abuse. Because we are so close our family and home situations sometimes it can be hard to tell or to even consider that the people we are closest too are suffering, have a mental illness, or are abusing us because that is just the way they are and always have been. Also, we should also keep in mind that in these scenes he was smiling and his mother related to him well which are typically cues that his delusions are present, although family can be different.

His mother did not seem to acknowledge his illnesses and Arthur seemed to not notice her illnesses either and he was devastated when he found out. Perhaps the scene where she says something like “Don’t you have to be funny in order to be a comedian?” is showing where that powerful wall between lifelong delusion (hiding her abuse and the existence of her mental disorders) and reality was momentarily breaking through, seeping through the veil of denial. Perhaps, once the proof of his lifelong abuse shattered and his delusions not only of her niceness and their relationship, but also his parentage and the tenuous shreds of his societal belonging to which depended on her being his loving and accepting mother, he finally snapped and then killed her. The potential that his home life was one of lifelong abuse makes Arthur’s story even more tragic and despairing.

B. Rioters with Clown Masks

The riots actually had nothing to do with him because they were all about the sanitation strike that was happening which seemed to have caused an infestation of super rats. Thomas Wayne running for office was about the strike and had nothing to do with clowns or Arthur’s triple murder. His delusions added that flavor to the newscast because he wanted to be noticed by someone as powerful as Thomas Wayne. Then you add in his mother saying that he was Thomas Wayne’s son… delusion connects to delusion… the rabbit hole gets deeper. =O

C. Social Worker and Arkham Hospital

His social worker at the beginning and the end look the similar and neither is really listening to him – adjusted by delusion? During Arthur’s first meeting with the social worker in the beginning there is a fleeting vision of him beating his head while in white room in Arkham Hospital. The movie also ends with Arthur talking to a social worker in a white room in Arkham Hospital.

Check the clocks: 11:11? You see clocks with this time when Arthur is first talking to his social worker and in the flashback to his time in Arkham. Did he ever leave? This ends up with the potential realization that almost all of the movie could be a delusional dream that he is telling his social worker, having never left Arkham Hospital, so it could all mostly be a lie or it could be a heavily delusioned retelling of what happened from his maddened perspective too.

We just do not have any idea where we can really start drawing lines between reality and delusion which is an amazing part of this movie.

D. Tying into the Batman Movie Franchise

The scene which shows the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents is cinematographically similar to what we have seen in the many batman movies. Their anonymous murder nicely ties it all together. Who really created the Batman? Arthur Fleck? Who really created the Joker? Thomas Wayne? Or was it the other way around?


In case you cannot tell by virtue of the number of words I have put into this post and the amount of research done, I really loved the movie. It was perhaps one of the best movies of the year and definitely one of the best batman movies ever with the Dark Knight with Heath Ledger being right there next to it. I am expecting that Joaquin Phoenix will be nominated if not outright win an Oscar for his performance.

This amazing movie is a powerful indictment of capitalism, unrestrained capitalism, monetary systems, inequality, class differences, a culture of isolation and competition, and as well as how those with mental illnesses are treated in our very broken society in America, and it puts it all front and center for everyone to see.

Although, perhaps the most important result of this movie is the conversations that it has spawned to discuss its symbolism and messages, as well as causing us to reflect upon the complete dysfunction our our modern and classist world, bringing forto the front Humanity’s Terminal Disease – The Disease of Separation.

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 Joker (The Killing Joke, 1988)

Do I think they should create a sequel? No. This movie is too amazing and special in such a way that a sequel would completely diminish and ruin its importance and its messages.

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1 thought on “Themes, Messages, and Symbolism from the Movie “Joker”

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