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 …
- Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps.
- Pain and misery build discipline! Or so we’re told.
- 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.
Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see other posts about forecasts, about science fiction, and especially see these posts …
- 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
25 thoughts on “Joker & Harley, a partnership made in hell”
What is interesting is that Harley got her start in the cartoons, in the venerated “Batman the Animated Series” where she basically was just the Joker’s shapely moll. Her job was to look pretty but leave all the heavy lifting to Mr. J and his goons. Eventually she made the jump into the comics where her slow and steady transformation began, into the psychpath in the Suicide Squad and now Birds of Prey.
Her backstory is that she was a psychiatrist (Harleen Quinzell) at Arkham Asylum, where she feel in love with the Joker and eventually helped him escape, after which she became Harley Quinn.
Author here – I have to disagree with your assessment of Harley in the animated series. She is, as far as I can remember, always portrayed as competent and plays crucial roles in the Joker’s plans. He is definitely abusive toward her, but I don’t think it is accurate at all to say he doesnt value her skills.
It is also worth noting that the Joker views his thugs as disposable garbage that he uses as cannon fodder (knowing full well that they are going to die or get beat up by Batman and the police). He IS abusive toward Harley, but I dont recall any instance where he unnecessarily put her at risk… though in a few instances it is clear he WILL sacrifice her if that is necessary to preserve himself.
So she is a valuable partner to the Joker, but not an indisepnsible one
You have a point, as the series progressed Harley’s character did advance. There was an episode where she actually caught Batman, but earned the Joker’s ire because she did it the “wrong way” and he threw her out a window, nearly killing her in the process. Eventually she left Joker and teamed up with Poison Ivy.
Anyway, I was thinking more along the lines of the episode where she jumped out of a pie for him and he threw her out.
Western society, especially in N. America, has been piling up socially unstable people like flammable material for the past 40 years. It is only a matter of time before someone lights a match.
Example from Discover magagzine: “Meet the Physicist Predicting When Online Hate Will Turn to Real-World Violence” – The same principles that govern jostling molecules might also apply to groups of humans.
Discover is a fun source of articles about fringe science and pseudo-science. The authors don’t try to distinguish between them.
I agree. Removing the guard rails of society to maximize freedom and personal autonomy was fun, but ignores the fact that many borderline unstable and low-IQ people need those guardrails. But our shiny elites order our new society for their own benefit, with zero concern for the lower orders.
Incel is the new shaming term replacing nazi. A term to shame men into silence.
When did we require completion of biological function for validation?
Since when did we rely on women to judge a man’s self-worth?
“Since when did we rely on women to judge a man’s self-worth?”
You go to one of the great paradoxes of feminism: men don’t get to define (or even comment on) women’s proper nature, but women get to do so for men. I can’t imagine why this nonsense is taken seriously by men. Perhaps just more evidence of low T-levels.
I believe the reason many men put up with this is colloquially called “thirst”, AKA the fear of being an incel.
That makes sense face-to-face. Not so much in discussions in the public space, where feminists’ claims are mostly unopposed.
Not sure the film was selling Thomas Wayne as essentially decent. Even leaving aside his arrogance and contempt, the film suggested that Wayne could plausibly be Arthur Fleck’s biological father and that he used his influence to conceal his involvement and had Arthur’s mother forcefully committed so that her claims would never be believed. The fact that he tried to defend his official legitimate family in the heat of the moment doesn’t exactly redeem him or absolve his corruption.
Good point! But so much of that phase of the film was Fleck’s delusions – most notably, his love affair with the girl-next-door – who can say?
I can’t read the writers’ minds, but we can guess.
The film didnt present any credible evidence that Wayne is his father… his actions are consistent with a rich man who has a mentally unstable employee who is trying to seduce him (and possibly blackmail him)
Also note she was so abusive toward Fleck he required extensive therapy and drugs… and actually repressed his childhood memories so much, seeing the medical record surprised him just as much as anyone else.
She lied about so many things, she has little credibility for the claim that Wayne is his father.
