WARNING: The following contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker.
Revealed to be someone with repressed memories following an abusive childhood, Arthur Fleck's downward spiral takes him from failed comedian jotting bad jokes down to a murderer, having killed three Wall Street bankers working for Wayne Industries and talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro).
However, while much of the film points to his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), as the tipping point for Arthur becoming the Joker and committing these fouls acts, upon closer inspection it's really toxic masculinity that creates this version of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Arthur is a meek and introverted person, seeking approval in his comedy career. However, he isn't that good, working as a clown on the street and at kids' hospitals to earn money to take care of Penny. Arthur is just trying to get by and do right by his mom. It doesn't help, though, that his life is filled with encounters with toxic men.
It starts with a teen gang who steal his work sign and beat him up in an alley, a boss without compassion, clients who treat him like dirt and colleagues who don't respect him. The common denominator is they're all male, resorting to foul language and violence to assert power over Arthur, who's far from aggressive and often comes off as effeminate.
The men that really send him over the edge, however, come midway through the film, with Arthur being assaulted by Wayne employees on a train after they harass a woman. Arthur's pummelled by them for laughing (a neurological condition from which he suffers) and in a fit of desperation, he pulls a pistol and kills the trio. The act -- which is in no way condonable -- is retaliation for bullying.
Thomas Wayne is another toxic male, one who comes from a place of privilege. He punches the comedian for inquiring about whether or not he's Arthur's father. Thomas curses him on the way out, reminding him he's beneath the elite -- another case of a man who resorts to his fists instead of conversation. And this is something Arthur constantly rails about: Gotham's lack of civility, something Phillips makes clear comes from these overly hostile men. Then there's the fact Arthur was abused by Penny's ex-boyfriend, tied to a radiator and beaten to the point that he suffered brain damage as a child. You can see how it all influenced Joker's creation.
By the time he murders a sick Penny in the hospital, Arthur's taking out his frustrations on her and relieving the pressure heaped on him by all these angry, testosterone-driven men.
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In the final act, when Murray airs a stand-up session that went bad for Arthur, then invites him on his show to berate and make fun of him, it's even worse as this is another form of bullying from a man the public trusts and worships. Celebrities behaving like this can influences others watching them, and Murray also comes off like a bully as he pokes and prods, belittling Arthur's hopes and dreams in the most condescending manner.
By this point in the film, Arthur's anger boils over after a lifetime of dealing with toxic masculinity, and he fully embraces his Joker persona. With his life clearly more comedy than tragedy, the comedian lashes out at the men who bully and bash their way to success by killing the host on air with a couple gunshots: Arthur's punchline.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham.