When Todd Phillips’ Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, it received a rapturous reception, winning the Golden Lion for Best Film. Now that it’s out in the U.S., the reviews have been a bit more mixed. The story of Some Bad Days in the life of Arthur Fleck, who might be mentally ill, and maybe becomes the Joker, is compelling, but not always coherent. I found myself rooting for Arthur at times, but I also found myself thinking of a very different superhero-adjacent story—one that also featured a mentally ill protagonist.
I’m speaking, of course, of The Tick.
Join me below for a spoilery discussion of Joker, The Tick, and the importance of therapy.
Todd Phillips’ Joker presents a very particular fantasy of misery porn turning into a revenge narrative. Arthur Fleck is down on his luck. He has a crappy job. He’s jumped twice in what seems to be about a two-day period, and gets fired from his job in between the attacks. While he appears to get away with murder, his already shaky life falls apart: he learns his mother has been lying to him and spends a few days thinking he’s the son of Thomas Wayne, only to be told that this is not true; he learns that he was abused as a child but has repressed the memories; he loses his access to state-sponsored therapy and medication; his mother has a stroke; he’s publicly humiliated by his hero, a talk show host named Murray Franklin.
Now this kind of abuse isn’t that far afield from other citizens of the superheroic world. Bruce Wayne loses his parents in a random act of violence that defines his adult life, and over the course of his stories he’s lost partners, surrogate children, and, often, any hope of a stable or happy life.
But one specific detail plays out in the background of this narrative: the film makes it clear that Fleck has been diagnosed with a medical condition, that he uses several medications to control it, and that he’s going to therapy each week. Early on in the film he hands a woman a card explaining that he has a neurological condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably whenever he feels stress. We see this uncontrollable laughter impact his life, as it gets him in trouble at work, undercuts his attempt at stand-up comedy, and leads directly to attack #2 when a bunch of finance bros decide to punish him for being a freak. However, the film only feints toward explaining his conditions, with a script that is purposely light on specifics. The neurological condition is never named, and while it’s apparent that Fleck lives with depression, we never learn if this is manic-depression (as it would been called in 1981), schizophrenia, or a panic disorder of some type. Similarly, it’s unclear whether his extreme skinniness is due to an eating disorder or a marker of poverty—the film draws his mental and physical health in broad strokes.
We go with Fleck to two therapy sessions. In the first, his therapist sits patiently through one of his laughing episodes, then asks if it helps that he comes in to talk. She asks if he’s been keeping up his journal, looks through it, and comments on a few of the jokes he’s written—ignoring the pictures of naked women he’s pasted into it. He asks her to up his meds, and she replies that he’s already on seven medications. He says that he just wants to stop feeling bad, but we don’t see her response to this.
From what we can see she’s doing her job well? She gives him space, checks in with him, and overlooks things that might seem off-putting. She doesn’t judge. The next time we see a session, she tells him she has bad news, but rather than allowing her to continue, he rants that she doesn’t actually listen to him, that she, like everyone else in Gotham, ignores him. Given that she opened their previous session by asking him if he found therapy helpful, this seems off base, but she doesn’t take offense, just lets him talk again. Then she breaks the news that their funding has been cut, and they won’t be meeting anymore. He asks, “Where am I supposed to get my medication?”—clearly prioritizing that over the sessions. She replies by telling him that the city doesn’t give a shit about people like him, or her. She very definitively throws her lot in with Arthur. She’s on his side, whether he can see that or not.
Later we see close ups of the bottles of meds, to see that he only has a few pills left. It’s after the meds run out that he learns the truth of his parentage, and starts acting more, like, well, like The Joker. He kills aggressively rather than defensively, and seems to take genuine joy in killing. He has a longstanding hallucination that seems to grow much stronger as the film goes on, before finally breaking in the final scenes.