I think the film suggests that Thomas Wayne and Penny Fleck had some kind of affiliation in the past, and that it was not entirely in Penny’s mind. The photograph of her signed by “TW.” Of course, maybe Penny just signed it to herself. Though the actor who played Wayne says he “played his scenes as though Penny and Thomas did indeed have an affair, leaving it a strong possibility that he is Arthur’s father.”
And then there’s Wayne’s attorneys being involved and making her sign non-disclosure papers of some kind. And how was a lower-class, unmarried, mentally unstable woman able to adopt a child in the 1950’s? I only saw the film once, but I vaguely remember a scene of Wayne’s lawyers being somehow involved in the adoption.
Yes, Penny has her own mental deterioration and did indeed neglect and abuse Arthur. However, was that entirely the result of some prior innate mental illness or the result of being discarded and “gaslighted” by some rich guy? The latter possibility does fit into the film’s theme of low status people being used and discarded.
Thomas Wayne may not be Arthur Fleck’s father, despite whatever affair. However, it is still possible he and his fixers decided to act preemptively and cover it up anyway, even if it wasn’t ultimately true. Better safe than sorry.
I always thought the film left this as a deliberately ambiguous and unresolved question. If the writer intended the audience to discern that there is no plausibility of Wayne being Arthur’s father and that it’s completely unfounded, then he failed miserably because it’s become a vexing question for audiences and critics alike.
I believe that at some level of detail it’s pointless to examine Joker, since the film is about mood and style more than logic.
“how was a lower-class, unmarried, mentally unstable woman able to adopt a child in the 1950’s?”
Why would a mother need to adopt her own baby?
“the result of being discarded and “gaslighted” by some rich guy?”
I know every little thing causes triggering or PTSD or breakdowns in our therapeutic age, but even so – that seems a bit much as a cause of mental illness (but might strongly affect someone already metally ill).
The media likes to claim that nondisclosure agreements are an admission of guilt. That is completely untrue.
An allegation, even if it isnt true, is severely damaging. You see this a lot with frivolous rape claims. A recent example was that basketball player who was sued by a hotel maid claiming he raped her. He paid her a large sum of money to shut up. Even being ACCUSED of rape was causing him to lose millions of dollars in sponsors.
Now look at Wayne’s case. As the owner, he’s the face of the company. Personal drama can cause the company to suffer. When Jeff Benzo’s divorce was announced, stocks plummeted.
So OF COURSE Wayne would want a nondisclosure agreement, even if the allegation wasnt true. He was a married man with a conservative reputation. A lurid story of him banging a maid at his mansion would cause him serious damage. Innocent or guilty, making her shut up was important.
She wouldn’t. Because under the “Thomas Wayne possible paternity” interpretation of the film, this “adoption” was not really an adoption but an elaborate legal fiction fabricated by Wayne’s lawyers to give him an alibi. “Of course I didn’t get her pregnant, because she never was pregnant because that’s not even her real child!”
Sorry, I tried to suggest that when I questioned if her commitment was “entirely the result of some prior innate mental illness” without any influence from Thomas Wayne’s actions. I didn’t mean to suggest her mental illness was solely the product of Wayne’s actions. I think it’s likely she did have prior psychological problems and the putative affair/dispute with Wayne exacerbated them.
True, but that applies to a lot of films, even ones without unreliable mentally ill narrators. As you pointed out above, “much of that phase of the film was Fleck’s delusions.” But what other events does that render uncertain? Was his bathroom confrontation with Wayne a hallucination? His visit to Arkham and his stealing and viewing of the medical records? Why not simply dismiss the whole plot of the film as a hallucination and conclude that Fleck was really strapped down at the asylum the whole time and never did anything? Just another version of “it was all a dream.”
