Editor’s preface: Suicide Squad, Joker, and Birds of Prey broke the mold of superhero films. A new vision of the Joker is at their heart, powerful because it says something about America’s heart. This is part one of Joker & Harley – a partnership made in hell.
Harley Quinn and Joker,
a partnership made in hell – part 1
Consider Harley Quinn as a protagonist in her own right, rather than as a side character – as she is in most comics and films, including the film Suicide Squad. (2016, box office $747 million). Before one can understand Harley, one must understand the Joker. He is not only her partner-in-crime and her corrupter, he is culturally the other side of the same coin.
The Joker has evolved drastically from his early cartoon origins. The portrayal of him in the film Joker is so unorthodox it became un-canon. Few understand this new vision of the Joker.
At first glance, this Joker bears little resemblance to Harley Quinn. That assessment is accurate, but also wrong. The next two articles will explore that concept and explain why. The next chapter will delve into Harley’s character, combining both her and Joker to show how these stories evolved and what they represent.
Making a Joker
Arthur Fleck is a lonely man on the fringes of society. Gotham is a tough and heartless world that he barely scrapes by in. He can hold down a job assisted by heavy medication and therapy. But that isn’t enough. Gotham is cruel to people like Fleck. The people who should be his friends make fun of him for no reason except to be cruel.
Authorities who should help people like Fleck choose not to. Thomas Wayne, the “Mitt Romney” of the movie, considers himself the savior of Gotham. But he is clueless. He contemptuously refers to the underclass of the city as “clowns” (almost certainly a tongue-in-cheek reference to Romney’s “47%” remark), sparking a series of protests which get increasingly violent as the movie progresses. While Wayne is a billionaire out of touch with the rest of the city, he’s not a bad person. Like any good film, Joker establishes this without clunky exposition. He defends his son and bravely tries to protect his family when attacked by a gunman.
Talk show host Murray Franklin is Wayne’s opposite. Wayne’s attempt to reform the city is snobby and incompetent, but at least he tries. Murray bullies and abuses people like Fleck on his show for ratings. He is the most depraved and evil public figure in the film. Murray does nothing to make Gotham a better place. He does the opposite. His show is vapid and awful. It contributes nothing of value and only encourages people to be cruel to each other.
Murray might be the biggest reason so many reviewers in media outlets across the nation resent Joker so much. Maybe they look at Murray and see themselves. Perhaps journalists who make a living by humiliating people – because of old tweets and tasteless Halloween costumes from college – are offended by Joker portraying them as heartless bastards who relish any opportunity to destroy a random person’s life.
Despite his harsh existence, Arthur Fleck is a good person. He selflessly cares for his invalid mother, who is no longer able to do even basic things unaided, like bath. The film, with excellent craftsmanship, goes far to show that Fleck is not racist. Fleck is violently beaten by a group of minority youth. Not only does he express no resentment toward their race, but also none to the youth themselves. He is just sad that yet another group of people abused him for no reason. Also, four of the key figures in his narrative are black women – including his counselor and the girl next door he crushes. Perhaps most importantly, the first people he kills are white, show that his violence is not racially motivated. The audience can see Fleck has no repulsive prejudices without the need for clunky exposition.
The film’s first murders hit the audience like a wrecking ball. Fleck sees a group of drunk white-collar Wayne Enterprise employees bullying and sexually harassing a young woman on the subway (not all criminals are low-income street thugs). These are the Brock Turners of the world. They know they can engage in bad and abusive behavior against other people with impunity. Fleck gets scared and upset, giving himself a fit of involuntary laughter. The drunks see a more vulnerable victim and turn their attention on him. Then he kills them.