Because of the revelation that his mother (probably) lied to him about his parentage, we have no idea how much to trust her. Since Fleck claims that she’s the one who first told him he had mental health issues, we have to doubt those, too. We never know exactly why he did a stint in Arkham. Was he violent? Did she have him committed for an illness he didn’t even have? Are his meds actually destabilizing his brain chemistry, rather than helping it? When Fleck finally accuses his mother of inventing his illness, she’s in no condition to dispute, and we no longer know what to believe. He then claims that he feels better since he went off his meds.
This is where the film breaks into a few different threads of possibility:
On the one hand, what we have is her word against the word of several very powerful men, and a medical report that was possible funded by those very powerful men. It’s entirely possible that she’s telling the truth about Arthur being Thomas’ son, and that everything from then on is Thomas crushing her so he doesn’t tarnish his rep.
On the other hand: She’s delusional, convinces herself she’s in a relationship with Thomas, adopts Arthur to try to force him to marry her, and then gaslights Arthur for his entire life, and his medications cause him to hallucinate and exhibit other symptoms of mental illness.
On the other other hand: She’s delusional, but Arthur does actually have neurological conditions, which are exacerbated by the abuse that her boyfriend inflicts on them. The meds and therapy are helping, and when they’re cut off his hallucinations worsen, his impulse control pretty much evaporates, and he tips over into full-blown mania and starts what will end up being a career as, and I cannot stress this enough, THE JOKER. Whatever waffling there is about his health in the first half of the film, we watch him gleefully kills multiple people in the second half.
I’m going with the third one, because as is revealed toward the end of the film, Arthur has spent several weeks experiencing the exact same delusion that his mom had. Where she became convinced that she and Thomas Wayne were in love, he becomes so obsessed with his neighbor that he hallucinates an entire relationship with her. He only realizes it hasn’t been real after he shows up in her apartment and she clearly has no idea what he’s talking about, and he seems to think back through their history together and realize her presence was a figment of his imagination.
Rather than dealing with what this revelation would do to him, the film cuts to him back in his own apartment. He might have killed her—for my money he probably killed her—but the audience isn’t shown her body, or her daughter’s, because presumably (god, hopefully) this would destroy the audience’s identification with him. It would force us to consider him in a harsher light, which would make it difficult to keep our sympathies through the final section of the film, when the script frames him as an avenging antihero. Given the spotlight on Murray Franklin’s show, Fleck ditches his stand-up routine to give an improbably eloquent speech lambasting society’s mistreatment of the mentally ill. He accuses Thomas Wayne and the rich directly, saying that they would step right over men like him, even if they were dying in the street, because they don’t care—echoing the earlier words of his therapist. Fleck ends with a call to arms: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fuckin’ deserve!” This speech leads to an all-out riot in Gotham, as the poor rise up against the rich, and take Fleck as their leader.
But after he’s murdered Murray Franklin and is stuck back in Arkham, we see him with a new therapist, who is also a Black woman. She is sympathetic. She certainly would have read his file, yet she’s sympathetic to him. She’s also meeting him in a room alone, with no guards of any kind. The film cuts to Arthur in the hallway alone, trailing bloody footprints, every sign pointing to him having murdered his new therapist.
In Joker we have a portrait of a mentally ill man who loses his support network, falls through society’s cracks, and becomes a gleeful murderer as opposed to a victim. The film frames his emotional distress as being the fault of one woman who fails to nurture him: His mother. This distress is then exacerbated by the lack of care exhibited by two different female therapists—two Black women who have chosen to go into social service professions—and the female neighbor (also a Black woman) with whom he hallucinates a relationship. We never know anything about the neighbor aside from her status as a single mom, who seems to have a warm and loving relationship with her daughter. This neighbor “fails” Fleck by not actually being the person he hallucinated. Confronted with Fleck in her apartment, she tries to get him to leave by mentioning her daughter—protecting her child from a bad man in a way that Fleck’s own mother could not.
We’re asked to empathize with him as he is kicked and beaten and abandoned by the government and lied to by his mother. The film very, very clearly frames his mania and at least two murders as triumphant revenge fantasies. These scenes are incredibly compelling, and I thought the strongest parts of the movie were when he truly became the Joker we’re all accustomed to, clad in a striking, off-kilter suit and committing acts of grotesquerie. From the moment he kills his mother, up until the point where he starts speechifying on Murray Franklin’s show, I was riveted, and I think there was a lot of fascinating stuff in this film.
