Over the past 15 years, we’ve seen a colossal surge in superhero movies, both in popularity and sheer numbers. However, very few have tickled the imagination and disturbed the repetitiveness of the genre, like Todd Phillips’ 2019 hit, ‘Joker.’
The movie is completely different from what you’re used to seeing in superhero/villain films, but the ending makes everything more complex and ambiguous. So, what does it all mean? Who is Arthur Fleck, in the end? It’s time to find out.
What is ‘Joker’ about?
Set in Gotham City, the story of ‘Joker’ is seemingly a version of the backstory for the infamous Clown Prince of Crime. The main character’s name is Arthur Fleck, an unsuccessful citizen of Gotham City with an untreated mental illness.
Arthur has a terribly hard life. He has to take care of his sick mother single-handedly while failing to be a street clown and a stand-up comedian. His mental illness causes Arthur to have manic episodes of laughter at inappropriate times, too.
He obviously needed help – especially with his mental illness that led him deeper and deeper into the abyss – but instead of that, society just discarded Fleck, even mocked him. You see, this talk show host, Murray Franklin, was Arthur’s favorite celebrity.
One day, Arthur found himself on Murray’s show due to a clip of his failed stand-up show attempt going viral. Murray was mocking Arthur and his viewers, making Fleck feel even worse.
Eventually, Arthur is driven completely out of his mind, turning to a life of crime and shooting Murray in the face on live TV. His monologue about society’s horrible treatment of those who need help – especially the mentally ill – and the eventual shooting sparked a riot in Gotham City with Arthur – who prompted Murray to call him the Joker – serving as somewhat of an icon.
Overall, the movie speaks more about social issues and societal treatment of the mentally ill instead of just portraying a simple origin story of a malevolent crime figure in Gotham City, the Joker we are used to seeing. It’s a movie dabbing into deeper societal issues while also not giving you direct answers to many of them.
You’ll see Arthur show kindness in one moment but then explode over nothing in the other. It’s not that he is villainous – his mind is heavily chaotic due to his illness, and no one is ready to help. But did things actually happen the way we saw them in the film? What does that ending mean?
‘Joker’ ending explained
So, we’re having Arthur appear on Murray’s show after killing his mother and coworker, sparing the other’s life. He’s wearing pretty creepy clown makeup and asks to be introduced as the Joker. He calls out Murray for making fun of him. Not just Murray but the entire society as he proceeds to take out a loaded gun and kill Murray on live TV.
As he does, riots with people wearing Joker masks explode all over the city, with Arthur sort of becoming an icon. One of them sees the Wayne family and corners them in an alley before pulling a gun and killing Thomas and Martha in front of their son, Bruce. This would mean that the Joker indirectly created the Batman – his future arch-nemesis.
However, the final scene takes us to Arkham Asylum, where we see Arthur Fleck talking to a psychiatrist as a patient, telling him the story of how he became the Joker. The next thing we know, Arthur is laughing maniacally, going down the asylum hallway while leaving bloody footprints behind, making us think he either hurt or killed the psychiatrist.
We never get a clear answer about the meaning of all of this – and that is the point of that final scene. It’s purposefully left ambiguous for you to think and decide what was real and what was just a figment of Fleck’s imagination – an elaborate lie he told to the physician just to get a kick out of it. He is the Clown Prince of Crime, after all.
Or is he?
Is Arthur Fleck really the Joker at all?
Bear with me here because this is something I’ve been pondering on for quite a while now. It’s the way I’ve seen and interpreted the film, which could be totally different from what Phillips actually wanted to say, but that’s the whole point of the ending being ambiguous, am I right?
What if Arthur Fleck isn’t the Joker at all? What if he was just another patient at Arkham Asylum who was completely delusional, putting himself in the role of the martyr in this story? Perhaps only parts of the story were true – like him taking care of his ill, abusive mother being bullied and ridiculed by everyone before just… snapping.
And then, once in the hospital, he concocted this story around himself being the Joker – the actual Clown Prince of Crime – and that the whole Wayne family incident had absolutely nothing to do with Arthur Fleck.
The way I see it, there are three possible explanations, or theories, if you will, about the ending of the Joker.
One, everything we saw happened as we saw it, from the subway murders to the shooting on live TV, and the scene from Arkham Asylum happened somewhere in the near future once Arthur was caught. After that, he just retells everything to the psychiatrist before hurting or killing him as well.
Two, this is the actual origin story of the Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime, and how society pushed him to become the monster he became. That subsequently led to the riots in which Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered, prompting Bruce Wayne to become Batman.
Or, three, none of this was actually real. Or, at the very least, it had nothing to do with Arthur Fleck. He simply fabricated a story entirely, using bits of real-life facts to do so – like the subway murders, the city riots, etc. Arthur simply taunts the psychiatrist, distracting him before going in for the kill.
Luckily for us, we will learn exactly what all of this meant, what was real, and what was not when the sequel titled ‘Joker: Folie a Deux’ comes out in 2024. The movie will star Joaquin Phoneix as Arthur Fleck once again, whereas Lady Gaga will portray Harley Quinn.
As you know, Dr. Harleen Quinzel and the Joker canonically met in Arkham Asylum, where Fleck was Harleen’s patient, so we’ll likely start right where the last film ended – with Arthur in the asylum after killing his psychiatrist – getting a new one in Dr. Quinzel.
Do you have another theory about the ending of ‘Joker’? We’d love to hear it! Drop it in the comments below.