The most compelling aspect of Fleck’s first killing is that it is justified. Fleck is defending himself. But he enjoys it. A powerless man experiences power for the first time and loves it. The initial killings were legally and ethically right. But they did not satisfy Fleck. So he chases down the last fleeing man and shoots him in the back. This is based on a real incident in which a white man killed four black men on a subway he claimed were trying to mug him: Bernard Goetz, NYC, 1984. As with Fleck’s killing, the four men probably were trying to mug Goetz, but evidence suggested that Goetz acted for more than just self-defense. Like Fleck, he fled rather than call the police.
Things grow worse for Fleck. Cuts in social programs deprive Fleck of his crucial medications. He discovers that his adoptive mother is a lying, abusive psychopath. Everything she told him was a lie. Murray invited Fleck to his show just to make fun of him. His relationship with the girl next door was imaginary. What’s particularly poignant about his delusional love affair is that it is not sexual. Fleck just longs for a companion who supports and validates him, but he can’t even have that.
Predictably, he kills increasingly often. The police start to notice him, but they are as incompetent as the rest of Gotham’s government. While chasing Fleck through a subway train full of people traveling to the protests, a policeman kills a random bystander. The crowd becomes enraged and beats the policemen. The protests sweep through the city and become more violent.
Fleck accidentally becomes a leader. He plans to commit suicide on Murray’s show but decides it’s more fun to kill Murray. Like the other deaths throughout the film, Murray brought his demise on himself. Murray is like Robespierre, killed by that he created. Murray made himself immensely wealthy by humiliating vulnerable people on the air, then gets publicly guillotined on his own show.
On his way to jail, a group of rioters ambushes the policemen escorting Fleck and ceremonially lay him on the hood of the car. He stands up to thunderous cheers of thousands of people who revere him for what he did. For the first time in his life, he’s happy. A man who was lonely and miserable his whole life is a hero. People love him. At that moment, Fleck becomes the Joker.
Fleck becomes a sociopathic Robin Hood. There’s no divisiveness in his message of anarchy. That makes him far more powerful than real-life gangs who use race as at least part of their identity. The Joker brings people together with a stronger glue. Those who feel angry and isolated are welcome to join him. Throngs of Gothamites from all walks of life cheer him as he dances on the destroyed police cruiser. They are not white, black, or Hispanic – just people. Angry people. Gotham’s decaying culture divides its citizens; the Joker unites them. That is his most powerful weapon.
The entire city becomes a war zone. The Waynes flee from the violence but murdered by a criminal. The gunman isn’t an elite hitman, just a street thug who saw an opportunity to kill. The richest family in Gotham becomes random victims of a bloody riot.
That lesson is just as poignant as Murray’s death. America’s elites are often dismissive, even contemptuous of their underclass. They push for incredibly destructive policies. America’s oligarchs believe that the problems of the underclass will never affect them. So far they have been right. The National Guard protected them from race riots in the 1960s. They hired mercenaries to protect them and their property after Hurricane Katrina.
But when a society destroys itself, even the rich are not safe. The aristocrats were executed in the French Revolution. The Mexican cartels are so powerful they can kidnap and kill almost anyone with impunity, even government officials and generals. The rich have protection, but they are vulnerable to social decay. The 1% eagerly work to reinvent America as a third world hellhole, but it might not be as nice for them as they appear to believe.
A new vision of the Batman saga.
This is a calculated subversion of the traditional Batman narrative. In past comics and movies, a scuffle with Batman created the Joker. In Joker the opposite happens. The Joker does not quite create Batman. The same social decay created both. Unrest created the Joker, a madman trying to upend society. It also created a vigilante who ignores all but his own rules. He interrogates criminals by dangling them off buildings. A threat is no good unless the victims know he’s willing to do it. Is Batman as squeamish about killing people as he claims?
In the past, the Joker was a cartoonish villain who was silly and make-believe. Now he’s not only realistic, but has historical precedents.