There was another superhero story that told a tale of an openly, mentally ill hero, one with a real diagnosis on real meds. We were also asked to identify with him as he struggled. He was also named Arthur.
He was Arthur Everest, the hero of the latest version of The Tick.
The 2016 reboot of The Tick took the whimsical and goofy comics world Ben Edlund first created thirty years ago, and crashed into the much-grittier superhero world of today. The Terror, formerly a joke of a character, is reimagined as a true supervillain who really enjoys torturing and killing people. There’s an anti-hero Punisher parody who turns out to be a sexual abuse survivor. The Tick himself is an amnesiac who has an existential breakdown mid-way through Season One. All the updated characters were commited to emotional realism, but no one was brought more to Earth, and made more real, than Arthur.
Arthur has PTSD; when he was a little boy he watched helplessly as The Terror murdered his favorite superhero team, the Flag Five. But the Terror only murdered them after the FF crashed their plane right on top of Arthur’s father. And of course the cherry on top of this trauma was that after Arthur’s father and heroes were all dead or dying, The Terror walked right up to Arthur and stole his ice cream sundae.
This is, in the parlance of comics, One Bad Day.
But when we meet Adult Arthur, he’s a normal, non-superpowered person, and one of the few people who believes The Terror is still alive. In the time-honored tradition of fictional amateur detectives, he surveils a warehouse and gets in over his head—but then meets The Tick, and learns that he’s been right all along. He and The Tick form a partnership and work together to bring The Terror down.
But in the background of this slightly skewed heroic arc, we learn that Arthur also has some rather severe mental illnesses, and is still, understandably, dealing with the PTSD of his Bad Day. He’s gone through therapy, and he’s on two medications: Amisulpride (an anti-psychotic used to manage schizophrenia) and Celecoxib (a multi-use drug that can be prescribed as an anti-inflammatory for people with arthritis, but can also be used to treat depression and bipolar disorder).
But as he realizes he’s been right all these years, his success goes to his head. He becomes increasingly frustrated with his support group, and dramatically throws his medications in a trashcan at one point.
And on the one hand, we’re supposed to empathize with him. His conspiracy theory turns out to be right! the Terror is still alive! His overprotective sister should back off! His mom is too pushy! He probably doesn’t even need those meds!
No, his sister is checking in because she sees all the warning signs that he’s spiraling. His mom is calling about dinner because she wants both of her kids to come home on a regular basis, because she loves them and she wants to hear about their lives. And when Arthur has a scare, thinking the Tick has been a hallucination (because, as his sister points out, he’s dealt with hallucinations in the past) he has to confront the fact that he needs his support network.
Happily, The Tick isn’t a hallucination. But this startles Arthur into understanding that, no matter how strong he’s become, he shouldn’t try to go it alone. He isn’t going to be “cured” because he was right about The Terror. There is no “cure” for trauma. He may not need to keep taking medications (it’s implied in the second season that he’s stopped using them) but he does still need to check in with his support network, to make sure he has a firm grasp on reality, especially in a world overrun with superheroes and villains and somewhat sentient robots and terrifying government agencies. As his sister reminds him, there’s a drill he’s supposed to repeat: “Normal is what normal does: takes meds, returns calls, dresses appropriately for the weather.” In the world of The Tick, normal also includes donning a super suit and doing battle with evil—but you still have to return those calls.
Over both seasons, the show makes a point of introducing us to Arthur’s support system. When he goes to his stepfather’s birthday party, his stepdad reassures him, and invites him to open up about his mental “choppy surf.” His mother, meanwhile, has taken the extra step of inviting two of his therapists to the party. These therapists aren’t just blips in Arthur’s life—they are part of an extended network of people who have used their expertise to help him, and because of that Arthur’s mom has welcomed them into the family’s private sphere. These people are all working together toward the common goal of keeping Arthur healthy and stable, which in turn is what allows him to team up with The Tick and become a hero.