If people are going to try to glean anything from the film, they will inevitably have to examine the events depicted. I think the film did make some attempt to clarify what things were delusional and which were real, like when it revealed how the relationship with Sophie was fake and it replayed all the scenes revealing Arthur was truly alone the whole time. Of course, that doesn’t settle the “unreliable narrator” factor for the rest of the plot. If the “unreliable/deluded narrator” makes examining a film pointless, it makes arguing about a film even more frustrating. People will make a thesis about said film, and when other people point to parts of the film they think contradict the thesis, they’re told those parts are delusions or hallucinations and can’t be relied upon. But then what about the scenes relied upon for the original thesis? Why aren’t they delusions too? And then it devolves from there.
Are you talking about the Kobe Bryant case from 2003? Not so recent, but his recent death did bring it up again.
Indeed, and that’s why the suggestion that Wayne and his agents may have used more ruthless methods to discredit Penny becomes plausible to viewers.
What you say is all true, but I don’t think the film was ever concerned with empathizing with beleaguered billionaires desperately trying to defend their sterling reputations and fend off spurious allegations from destitute mentally ill moochers.
“Perhaps Americans who abuse and mock vulnerable people will see how they’re contributing to America’s decay.”
The problem may go much deeper: As de Tocqurville stated in “Democracy in America,”
“When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any one of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he was born to no common destinies.
“The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes renders all the citizens less able to realize them: it circumscribes their powers on every side, which gives freer scope to their desires…They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way but they have opened the door to universal competition.”
It seems time to explore issues and linkages between equality, humiliation and sadism.
Thank you for posting that! Like so much of de Tocqueville’s writings, well worth pondering.
“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”
Major Nidal Hassan, Ft Hood, 13 dead, 31 injured. Also Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, Ft Hood, (the other Fort Hood shooting), 4/3/14 3 dead 12 injured, Michael Xavier Johnson, Army veteran, Dallas Texas, 7/7/16, 5 dead, 11 injured., Michael Wade Page, Army veteran, Sikh Temple, 8/5/12, 7 dead 3 injured, Aaron Alexis Washington Navy Yard 9/16/13, veteran, 12 dead, 8 injured, Army Sergeant Kenneth Junior French, Luigi’s shooting, Fayetteville, NC 8/6/93 4 dead 8 injured. I’m sure there’s more, but it’s hard to find a comprehensive list. of veteran mass shooters. There probably is one somewhere, I just don’t know where.
This guy hasn’t done his homework. What was different about McVeigh was that his crime wasn’t a needlessly complicated suicide. McVeigh would have done it again, and again. he was caught more by dumb luck than anything else. He had a poorly concealed handgun at a traffic stop. To quote a line from Apocalypse Now, “He’s worse than crazy, he’s evil.” They were looking for some guy with a towel on his head yelling Allahu Akbar.
I don’t now what incompetent means in the context this guy uses it. These guys mostly did what they set out to do. McVeigh had some bigger plans. I don’t know how far he would have gotten with those had he made a clean getaway.
Re: your list of veteran mass shooters.
“The shooters were incompetent.”
I believe that by this he meant that their crimes were “needlessly complicated suicides.”
I really look forward to the rest of these articles, this is the best analysis I have seen of this film.
On whether Thomas Wayne is Arthur’s father, I felt like the film kept it deliberately ambiguous.
And it was one of many ambiguities in the film. Is Arthur mentally ill on some biological/inherited level, or did abuse/gaslighting by his mother induce mental illness? Does he have enough insight to realize when he is doing evil, or is he so deluded that it he actually sees himself as morally irrepoachable? Are his “hallucinations” things he believes are happening, or just intense fantasies that he uses to cope with a complete lack of friends?
Even the “reveal” of his crush not even knowing his name ends with no real resolution. Does he harm her? Does he just walk out? Does he hallucinate a completely different scenario than what we see?
I saw a lot of this as seting up a “multiple choice” origin for the Joker, much like “The Killing Joke” did. I can easily see this Joker discovering Batman’s identity and claiming he is driven by being the “unchosen one” vs. Bruce Wayne’s privileged position—then laughing in Batman’s face after he tries to express sympathy. “Just kidding!”
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