What's wrong with Arthur in Joker

A guest contribution by M.Sc. Psych. Christiane Attig 


There are two camps in the genre of superhero films: on the one hand there are the brightly colored, CGI-overloaded, humorous heroic stories like Guardians of the Galaxy or The Avengers, which are primarily based in the overshadowing Marvel Cinematic Universe. On the other hand, there are the darker, more psychological, more serious strips that are less about heroes equipped with superpowers, but rather focus on the personal stories and motivations of their protagonists. Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, James Mangold's Logan or M. Knight Shyamalan's Split can be put into the latter category, which now has another entry with Todd Phillips ‘Joker.

Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck, who lives with his mother Penny in an economically disadvantaged part of Gotham City - the city that Batman calls his home and that he repeatedly tries to cleanse of crime, violence and corruption. Batman doesn't even exist in Joker, however, because this film shows us how Arthur Fleck became the Joker: Batman's archenemy, who apparently kills people indiscriminately out of sheer joy and thereby spreads fear and chaos in Gotham.

The presentation of this development apparently has a certain explosiveness, because few films have been discussed more intensively in recent years in both the German and international feature sections and in the film podcast landscape. Critical voices accuse the script of lack of ideas and stigmatization of mentally ill people. Benevolent voices speak of a successful criticism of the capitalist system and a touching portrayal of the protagonist, which makes his development understandable. From the perspective of clinical psychology, Arthur Fleck's development to become a wild card is one thing above all: realistic. And maybe that is precisely why the development works like “kitchen psychology”. Attention: from here on there will be massive spoilers!

In the first scene of the film we see Arthur preparing for his job: he puts on make-up as a clown to hold up advertising signs in the streets of Gotham and thus encourage the city's residents to consume. At the same time, from the news running in the background, we learn that garbage is piling up in the streets of the city. The government saves in the wrong places, the rich are putting more and more money into their own pockets and the social gap is widening. But living on the poverty line is not Arthur's only problem: in addition to his neurological disorder, which causes tic-like involuntary and irrepressible laughter in stressful situations, he also suffers from depression (and possibly other disorders such as borderline personality disorder). When he learns from his therapist that the financial means for both his talk therapy and pharmacotherapy are being cut, he confesses to her that he is not only in bad shape, no: he has only negative thoughts. While he has had this relatively well under control so far, however, they begin to overwhelm him after he is forced to stop his psychotropic drugs and psychotherapy. The social rejection and bullying that he basically experiences (apart from his mother and one of his work colleagues) from everyone in his environment can no longer be cushioned and discharges in murderous fits of anger. His first victims are Wall Street yuppies bullying. A triple murder in the affect, which is intensified negatively: the perpetrators are dead, the pain is gone.

Later in the film, we learn from Arthur what causes his neurological disorder and psychological problems. One of his mother's previous partners abused Arthur when he was a child, inflicting a serious head injury in the process - a trauma that Arthur had pushed aside to the present day. In addition, his mother Penny was in the past because of her own mental disorders in Gotham's famous mental hospital, the Arkham Asylum; here a familial predisposition is indicated. But that's not all: For decades, Penny lied to him about his origins. Arthur, who already has attachment problems, ultimately feels betrayed by the only person he felt loved by. The downward spiral, which is already in full swing, is further fueled by this: suicidal tendencies and thoughts of revenge manifest themselves more and more and culminate in the murder of his idol in front of the cameras. A murder that is a single production. A murder that is instrumentalized as a political symbol. A murder for which Arthur receives positive reinforcement in the form of admiration and glorification. Arthur is dead, long live the joker.

What we see here for over two hours is a prototypical illustration of the vulnerability-stress model for the development of mental disorders. This states that for the development of such disorders, an innate or acquired vulnerability permanently reduces the stress-processing resources of the individual. If the individual later experiences acute stressors that exceed coping resources without protective resilience factors being present, the disorder will manifest itself. Arthur has been impaired from childhood: he comes from an economically insecure background, lives with a mentally impaired mother, experiences child abuse and thereby acquires a disability that excludes him socially. All of this is believed to have contributed to the development of depression. Thanks to psychotropic drugs and psychotherapy, however, he manages to lead a relatively orderly life. When these resources are lost, however, his stress-processing capacity decreases again. Psychological and physical violence, loneliness and anger can no longer be adequately processed and Arthur becomes a wild card.

Joker thus shows a comprehensible and psychologically plausible development of his protagonist, with which the viewer can empathize. Arthur is a victim of his circumstances: his social environment, his disability, the economic system, the government. All of this is an explanation, not an apology: responsibility for his actions always remains with Arthur. But not only the responsibility for getting there. The film also accuses Gotham as a whole, especially those who hold the strings of the capitalist city in their hands, like the Wayne family. And that ultimately serves the general narrative of Batman history: Gotham produces the Joker, the Joker and Batman are mutually dependent. They are two sides of the same coin.

"Madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push ”, said the Joker played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. It is quite conceivable that this Joker, which is characterized by a dissocial personality disorder, could be the logical continuation of the new Joker iteration embodied by Joaquin Phoenix. Some takes from Todd Phillips ‘film are even obvious homages to The Dark Knight. In this way, the genesis of the joker can be further developed across films and productions.

Perhaps Joker is too much of an explanation for some people. Perhaps some people prefer a mysterious joker. One of whom you don't even know why he acts the way he does. One who can be said to be simply “crazy”. But Joker shows through the traceability: Arthur was not born bad. The There is no such thing as evil. Everyone has the potential to do evil. And ultimately we are all responsible for ensuring that it is not evil that prevails, but solidarity, compassion and understanding, for one another and for ourselves.