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The Psychology of Joker

The Psychology of Joker 1

The Psychology of Joker

Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, provides the backdrop for the life of the famous Batman villain. The movie touches on key psychological themes that relate to Jung, Freud, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky.

Arthur has a problem; he sometimes loses control of himself, and bursts into fits of laughter. While working as a clown, he struggles to make a living. But he had dreams of becoming a comedian because he believes that his mission in life was to make others laugh, and to serve them. He lives with his mother, Penny, and takes care of her. She tells him that his father was Bruce Wayne’s father.

He is in disbelief when Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) tells him that his mother was delusional. He visits Arkham State Hospital and steals Penny’s file. They reveal that he was adopted, and that he and his mother were abused by her boyfriend. Penny tries to convince him that Thomas, being a wealthy and influential man, fabricated these documents. Arthur later kills his mother and goes on a dispassionate killing spree, murdering his co-worker, a group of yuppies from Wall Street who bullied him, and a late-night show host that he admired (Murray), who made fun of him on his show.

Arthur couldn’t understand why people were cruel, why his mother was the way she was, why his life turned out that way, and why no one seemed to care. His city was in chaos, with riots against social injustice, and austerity measures that saw his weekly therapy sessions stopped abruptly.  

Arthur discovers three important truths. One, is that the people on top don’t care about people at the bottom. Even though Thomas Wayne was admired by many people, so many others were left out, including Arthur. Two, he was conditioned to be good, but he wasn’t really, and neither was anyone else. And three, that he wasn’t crazy, that his uncontrollable laughs were a feature of his psyche, that he was laughing at the futility of life, and his absurd role in it.


What frustrated Arthur was that he genuinely tried to make people feel better. He tried to serve others, he tried to make kids laugh, and didn’t harm anyone. In return, he was mugged, beaten up, and bullied by others. Not only that, he was poor, and had a miserable life. He couldn’t understand why things were so unjust – why if a lawyer or a Wall Street trader was murdered, it was a catastrophe, but if he was killed, no one would care.

What was Arthur’s response to the tragedy of his situation? Nihilism.

Enter Zarathustra

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes three stages of humanity. The first is believing that there was an absolute order, that moral truths were objective, and that there was cosmic justice. This was the stage Arthur was in at the beginning of the story, when he was nice to others, and thought that his good behavior would lead to a good life.

The second stage involves the death of God. This is the destruction of all established orders, rules, and morals. This is when man sees no value in tradition and no truth in scripture. This is the stage Arthur finds himself in towards the end of the story. In fact, it is not only moral truth that is considered relative, but even what is funny becomes a matter of subjective taste.

While appearing as a guest at the Late-Night show, he admits to killing the yuppies on the train, but says that he thinks it was funny, to Murray’s surprise. Here, Arthur makes the point that it’s funny to him, and that’s all that mattered.

The final stage is known as the Superman, and it is marked by man’s struggle to overcome himself. It is when he creates his own values, and this depends, not on tradition or dogma, but on his own creativity.

The Joker is not a symbol of the Superman, but of the nihilist. In contrast to the Joker, Batman also goes through a tragedy, when his parents were killed in front him, while he was a child. He descends into despair and nihilism, but emerges as a hero, who has created his own values, and oversteps the bounds of the law to help his citizens. Batman recognizes the hypocrisy and corruption in the world, but his answer is to take the journey uphill, despite its impossibility. This is the cure offered by Camus in his depiction of the Sisyphus myth.

Indeed, this is the archetypal story, where man descends into hell or the belly of the whale, before re-emerging as the hero. Nietzsche’s Superman is not the same as the superheroes in comic books in some fundamental ways, but there are key similarities, and the voluntary confrontation of evil before the resurrection of the hero is one of them. The key difference is that Nietzsche abolishes the notion of good in the objective altogether, while it is maintained in comic books.


The Oedipal Complex by Freud and The Devouring Mother by Jung describes an eternal pathology, that was presented brilliantly in documentary form in Crumb, and through Joker with Arthur.

In Arthur’s case, he had a mother that never encouraged him to pursue a career in comedy. She once joked to him, in the form of a demeaning (and humorous) question, after he tried to make he case that his career in comedy would save them from their financial struggles, “How are you going to be a stand-up comedian when you’re not funny?”

The Oedipal or Devouring Mother archetype describes the situation of a mother who refuses to let her children escape her grasp. She will try to cut short their ambition, and will do everything she can, covertly and overtly, to keep them close to her. The son, if he does not oppose her, falls prey to this unwritten contract, where he will settle for a lesser version of himself, to appease his mother’s need for constant affection.

The Shadow

There are many moments during the movie where Arthur laughs, in an awkward way, and in comical moments. But he realizes that this is not because he is sick, it is because he has a trapped a part of himself as prisoner, and it is aching to get out. Nietzsche and others before him wrote about the existence of sub-personalities in the psyche, while Jung, who was greatly influenced by Nietzsche, wrote about the shadow.

The shadow is what is concealed, for social considerations. When you are told by your teachers and parents to behave well, you are subduing a part of yourself, and in some cases, refusing to acknowledge its existence. When done extremely, this causes psychic disturbances. The uncontrollable laugh can be explained as a manifestation of this conflict between the conscious self and the subconscious. The shadow reveals itself in ways that you are not aware of, and in the darkest of cases, a shadow that has been trapped for too long is finally given freedom. And this shadow will strike with fury and vengeance, as it did with Arthur.

Raskolnikov and Revolutions

The revolutions throughout the world are a reaction to same injustice that Arthur experienced. The political establishment in many countries have failed to provide its citizens with a decent life. This is not so much inequality, as it is about injustice. It is more about corrupt bureaucrats who advance their party’s interests, lobbyist’s interests, geostrategic interests, and personal interests above those of its own people.

We have seen political revolutions all over the world, some have been manifested in peaceful, democratic elections and referendums, against the political establishment, such as in the U.S and the U.K, while others have emerged in violent revolts against an authoritarian regimes such as in Egypt and Libya. But there are also revolutions against pseudo-democracies, kleptocracies, and political systems built on nepotism, such as in Lebanon.

The main problem in these countries is economic, but in each case, there is a different culprit. For example, in the U.S, it was the economic gap between middle America and the coastal states, California and New York, that have benefited from globalization.

In Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov reaches a state of nihilism, like Arthur, and murders an old woman, before his conscience haunts him after the act. The message of the novel is that the intellectual rationalization of “everything is permitted” will have to contend with the conscience of the individual, that recognize moral truths as truths, and not simply matters of opinion.

Most of the wars in the world in this century are economic and not military. And the individual’s war is with himself, to set the parameters of destruction that have come as a result of cynicism and nihilism.

2 replies on “The Psychology of Joker”

There are no nihilistic aspects in Arthur fleck. At no point does AF operate on nihilism. Similarly you haven’t read wikipedia’s definition of the shadow.

>shadow aspect/archetype” may refer to (1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. In short, the shadow is the unknown side.

No, I haven’t read the Wikipedia definition, but have summarized 10+ books on the shadow, that you can find on this website. Fleck didn’t identify with malevolence, that’s why he was good, and is in line with your wikipedia definition (1).

As for nihilism,I don’t think any character could represent nihilism better than the Joker…

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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