At the time I am writing this, “Joker” is still out in theatres. After an initially very positive reception, its reviews got quite mixed: at the moment it has a 69% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and an even lower 59 on Metacritic. Audiences, however, seem to love it much more: with an 89% rotten tomatoes score and a revenue of 872 mln $ as of October 2019, the movie by Todd Phillips is set to be a definite box office success.
I loved it (if you want to know more, here is what I wrote after viewing it). I watched it twice, and it occurred to me that – although it describes the descent of a man into a destructive spiral – it still follows quite faithfully the Hero’s Journey classic formula.
“Joker” is probably THE most classic villain figure, but his origin story in Todd Phillips’ version has all the characteristics of a personal transformation and coming to a new life.
He is certainly not a hero. Depending on our point of view, he can be seen as a anti-hero (a protagonist who doesn’t possess traditional “positive” qualities of a hero), or directly as the villain of the story (still a protagonist, but definitely bent on a negative path of violence, destruction or, you know, villain stuff).
His role in the story shifts – and so Joker embodies also another important archetype: the Trickster. Never completely “good” or “bad”, funny and terrifying at the same time, sometimes we empathize with him, sometimes we want to distance ourselves from his actions. These are some of the reasons why this character has always been so powerful, and in particular in the 2019 cinematic version.
In this article I will have a closer look at the stages of the Hero’s Journey, breaking down the plot by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver. TL; DR: it works perfectly!
But before we go on – this will be a complete plot analysis, so you know, SPOILER ALERT. If you are offended by spoilers, stay away. You will not be entertained.
Act 1. The everyday life of a hell-bent clown. This part introduces Arthur and the other characters, and shows glimpses of their everyday life and struggles.
1 – The Ordinary World: the first sentence we hear is “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?“. This is how we learn about the first theme of the movie: mental illness. Arthur tries his best to hold on to sanity and reality. But the world is a brutal place. “Things are certainly tense“, as the social worker has to admit.
Next, we get a glimpse into Arthur Fleck’s everyday life. He is in front of the mirror, getting ready for a day of work as a rented clown. The radio broadcasts bleak news of violence and a “garbage crisis” that affects Gotham, foreshadowing some important events of the story and setting the general theme: 1981’s Gotham is a corrupt, divided and dirty place, where everybody fights an isolated struggle for their own survival.
Luckily, all this has nothing to do with our own times. Right? RIGHT?
Soon we also learn about Arthur’s “superpower”: a mental condition that makes him laugh uncontrollably at the most inappropriate times. It’s rather a curse than a gift, but this helps to understand that the character has since the beginning a strong and somewhat twisted connection to laughter and comedy. But for now, all he wants and is trying to do is to put a smile on people’s faces. Why is everybody so serious?
2 – The Call to Adventure (or Inciting Accident) happens right after. Arthur gets assaulted and robbed by a street gang, he loses his sign (he will have to pay for it) and gets a bad beating. From his resigned reaction, we may understand that this must not be an isolated case in the poor man’s life.
The robbery – characterized by motion: a chase, crossing busy streets, ends in an empty alley, as to symbolize the passage from one world to another – sets in motion the series of events that will transform the meek Arthur Fleck into the criminal mastermind Joker.
3 – Meeting the Mentor. It could be argued that Arthur desperately lacks guidance and support. However, in the initial part of the story he receives (partial) assistance by two characters: the unnamed social worker, who at least partially alleviates his suffering by giving him prescription drugs, and his brash and abusive colleague Randall, who gives him a gun “to defend himself”.
This dreaded and powerful object (think the magic ring in “The Lord of the Rings”, the lightsaber from “Star Wars”, and so on) will be instrumental in Arthur’s transformation later in the story. Also, it’s the perfect demonstration that putting guns in trusted hands will definitely reduce violence in society. Yes, right.
The story accelerates as, due to budget cuts, his therapy gets terminated, and Arthur loses his job (thanks to Randall’s ill advice to carry the gun to work: and a children’s cancer ward, of all places?). After he leaves his workplace for good, something interesting happens: bright sunlight shines on him as he opens the door to the street. This (symbolizing freedom, coming to a new life) will return two times during the story, in similarly important moments.
