The Joker's Mother

So I just saw Joker. And I have a theory. Here's a deep dive.

Obviously, spoilers below.

I mean, Batman's like an 80-year-old IP, but still.

Okay?

Okay. A major plot point in Joker is how Arthur's mother Penny says billionaire Thomas Wayne is Arthur's actual father but made her sign papers agreeing to cover everything up. Traveling to Arkham Asylum, Arthur reads a record of Penny's commitment and a diagnosis of delusions and narcissistic personality disorder.

The official story, then, which we also hear from Alfred Pennyworth and from Thomas himself, is that Penny worked for the Waynes but confabulated the whole affair as well as Arthur's parentage.

Penny wasn't lying.

Throughout the film Wayne is surrounded by fascist imagery, about as much as a contemporary audience will bear to see around a rich character -- always wearing black, targeted with a sign calling him a fascist, and of course he's a demagogue with contempt for ordinary people ("clowns") on an inexplicable rise to power. We even see him laughing along with other tuxedoed guests at a screening of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times -- Modern Times is of course a highly political, openly left-wing film where a clown character illustrates the plight of poor industrial workers.

This is maybe a bit tenuous on its own -- as I say, there's a limit to how much the contemporary US audience will tolerate a rich person being treated with anything but deference. But here's the other thing.

Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, had a secret first wife. Her name was Ida Dalser. He had a son by Dalser, Benito Albino Mussolini. The elder Mussolini quickly grew bored with Dalser and took up with Rachele Guidi.

So, he abandoned Dalser.

Upon becoming dictator of Italy he used his position to destroy records of his marriage and publicly held that his marriage to Guidi was his first.

He had Ida Dalser and their son Benito thrown in separate asylums, where they both died: Ida in 1937, Benito Albino Mussolini in 1942. Throughout the rest of their lives, Dalser and the young Benito maintained they were wife and son to the Duce. Ida Dalser also claimed the dictator had been funded by the British and French early in his political career -- and she was finally vindicated on this point a few years ago.

The parallel: Penny and Ida both discarded by powerful men on the rise who used their power to not just silence but annihilate these women, with sons from these unions similarly denied--as the film closes we see Arthur, now the Joker, in Arkham Asylum. If we take the Thomas Wayne-as-Mussolini reading to its conclusion we also see both died violently in situations of social chaos.

Now, is Todd Phillips inclined to put this deep a reference into a film about, let's be honest, a comic book villain? Ehhhh... But co-writer Scott Silver (8 Mile, The House of Yes) might well be.

Moreover, I hope this theory is true because it undermines Joker's, and comic books' in general, biggest problem: the axiom mentally ill = villain.

This is not a bold statement: a person might have hallucinations or delusions, might have narcissistic personality disorder or borderline personality, or any of a host of other mental health problems and still get taken advantage of or abused by someone else. A person might have any number of mental health problems and still tell the truth about their life.

We don't get a resolution to this question in the film. The closest we get is Arthur finding a black-and-white photo of his mother with a handwritten compliment from Thomas Wayne on the back. The audience is supposed to doubt without real proof--while at the same time taking in stride that the elements of Arthur's mental illness that disrupt his affect, hurt his ability to communicate and interact with others, magically wash away when he becomes the Joker.

In a certain sense this whole problem comes because the movie is strictly unnecessary: The Joker does not need an origin story because he's an expression of primal chaos (or, in the film's shorthand, he kills people). But if a screenwriter sets out to answer this question, they must formulate a world which makes the character plausible (or, better, necessary). 

And that world, one like our own where the rich pay lip-service to caring about the people who create their wealth while seeking new ways to exploit those people, the one where Arthur's punchline is to "get what you fucking deserve," is also the world where women are abused and abandoned, where people with mental health problems are dehumanized, and where as long as all of us are atomized, divided up by identity and codes of behavior which serve only the powerful, we will get riots and chaos and not the transformation of society we need.

#SFWApro

Edmund Schluessel

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