Barbara Hughes-Moore, You Get What You Deserve: Joker and Criminal Justice
You Get What You Deserve: Joker and Criminal Justice
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
Joker is arguably one of fiction’s most enduring villains. As an enigmatic embodiment of chaos, his origins are murky and his methods nefarious. He cannot be bargained with, nor can his motivations be revealed or understood. He simply is. The comics have long maintained that his past is “multiple choice”, but Todd Phillips’ Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the eponymous Clown Prince of Crime, speculates as to the personal traumas and societal pressures that might have manufactured such a monster.
[Official poster: Joker: The Movie]
Given that the film tracks the development of a criminal mastermind, it’s unsurprising that Joker engages with questions of criminality, capacity and responsibility. The law and its representatives feature infrequently in the film, and though the titular character never enters a courtroom, it certainly feels as though someone, or something, is being put on trial. Joker, the villain formerly known as Arthur Fleck, is portrayed as the victim of a corrupt and broken system shaped by a pathological apathy towards the disenfranchised. Arthur is, of course, an unreliable narrator of the highest calibre; for all we know, the whole film is a tale woven to garner sympathy for the devil, or perhaps simply a hallucination in the head of a man who never left Arkham Asylum. The truth of it seems especially questionable given how many coincidences have to happen in order for the largely reactive Arthur to inadvertently become the figurehead of an uprising he did not start.
Either way, it’s ambiguous enough to lend myriad readings, and for them all to be valid. There appears to be enough evidence to suggest that most of the events presented in the film actually happen in-universe, because Gotham has long been portrayed as a crucible for extra-legal activity. The city that spawned Batman also manifested Joker and the legion(s) of doom that succeeded him, avatars of Gotham’s sin and decay. I’ve discussed elements of Gothic duality in the film over on my blog but here I examine Joker’s portrayal of law and its representatives before exploring the dichotomous Joker/Batman dynamic and concluding with an exploration of what appears to be the film’s mission statement, “you get what you deserve”.
“If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me”:
The Elusiveness of Law in Joker
“Law, like music or drama”, according to Jack Balkin and Sanford Levinson, “is best understood as performance–the acting out of texts rather than the texts themselves.” Though Joker is no legal drama, it engages with legal issues in ways which can be read as illuminating and critiquing our own criminal justice system and the social structures which shape, inform and uphold it. As Gotham is a Gothic-tinged amalgam of cities like New York and Los Angeles, the mean streets of Batman’s home turf can hold up a compelling mirror to our own society. It is enlightening to view Jokerthrough the lens of mimesis (show) and phantasia (tell), which are common concepts in both the realms of theatre and law. Mimesis relates to a story being played out before an audience’s eyes, something which occurs offstage in a legal trial, but which we are able to witness for ourselves in Joker. Instead, the courtroom setting operates primarily in relation to phantasia, a pure narrative related to an audience, which might point to the potential biases in Arthur’s narrative. Mimesis and phantasia are intermingled in Joker, largely because we are never sure whether we are watching events unfold in reality or to what extent they are exaggerated or fabricated. The joke that Arthur’s sure his Arkham psychiatrist “wouldn’t get” at the end of the film might just be the very story we’ve witnessed.
But if there is truth in it, then the film’s portrayal of law is rather bleak indeed. Justice is the dead god of Gotham; the Atlases who uphold its rotting pillars close their eyes to the suffering below. It is a nightmarish vision of a city putrefied by social decay; a garbage strike literalises the notion of Gotham as a cesspool of moral trash that institutional apathy has allowed to pile up until the streets are teeming. Our only representatives of the law are Detectives Burke (Shea Whigham) and Garrity (Bill Camp), flimsy cardboard cut-outs of the stock ‘80s cop whom Arthur evades with relative ease, and conservative mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), whose son Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) will one day grow up to be Batman. In contrast to altruistic portrayals of the character in past DC media, this version of Thomas scapegoats the poor for the sins of the privileged; describing the masked protestors as “cowards” for hiding their faces (ironic, given his son’s future crime-fighting persona), and views those who can’t make something of themselves as “clowns”. In contrast, Arkham clerk Carl (Brian Tyree Henry) observes that many who end up in the asylum “just got nowhere else to go”. In Joker, then, Thomas Wayne embodies the essential lie of the American Dream, in Gotham but also in our world: that capitalism only rewards its own. To make something of yourself, you have to already be somebody; to make money, you have to already possess it. Those with power have it because they are unwilling to share it. For so many, the American Dream is just that: a trick of the mind that vanishes upon waking, the insidious unreachability of which only serves to reinforce the schismatic status quo.