Timothy McVeigh was a socially isolated but brilliant man radicalized by a combination of mental instability and political agitation. His origin as a villain is not that different from Fleck’s. As the Waco siege unfolded, McVeigh watched the Federal government murder a group of people who were just like him – and then gloat about it on national television. If the government was willing to murder a whole community of people once, they would do it again. McVeigh saw a society that hated him and wanted him dead. So he did what to his unstable mind seemed like logic: he decided to kill them first. But unlike most unstable people, McVeigh was a skilled soldier who successfully executed the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He almost flawlessly executed the worst domestic terror attack in American history. He would have killed even more people but a large portion of his explosives failed to detonate.
Many feminists call Joker a movie for “incels.” That is foolish since Joker is one of the most financially successful superhero films ever made. However, they’re not entirely wrong. Many incels enjoyed the movie. Incels are people with borderline personality disorders and extreme anxiety who struggle to function in an increasingly cruel society. Despite media hysteria, few admire the Joker. But anyone, incel or otherwise, should be able to at least empathize with the psychological turmoil and isolation Fleck suffers.
Mostly liberal movie reviewers, particularly liberal women, were incapable of feeling sad about Fleck in the opening act of Joker. Many expressed confusion about this pathetic man and believed he should be mocked – ironically validating the point of the movie without any awareness of it. Such people should ponder their comparison of Fleck to incels. Mainstream media condemn incels, a few saying incels should be imprisoned or even killed. Like McVeigh, would an “Incel Joker” be entirely unjustified in believing that American society is his enemy?
There have been many mass shootings in recent years, but none had an explicitly political message. Their targets were not unpopular government or social groups. The shooters were incompetent. They were not trained soldiers like McVeigh. They were not creative like Fleck. So their attacks are seen as repulsive, and rightly so.
What would happen if a brilliant, competent sociopath arose? What if he targeted a public institution like McVeigh did, except now public institutions (with the exception of the military) are far more unpopular than they were in McVeigh’s time? Would he be condemned? Certainly. The global news media would condemn him. But they condemned Trump, and he was elected anyway (albeit losing the popular vote). The news media no longer influences public opinion as it once did. So the public might form a different opinion.
This also happened during the wave of anarchist terror attacks that swept across the Western World in the early 20th Century. It is not only possible but likely that some of the public would admire a real Joker. Would admiration turn to violence? Wait and see.
Although dark, Joker gives a glimmer of hope. The problems that could make this real are fixable. Even some empathy might be enough. Perhaps Americans who abuse and mock vulnerable people will see how they’re contributing to America’s decay.
Return next Saturday for part 2 in this series:
Is Harley Quinn a Mary Sue?
For more about the dark side of the DC universe
See the films!
- Batman Begins.
- Man of Steel. Locke Peterseim’s review – A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
- Justice League. My review: Justice League is the film we need, not the one we deserve.
- Joker. My review: Joker is a film of our time, but not the film we need.
See posts on the FM website
- The philosophy of the Joker.
- The philosophy of Batman.
- My review: “Birds of Prey” crashes, burning brightly but boringly.
- Ian’s commentary: A fun tour of Harley Quinn’s Gotham.
- Joker & Harley, a partnership made in hell – by Ian – Part I of a series about Harley.
- Is Harley Quinn a Mary Sue? – Part II.
About the author
See Ian Michael’s bio. See his other articles on the FM website …
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- The Atheist Conservative shows why secular conservatism continues to be an irrelevant and impotent force in American politics.
- Alita, the Battle Angel, fights her feminist critics.
- Plato and Diogenes warn us about hubris – Here is a fun short story, historical fiction about one of the clashes between two of the larger-than-life people of the ancient world.
- A fun tour of Harley Quinn’s Gotham.
- Military science fiction about our future: Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus.
For More Information
Ideas! For some holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
- Our choice of heroes reveals much about America – It’s gotten worse since I wrote this in 2013.
- We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
- Our biggest films reveal dark truths about us.
- Hollywood’s Hero Deficit – both a cause and symptom of our weakness.
- The sad reason we love superheroes, and the cure.
Best films in the DC universe