Act 2. It’s not easy to put a smile on that face. This describes the full metamorphosis of Arthur into Joker, from the first violent act to his complete transformation.
4 – The Crossing of the first threshold happens with the killing in the metro of the three rich boys. The action starts in a familiar way, with Arthur attracting unwanted attention (a dynamic victims of bullying are all too used to, and they learn to fear) and what seems to be yet another beating. But this time something snaps in him, the measure is full, and Arthur decides to use the gun. Initially it’s an act of self-defence, but as he discharges his weapon against his last helpless target we start to suspect there is also something more. Revenge, justice maybe – or is it the beginning of Arthur’s corruption, in a process very much like that of Gollum, Anakin Skywalker, Lucifer. The object of power starts to exert a dark influence on the protagonist.
This is clear as we witness the first signs of Arthur’s transformation: after the killings, he finds a new balance through a dance that reminds of burning fire, or flowing waves, and eventually he is ready to reveal his new self to the world for the first time. The Clown Prince of Crime is born.
5 – In the central part of Act 2 we also get to know better several characters that populate Arthur’s world (Friends and Foes). For example his neighbor Sophie, who will also act as a romantic interest, and has an important but somewhat linear role (more on it, later).
Arthur’s very complicated parental figures deserve a bit more analysis.
Penny, his Mother, undergoes a transformation. At the beginning of the movie we see her as a sick person, needing Arthur’s support. We also get to learn that Arthur honestly loves her and takes very seriously his duties as her only caretaker. During the course of the story however we learn that Penny is also a very damaged individual. The stories she told Arthur are revealed to be the result of her deluded imagination, and through her weakness and dysfunctional partners, she had a very negative impact on her son’s life, possibly even compromising his mental health. As Arthur gradually discovers all this, he dives deeper into his personal abyss as he watches what he believed a relationship of mutual love and care turn into one of parasitic abuse where he is the victim.
Arthur’s Father figures are even more problematic. Since he believes that Penny raised him as a single mother, he invests the famous tv host Murray Franklin with the role of his surrogate father. Arthur wants to become a comedian and Murray, and established member of the show business, embodies that aspiration to perfection.
This is established in the (imaginary) sequence in which Arthur, a member of the audience at the tv show, is invited on stage directly by Mr. Franklin, touched by his story and personality. The brief conversation that follows (“I would give anything to have a son like you, Arthur“) firmly consolidates the nature of the (imagined) relationship with the tv host. Arthur idolizes him and seeks from him personal and professional guidance.
Later, Arthur finds out that he could be the natural son of the business magnate Thomas Wayne. His mother strongly believes so. As the idea gains credibility in his mind, he starts to look at mister Wayne in a different way, taking an interest in his life and public figure. Wayne is a powerful businessman and a candidate to the upcoming elections, the man who could clean up Gotham (or so he promises). One small problem: he announces a hard line towards the mass of disenfranchised, the crowd Arthur identifies with. In a tv interview, Thomas Wayne judges them all very harshly, calling them “clowns”. This is another important element that is seeded at this point of the story and will become relevant later.
In conclusion, Arthur has two separate father figures and seeks a connection to both. Murray Franklin represents talent and professional success, but is hard to reach because of his celebrity status; Thomas Wayne represents work ethic, social power and status but is (even) harder to connect with, because he is very busy (and mega-rich: the class distance is another of the movie’s themes).
6 – The approach: the tension grows, and for Arthur the moment of the showdown is coming. Having lost his job, he has no other hope than trying his hand at his lifetime dream: stand-up comedy. As he walks home, day in day out, with very little support left for himself, he keeps working on his comedy material. “The worst part of having a mental illness“, he writes in his journal, “is people expect you to behave as you DON’T“. Smiley face.