It’s no surprise, then, that a villain like Joker is forged by such a monstrous society. His first victims – the three Wall Street types who work for Wayne Investments – are arguably avatars of the system which has shaped, imprisoned and blamed people like Arthur for its own crimes. This first onscreen kill mirrors his last, that of Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who also benefits from (and cultivates) such a system. Arthur’s victims are not simply the privileged, however, but also those who have directly wronged him (in his eyes), namely his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and his co-worker Randall (Glenn Fleshler). Both arguably gaslight Arthur – Penny about his past and mental illness, Randall about the gun he gives him – and their deaths unlock the final restraints of Arthur’s repressed Joker persona. It’s difficult to assess capacity in relation to Arthur and his mental illness because the nature of it is so hazily-defined by the film (suggesting a number of prognoses including narcissistic personality disorder and dissociative identity disorder), but every time Arthur kills he confesses to feeling more like himself than ever before. And even if the defence of loss of self-control (which requires a provoking trigger) might be invoked, the film suggests that Arthur only gains control in his life when he commits acts of violence. The remorse shown by the defendant can have a mitigating effect at the sentencing stage, but Arthur shows the opposite in regard to his violent acts, stating that “I thought it was going to bother me, but it really hasn’t”. He appears flippant and unaffected by his killings when questioned about them on the Murray Franklin show, when he is finally given centre stage.
The story he presents (in this scene but also the film at large) functions in a similar way to Dr Jekyll’s full statement in regard to his crimes as Mr Hyde, and although Arthur is never literally taken to court in the film, his appearance on the Murray Franklin show can be viewed as a symbolic trial: its titular host sits in judgment as both judge and prosecution, Arthur testifies as to his actions and motivations as a defendant might, and the (literal and metatextual) audience act as the jury. Arthur confesses to killing the three Wayne Investments employees after they harassed him on the subway, but where the film seemed to present at least two of the three killings as self-defence (the third victim Arthur chased down and shot several times at point blank range), he does not invoke that as a justification for his actions. Instead, he describes his defense as follows: “I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.” Perhaps Arthur is posturing by explaining his motives so flippantly; or perhaps the reactive Arthur we witnessed earlier in the film was indeed a glossed-over version of the man who viewed the Wayne Investments employees as avatars of Gotham’s institutional wickedness that he felt compelled to destroy.
“I was just trying to make Bruce smile”: Joker‘s Avatars of Law and Disorder
When pushed to reveal his political ideology on air, Arthur denies having one: “I don’t believe in any of that. I don’t believe in anything”. Traditionally, the Joker’s modus operandi has been one of chaos, of revealing that our demons reside beneath a fragile façade of civility, which takes little effort to crack. If it’s chaos he wants, then this Joker craves to be the eye of the storm, but Arthur does not appear to want chaos for chaos’ sake, but rather as a means to live, to feel, and to be seen. When he shoots Murray Franklin live on air, and dances on the police car amidst the cheering throng at the film’s climax, he finally gets his wish. Cementing his infamy is the murder of the Waynes. Though not committed by Arthur himself, their murder is nevertheless painted as a knock-on effect of his actions, with a clown protestor echoing his twisted aphorism “you get what you deserve!”, before pulling the trigger. Violence begets violence, each brutal act knocking down the next domino, and the death of the Waynes in this film intertwines the origins of Joker and Batman, creatures of blood and darkness, even more than their (supposed) shared paternity does.
The near-mythic battle for Gotham’s soul finds its two sides personified by Joker and Batman, polar opposites (and more similar than they might want to admit). Their dynamic has captivated audiences since the adversaries first appeared in Batman #1 in 1940 and throughout their subsequent appearances in film, television and video games ever since. Their feud has endured for so long in no small part because of the philosophical conflict between them, representing the dichotomies of law and disorder, order and chaos, good and evil. Although Joker’s Bruce is too young to don the cowl or even form the moral code on which he later operates, the origins of their clash can be found in the film nonetheless. Bruce is handed everything Arthur has been denied on a silver platter; social divide manifested as a broken family unit. Arthur and Bruce both close out the film as orphans, and although Phoenix and Phillips have categorically stated that this version of Joker will never cross paths with the Caped Crusader, it’s still interesting to imagine future Joker/Batman confrontations having a family reunion slant to them – Arthur’s justification for trespassing on the Waynes’ property, “I was just trying to make Bruce smile”, pre-empts the colourfully novel crimes he will one day commit to get Batman’s attention.