Now, compare that with Joker. The film gives us a really beautiful, to my mind, line about living with mental illness: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” But from behind the scenes there are comments like this one from Todd Phillips in the LA Times:
“Me and Scott and Joaquin, we never talked about what he has — I never wanted to say, ‘He’s a narcissist and this and that,’” Phillips said. “I didn’t want Joaquin as an actor to start researching that kind of thing. We just said, ‘He’s off.’ I don’t even know that he’s mentally ill. He’s just left-footed with the world.”
Those italics are mine, by the way. Screen Rant posits that Arthur Fleck’s incongruous laughter is caused by Pseudobulbar Affect, a condition that tends to set in after a person suffers a head injury. Once Arthur begins researching his mother, he learns that he was battered about the head by one of her boyfriends, so this could check out, but the film exaggerates the condition far beyond how it actually plays out for people. It also cherry-picks the condition by focusing on Arthur’s laughter, when he’d probably cry uncontrollably as well—but obviously it’s way cooler for the Joker to laugh when he doesn’t mean to, it’s just so much freakier than a man who can’t stop sobbing, right? The other option is that Arthur’s exhibiting the Emotional Disregulation that can result from bipolar, borderline personality disorder, PTSD—any of which could also fit Arthur’s behavior.
We also don’t get a good look at Arthur’s medications. We’re just told he’s on seven of them, which his therapist says in a tone of disbelief. As well she should. Joker is set in 1981, in “Gotham” in an alt-USA. New York is never mentioned, but Joker evokes 1970s New York so strongly it’s easy to assume that Gotham is operating pretty much like that city did in that decade. Now in 1981 (especially considering that he’s a dirt-poor patient who relies on Gotham’s public mental health system) Arthur would almost certainly be on “first generation” antipsychotics—medications which were developed in the 1950s. “Second-generation” medication didn’t start to roll out until the ’80s, so I think it’s safe to assume that Arthur, who has already been hospitalized, is not allowed to have a gun, and is very much In The System, would have a set regiment of those older meds.
Now a cocktail of seven different drugs from that first generation? Obviously they wouldn’t all be antipsychotics, but they’re still going to be quite strong, and have heavy side effects. Yet Arthur is able to get up each day and go to work, care for his mom, and work on his stand-up act with seemingly no hiccups. And again, if the film was trying to hint toward Arthur being somewhat superhuman, it would have been quite easy for someone to comment on how unusual his dosage was. The film does edge toward him being slightly supernatural, as he’s beaten up and hit by cars multiple times only to shake off his injuries, and later seems to have an eerie ability to evade the police even after committing multiple murders—but the movie doesn’t commit to that in the way that the Nolan/Ledger Joker commits to being, well, a chaos demon. Joker doesn’t want to commit to him having an identifiable diagnosis, or seven researchable prescriptions, so the illnesses can remain as Screen Rant says, “convenient plot devices.” It can continue to use his mental health as a nebulous stand-in for social ills.
And I understand why a filmmaker would want to keep this nebulous, to avoid getting bogged down in diagnoses and prescription cocktails—but when you want to use a mentally ill character as a symbol, without actually defining how he’s mentally ill, when you want to blame all of his problems on his equally mentally ill mother, when you cast one Black female therapist as a villain, and another as a punchline/victim, and then cast another Black woman as the object of stalking/probably murder—I don’t think you should then also get to have him stand up and have an extended soapbox scene lamenting the abuse of mentally ill people. I don’t think you should give your marginalized hero a rousing speech while you’re also vilifying the very people who are trying to act as a support network—people who are also marginalized. If you want us to cheer when he fights back against finance bros and rich, bullying talk show hosts, you don’t also get to make us laugh at the murder of a most likely poorly paid Black social worker. And given how much conversation this particular movie has kicked up, I thought it was only fair that I jump in and point out a superhero show that took its mentally ill character seriously, and allowed him to become a hero instead of a villain.