This is supposed to be a “joke”, but it’s a truth so painful very few people would consider it “funny”, let alone laugh at it. Once again we realize that Arthur has a very personal (and dark) connection to comedy, he finds funny things that the vast majority of people don’t, and his attempt to become a famous comedian seems to be cast under a very negative light. The audience tends to empathize with the main character, and fears for him.
7 – The Dark Cave (Crisis): comes in the form of the gig at the Comedy Club. Arthur even invites Sophie out for a date, to watch his show. A generally terrible idea, as every comedian sooner or later has to discover personally. The show starts really bad, awkward silence following each of Arthur’s supposed punch lines, his own laughter bursting out of control, forcing him repeatedly to stop, ruining his performance beyond repair. But then the perception changes, he seems to recover brilliantly, people laugh. Sophie and Arthur move out to have a successful date after the show.
Or so it seems – this, as we learn later, is the moment when the connection with reality snaps, and Arthur starts to become dissociated. Also his account of facts becomes confused, from this moment on he is not anymore a reliable narrator. He is lost in the Dark Cave.
8 – As a consequence, from this moment on the story proceeds on two parallel paths. In Arthur’s mind, after a successful show he gets the well-deserved reward in the form of a successful and gratifying relationship with Sophie.
At the same time, his new identity (Joker, until this moment a secret buried deep in his mind) gains substance and becomes real. We get to see it when Arthur watches with pride the headlines on the newspapers, and in his last conversation with the social worker, when for the first time he appears self-confident and grounded, even though his treatment has stopped (or maybe because of it).
“I exist, and People are starting to notice“. He has become a symbol of the revolution for Gotham.
9 – Revelation: since the story has to take a dark turn, we expect this twist to be dramatic. And it is: a very painful series of traumatic events takes place.
First, Arthur tries to visit Thomas Wayne at his mansion, only to be “bounced” by a very muscular version of Alfred (and not before meeting the young Bruce Wayne, a creepy and disturbing sequence that probably sets the foundations for their great friendship to come). Here, he learns that there may be something strange behind Penny’s stories.
Second, when he is visiting his mother at the hospital, he sees Murray Franklin (his imaginary surrogate father) ridicule his comedy performance live on tv. People laugh, but it’s bullying, the definition of “punch down”, a very low blow for an established comedian. You can almost see Arthur’s heart shatter in front of your eyes.
And finally, when Arthur decides to meet Thomas Wayne in person, his (supposed) real father smashes all his dreams – together with his nose – revealing that he is NOT his father, he was indeed adopted, Penny Fleck suffered from a mental disorder and she was a patient in the infamous Arkham Asylum.
So, in a dramatically short time, Arthur’s connection to all his parental figures (real or imagined) is destroyed. Without healthcare, no family, unemployed, bullied: he really hits rock bottom.
This sets in motion the events of the Act 3: from darkness to light, or viceversa?
10- Arthur travels to the Asylum to find out the uncomfortable truth about his mother. He successfully steals her medical files and not only learns that she suffered from mental illness (obsession about Thomas Wayne, delusions, severe narcissism), but also that her former abusive boyfriend used to beat Arthur as a boy, causing him a head trauma that may be related to his present condition.
This is the final blow that sets in motion The Journey back. Arthur goes to the hospital for the last time, and in a terrible but liberating decision, he kills his mother. It is important to notice that the sun shines on him through the window, right after the act. It’s the second time it happens, and in this movie it’s a device that seems to represent freedom, warmth, and the promise of a new beginning.
Arthur goes home and… locks himself up in the fridge. This scene, apparently marginal and inconsequential, has been identified by some commenters as the possible “real ending” of the movie. Maybe Arthur just dies there, or he withdraws from society. The scene also has a strong symbolic value, like crossing another threshold, into the protection of a womb-like structure.
From this moment on, what we see could or could not be “real”. We could just be experiencing some of the hallucinations produced by the mind of Arthur / Joker.
11 – Death / Rebirth: Arthur is resting on his bed (after the fridge scene? strange), when he gets a phone call from the TV studio. His (unvoluntary) appearance on the Murray Franklin show was noticed by many, and they want him as a guest next week.