The duality of their dynamic is reflective of a duality within Arthur himself. As I suggested in a blog post on the film, Arthur’s first name “evokes the warrior King of British legend,” while his surname, Fleck, “suggests smallness and insignificance. He is both a mythic monarch and a speck of dust – simultaneously monumental and minuscule.” In regard to his more colourful alter ego, Joker, the moniker is born out of shame and cruelty, as are most things in Arthur’s life. The clown-paint and colourful attire he wears as Joker echoes the costume of his rent-a-clown day job, regalia he was wearing when he killed the Wayne Investments employees on the subway. Though Arthur’s involvement in the crime initially remains unknown to all except his co-worker Randall (who supplied the gun) and some suspicious detectives, the image of the anonymous clown gunning down the wealthy elite is repurposed by the anti-Wayne protestors in the film. The image of Arthur as a clown-faced rebel against the oppressive upper classes is one he reclaims at the end of the film. As for the name Joker, it has a far more quotidian, but equally significant, origin. Murray Franklin broadcasts footage of Arthur’s disastrous stand-up set, saying “in a world where everybody thinks they can do my job, take a look at this joker”. When Arthur is subsequently invited on the show, seemingly for more humiliation at his expense, he asks to be introduced as Joker: “That’s what you called me on the show: a joker. Do you remember?” Murray, perhaps lying or perhaps not, claims that he doesn’t. The name may have been a throwaway put-down in Murray’s eyes, but to Arthur is becomes the fulcrum of his new identity.
In Joker, Arthur is framed rather overtly as a twisted mirror image of Bruce, and not just literally, as in their interaction from either side of the Wayne Manor gates (perhaps a portent of the prison bars which will separate them in the years to come). Both Batman and Joker seek extra-legal redress for perceived failings in Gotham’s legal system and are both motivated to do so by the traumas suffered in their pasts; in Joker, Arthur and Bruce are almost singularly defined by their traumas. The alter egos of both can each be read as a Jungian shadow self which “personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself”, and both resort to violence in order to further their respective causes. And both Joker and Batman require a metaphorical “death” of sorts to fully transform – Arthur, when he is recovered from the car crash that could have killed him, and Bruce, when his parents are killed in that alley. Whatever innocence they once possessed is destroyed by the final frame of the film. In Arthur’s place rises a vengeful devil, and in Bruce’s an avenging angel – less a living man than a ghost haunting the evil spirits out of Gotham. By suggesting that Arthur and Bruce might in fact be brothers deepens the dichotomy even more, lending a Biblical slant to their storied rivalry, not just the fratricidal Cain-and-Abel dynamic, but also Bruce as the Jesus-like messiah to Arthur’s (Clown) Prince of Hell, Joker as the fallen angel to Batman’s son of God. Thomas Wayne, sitting in judgment of his subjects, reads as the apathetic patriarch ruling over the Gomorrah-like Gotham, against whose rule Arthur/Lucifer rebels, and is cast out to reign over his own underworld.
Arthur appeals to the deific Thomas for “a little bit of common decency”, but Thomas is unmoved by Arthur’s pleas as a citizen and as a son, a kinship Thomas refutes. Arthur’s mother Penny is admittedly far from the most reliable narrator, and although her assertion that Thomas is “the only one who can save this city” seems ill-founded, her conviction in his being Arthur’s father rings true. It’s possible that their affair is a delusion of Penny’s, but to decry her as a liar outright seems more than a little cynical in in the #MeToo era. Even if Thomas is indeed unrelated to Arthur, his callousness is unforgivable and his lack of empathy inveterate. “You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me? To be somebody but themselves?” This is the question Arthur poses on Murray Franklin’s show. Thomas Wayne remarks that “Gotham has lost its way”, but the film demonstrates that he is both a contributing factor to the societal malaise and a manifestation of it. His carelessness towards the disenfranchised represents the dearth of empathy in Gotham and in our own world. In many ways, Thomas is Gotham: the rotting grandeur of an old money man raging at the rising tide of righteous discontent. Reframing Thomas not as a philanthropic defender of the defenseless but rather as a cruel, selfish guardian of the status quo who abuses his power is a chilling means of suggesting that there is no such thing as a good man – not in Arthur’s Gotham, at least.
