The Joker: A Deep Dive

“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t…”

T.W: Mention of abuse, blood, and murder

Author: Madhumila Killamsetty
Artist: Zach Ng
Editor: Kavya Subramanian

The Joker is a popular DC supervillain who, according to some canonical versions, fell into a vat of chemical solutions that left him disfigured and ‘crazy’. However, in the 2019 film, Joker, we see a different origin story of this iconic character. The movie provides insight into what made Arthur Fleck, the Joker. It uses the context of his background — his mental illness, personality disorders, lack of resources, and the lack of empathy from the people around him — to show how Arthur Fleck transitioned into the Joker.

Our first glimpse of one of Arthur’s disorders is when he sits in his therapist’s office. He breaks into a burst of laughter that visibly pains him and almost chokes him. These outbursts of laughter are observed throughout the film creating an uncomfortable atmosphere as nobody around him seems to understand his struggle. He carries around a laminated card to let people know about his condition but is always met with scorn and disdain. His mannerisms gain unwanted attention from three drunk men in the subway who beat him to a pulp. This uncontrollable laughter is symptomatic of a real disorder called Pseudobulbar Affect (PBA).

In PBA, there is a disconnect between the frontal lobe of the brain (controls emotions) and the cerebellum (mediates reflexes) which causes sudden, uncontrollable, and intense episodes of laughter or crying due to the inability to control facial muscles. In Arthur’s case, this delicate connection was probably disrupted when his abusive foster father caused severe trauma to his head during his childhood. This disorder makes people feel alienated from society, often leading to anxiety and depression. This is exactly what we see with Arthur: His loneliness, negative thoughts, and constant need for love and acceptance explain his delusions about Murray, the talk show host, being his fatherly figure, or his neighbor being romantically interested in him. 

Throughout the film, Arthur yearns for acceptance, for people to be proud of him and give him attention. He imagines being on the Murray Franklin show, receiving the audience’s appreciation for taking care of his mother, and receiving fatherly warmth and affection from Murray. This is a case of Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), in which people have an inflated sense of self and a deep need for attention and admiration. This stems from Arthur’s need to bury his feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth. NPD likely arose in Arthur as a psychological defense against his traumatic childhood where he was repeatedly abused and starved. It could have also been inherited since NPD is known to have a genetic component.

Things go downhill when Arthur kills two men on the subway in self-defense and the third one deliberately. This is the turning point in his life. He enjoys the sudden surge in attention from the masses for these actions. He finally feels seen, as if his existence has meaning. We see him imagining fake scenarios to validate his actions, like his “girlfriend” glorifying the person who killed the three men. During the climax, we witness Arthur’s extremely fragile ego when he reveals a “joke” to the talk show audience that he was the murderer of the three men on the train. When nobody finds this funny and he is met with hate and disapproval, he snaps and murders Murray, the host. People with NPD, genuinely struggle to make intimate connections with people and have a deep sense of loneliness and insecurity. Arthur coped with these issues by eliminating people who demeaned him.  With compassion, we need to encourage people with NPD to seek help to address feelings of low self-esteem, and shame, so that they do not yield to the harmful compensatory strategies that emerge from the disorder as Arthur did. 

Finally, Arthur is an extreme case of psychopathy. Psychopathy is not a mental illness; it is a collection of traits, including not feeling remorse and being callous and uncaring. Following the murder on the subway, Arthur locks himself in the bathroom and performs a slow dance which is the first sign of the ‘Joker’ in him emerging. He confides in his therapist that he never felt better. We never see him questioning his actions or feeling remorse, which further points to his underactive neocortex. He believed that they deserved it. He doesn’t think about what is morally or lawfully correct and demonstrates irritable and aggressive behavior. Even when his friends visit him, he brutally murders one of them for getting him fired from his job. With blood splattered all over him, he casually diverts the topic to his appearance on the Murray show. His iconic dance at the staircase is symbolic of him completely embracing his new identity, fully transitioning into the Joker. He mentions stopping his medications, implying that he has given up, intending to no longer fit in. With an eerie smile on his face, he whispers, “Isn’t it beautiful?”, as he watches his city burn.

Contrary to popular notions, most psychopaths are not criminals. They might use their psychopathic traits to get what they want at the expense of others in everyday life such as in the workplace. Some inherited genetic and environmental factors such as bad parenting and birth complications increase the risk of developing psychopathy. These factors influence the brain, in particular the amygdala which affects empathy, social responsiveness, and outcomes related to fear. Although we don’t know the Joker’s birth family history, environmental factors such as the torture in his childhood could make a case for Arthur’s psychopathy. 

Despite Arthur most likely developing his disorders because of childhood abuse and traumatic brain injury, his mental illnesses do not justify his violent tendencies. In the real world, people with disorders and mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. In the film, the Joker’s heinous crimes are depicted as consequences of a failed society. It provides us with potential results of pulling out funding from mental health institutes and mistreating people with mental disorders. Pop culture’s representation of mental illness is almost always associated with violence and the film Joker does not try to fix that. It was neither made to vindicate mentally ill people nor to educate society about mental illness. Rather, it was made to tell us a story about one man, Arthur Fleck, who became the Joker because of his choices, situations, and society.

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