Big mistake. He gladly accepts. He has something in mind.
As the final version of “Joker” sees the light, green hair and white makeup, Arthur marks the metamorphosis in blood, brutally murdering Randall (one of his Mentors, and/or the Herald figure that set the whole story in motion for him).
It’s another moment with a strong symbolic value, as it’s meaningful that Joker kills Randall but spares Gary’s life – “you were always kind to me” – as he kisses his forehead. Joker shows his criminal ethic: he sides with the underdogs.
It is still possible at this point that Arthur is just planning to kill himself, to commit suicide in the most spectacular way, live on TV. As he walks out of the building (we don’t know what really happens during his last meeting with Sophie, and we prefer it this way) his posture is completely different from what it used to be. Straight, proud, confident and strong, this is the walk of somebody who survived hell, is free now, and he is back to tell the story.
The triumphant dance down the stairway (already iconic meme material) ends abruptly with the two GCPD detectives running after him,
in a perfect interpretation of The Magic Flight: he runs, they chase him, but Joker is able to hide among the angry mob in the metro, who on the other hand is not too happy to see two armed cops show up.
12 – The Resolution arrives in the form of the Murray Franklin TV show. Joker smokes nervously in the green room, when Murray and his studio producer appear,
in their function of gatekeepers, the final obstacle to pass for the Hero to fully claim his new life. Arthur somehow manages to convince them, and officially asks Murray to be introduced in the studio as “Joker”. The host agrees. The New Life begins.
The final threshold is once again represented visually by the studio curtain, with studio hands raising it as Joker makes his dancing entrance on the floor.
It is, as I said, possible that Arthur was just planning to commit suicide in the studio, a gesture he rehearsed a number of times at home. But the way the interview goes may convince him otherwise. The hypocrisy and indifference of Murray and everybody else in the studio may convince Arthur that there is no place for him in the world, but Joker? Totally another story.
The rest, as they say, is history (as Murray Franklin, who gets what he fucking deserves, has barely the chance to realize before his brains get sprayed on the studio walls).
Joker gets arrested, but as half Gotham burns in riots, an ambulance crashes into his police car, and he experiences his full Resurrection: the protagonist falls into the darkness, but he is born again in fire and light – just like the “Fallen Angel”, the archetype he represents.
In a juxtaposition that I found brilliant, the same night Thomas (and Martha) Wayne get
what they fucking deserve murdered on their way out from the cinema, and the young Bruce can do nothing but witness the scene. When Joker is born, so is Batman. Poison and Antidote, Madness and Reason: only, who is what?
13- The End (?) sees our protagonist locked up in the Arkham Asylum, again interviewed by a psychiatrist. This time, he learned his lesson: he doesn’t tell the joke that crosses his mind. “You wouldn’t get it“, he mutters to the confused doctor.
Then, he kills her. Or maybe not. Maybe what we see now is only a fantasy. Maybe the entire story was a hallucination, a comforting tale that Arthur’s made up to offer his disturbed mind some consolation.
What we see, however, is the protagonist running away along a corridor, with the sunlight (again! For the third time) shining in the distance, as to finally invite him to freedom and safety.
After all, That’s life, my, my!
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed it, and hopefully it has helped to put a smile on your face :)
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3 thoughts on ““Joker” (2019): the Hero’s Journey of a Fallen Angel in 13 stages, explained.”
Good piece. I was just writing about the Hero’s Journey and wanted to use an obvious example like Star Wars and a non-obvious one like Joker. I went looking for this because I’m leaning toward De Niro as being the mentor albeit it unintentionally. Just a thought and would welcome your opinion.
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thank you. I tend to agree, I placed him as one of Arthur’s father figures (together with Thomas Wayne) but I think he operates on multiple levels. He can be seen as a mentor; or as a threshold guardian as well (he guards the passage into the world of comedy and poses a test).
Anyway he is a dysfunctional character, and as Arthur gets to know him better, his function as a role model is shattered and the story precipitates until the tragic end.