I use the phrase “good man” specifically here, because Joker delves into patriarchal power structures and explorations of toxic masculinity without much focus on the women in its story. Arthur’s interactions with Murray, Thomas and Randall may be narratively unreliable, but they are still afforded space and time for meaningful interaction, a privilege that the women of Joker do not enjoy. Although Penny suffers from the same delusions and social pressures as Arthur, we are asked to sympathize with him and demonize her. Arthur’s romance with his neighbor Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) occurs entirely in his head. The name of his social worker Debra Kane (Sharon Washington) does not even in appear in the credits, and Martha Wayne (Carrie Louise Putrello) dies without even uttering a single line in the movie. Because Penny and Martha are the mothers of Gotham’s two major philosophical figureheads, the movie could have offered us a fascinating look at them as foils in the same way that it presents their sons in those roles, especially because one of DC Comics’ alternate timelines has Martha become the Joker after Bruce is the one killed in the alleyway. The film also stumbles in relation to race, with Marc Bernardin observing that “almost all of the avatars of the system failing around Arthur Fleck were represented by people of color: the youths who steal his sign, the mother on the bus, his social service rep, his neighbor”, stressing that “everything you see on screen is a choice… the choice of those actors in those roles says something about the world”.
“You get what you deserve”: Joker as Retributive Justice
Despite Arthur’s claim that he is not political (“I just want to make people laugh”), his ideology seeps out after he confesses his role in the subway murders live on air. He pitches his nihilistic manifesto on Murray’s show as follows: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get! You get what you f**king deserve!” This sentiment suggests, in my view, that Joker, as portrayed here, is an embodiment of retributive justice, doling out an amount of suffering proportionate to the crime committed. It’s a visceral sentiment, powerfully conveyed, that I feel acts as a mission statement of sorts for the film as a whole.
While the “trial” of Arthur Fleck begins with him as defendant and Murray as judge, their roles are swiftly reversed by the scene’s climax, in which Arthur concludes that Murray is the epitome of the privileged patriarchal society that has stigmatized and abandoned him, and bestows on him a sentence of death in retribution for Arthur’s pain. Murray had teased and humiliated Arthur some days before by broadcasting a clip of him bombing spectacularly onstage during his stand-up set, which means that killing Murray accords with Arthur’s personal code of dispatching those who he perceives to have wronged him. Murray, in Arthur’s eyes, got what he deserved.
The Waynes abused their power, Penny allowed an ex-boyfriend to abuse her son, the Wayne Investments employees humiliated and assaulted Arthur on the subway, Randall manipulated Arthur and gave a vulnerable person a weapon of destruction. Under Arthur’s personal code, they all got what they deserved, proportionate to their wrongdoing through Arthur’s lens. The only characters who arguably didn’t get what they deserved are Bruce and Arthur. Bruce is robbed of his family too young, and re-forges his entire life around that singular devastating moment. Arthur did not deserve to be abused and abandoned, but then he enacts a number of violent, horrible things for which he does deserve recrimination – but in his eyes, Arthur has paid for his suffering up front and in advance. It’s what makes him feel he has the right to judge others in return. But in the final frame, we see him walking down a corridor leaving footprints in the blood of who we assume is the Arkham social worker (April Grace) he was speaking to moments before. It’s perhaps the first truly innocent life taken in pursuit of his own brand of retributive justice; a person who absolutely did not deserve to die. It now seems that anyone who stands in Arthur’s way gets what they “deserve”.
Arthur’s own personal code therefore evolves into one that delineates between good and bad in a similarly arbitrary way to the very system against which he rages. For example, he spares his co-worker Gary because he was “the only one who was nice” to him, but the fate of his neighbor Sophie is left morbidly ambiguous in the film despite her blamelessness in Arthur’s suffering. To judge people by what they deserve is to assign them a place on a spectrum of morality, a morality controlled and defined by the powers that be: “all of you; the system that knows so much, you decide what’s right or wrong”, Arthur observes, suggesting that whoever controls the narrative at the upper echelons of power controls a society’s morals. Gotham’s law is already deeply retributive, widening the gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots”, punishing and condemning the disenfranchised (as Thomas does) for not making something of themselves. The birth of Joker is the natural progression of such a “justice” system; its failures made flesh. The law is so ineffective in meting out justice that vigilantes have to take up the baton, and Thomas Wayne’s son will spend most of his adult life righting the sins of his father and those of his ilk.
Despite the media ramping up so much fearful speculation about the film being an instruction manual for would-be mass shooters that police were posted at several screenings, Arthur Fleck is not an alt-right poster boy, an incel, or a white supremacist shooting up people in the name of ‘Murica. From a metatextual perspective, the film does not reward Arthur for his crimes, but neither does it fully condemn him either. His kills are sporadic but brutal, and none are glamourized – each death is distinctly unromantic, raw, and commendably non-gratuitous, even if the muddled scripting risks stigmatizing mental illness by dredging up misconceptions about its relationship with violence. Arthur dances after each murder, and the catharsis this brings has the effect of implicating you the audience in the emotions of his kills, rendering you a participant in/accessory to/voyeur of Arthur’s theatrical criminality. Joker director Todd Phillips described the film as a “call to compassion”, suggesting that Joker is a timely warning in our own fraught political climate, but framing Arthur’s descent as he does made me feel that the whole film (and its subsequent critical/commercial success) is its own “you get what you deserve” speech to the media. In a metatextual twist, where the film shows protestors adopting Arthur as their figurehead, real-life protestors across the globe have since used the image of the Joker from this film as a symbol of their fight against the oppressive powers that be, suggesting that Arthur’s power is not confined to the four corners of the screen he inhabits.
Like the narrator in Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Education for Leisure, Arthur too has “had enough being ignored”, so much so that he vows to “play God” and “kill something. Anything”. The poem’s narrator demonstrates a similar capacity for doing violent, disturbing things: flushing the goldfish down the toilet, squashing a fly with his thumb, and professing a desire to kill his cat. The chilling final stanza of the poem is where comparisons with Arthur come into sharp focus:
“There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.”
Those last four words in particular have always stayed with me. Not only does it suggest that the narrator is looking for larger prey than pets, it also demonstrates how close we are to people who are suffering unseen and unheard. Arthur was at your elbow, just as the poem’s narrator was – and nobody noticed. We walked past him “dying on the sidewalk” day in and day out and did nothing. Joker is a villain born out of societal apathy and fading empathy; the guilt for Arthur’s kills resides solely with himself, but the responsibility for what brought him to that particular precipice is scattered across Gotham. In my review of The Creature, Lucy Gough’s modern-day reimagining of Frankenstein, I argued that
“Monstrosity is a social phenomenon; it’s a word we use to label people whose actions are so repugnant that we as a society cannot condone. But monsters are the children of society – and… the responsibility for these monstrous acts are shared by us all. If society does not provide an opportunity for people to change, the vicious cycle repeats.” 
At its worst, Joker risks valorizing yet another alienated white man who expresses discontentment through violence. At its best, it is a pensive meditation on how responsibility for criminal actions is fragmented throughout society, from lacking mental health provisions to an “us vs. them” mentality propagated by malefactors who profit from conflict. Joker is the ultimate response to an unfeeling society, his advent assigning a karmic significance to the moral debt that Gotham has accrued. In other words, Gotham gets what it deserves. The easy response might be cynicism, defeatism, even nihilism; but in my view the response should be mercy, another thing lacking in Gotham, and especially in Arthur’s life. I’ll conclude with a story that has haunted me for some time, of a daughter who begged Napoleon Bonaparte to spare her father, General Lajolais, from the death penalty. Napoleon told her that the seriousness of her father’s crime meant he did not deserve mercy, to which the daughter replied, “If he deserved it, it would not be mercy”.
 Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing, in Intentions 185 (1891).
 Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, & Richard Starkings, Batman: The Killing Joke (2008).
 “Misery Made Me a Fiend”: The Gothic Monstrosity of Joker, The Law Lass, (Nov. 28, 2019),https://thelawlass.wordpress.com/2019/11/28/misery-made-me-a-fiend-the-gothic-monstrosity-of-joker/.
 Jack M. Balkin & Sanford Levinson, Law as Performance: Law, Music, and Other Performing Arts, 139 U. Penn. L. Rev. 1597 (1991).
 Richard Harbinger, Trial as Drama, 55 Judicature 122, 123 (1971).
 Harbinger, at 125.
 Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).
 The Law Lass (n3), id.
 C. G. Jung, The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, in IX, 1 The Collected Works 284-285 (Princeton, 1969).
 Marc Bernardin (@marcbernardin), Twitter (11:08 AM – 18 Oct 2019) (https://twitter.com/marcbernardin/status/1185226239889379329?lang=en.
 Harmeet Kaur, In protests around the world, one image stands out: The Joker, CNN (Nov. 3 2019) https://edition.cnn.com/2019/11/03/world/joker-global-protests-trnd/index.html.
 Carol Ann Duffy, Standing Female Nude 15 (1985).
 Barbara Hughes-Moore, Review: “The Creature,” Company of Sirens, Chapter Arts Centre, Get the Chance, (October 2, 2019), https://getthechance.wales/2019/10/02/review-the-creature-company-of-sirens-chapter-arts-centre-by-barbara-hughes-moore/.
 Louis Constant Wairy, Recollections of the Private Life of Napoleon, Volume 1 397 (Walter Clark trans., Saalfield, 1915).