Of all the theories rattling around out there this would likely be one of those that a lot of people would decide to jump on and ride all the way to a new version of the Joker that they want and believe that, as fans, they deserve. It wouldn’t matter to a lot of folks that Joaquin Phoenix managed to snag an Oscar for the movie, all that would matter is that the clown prince of Gotham, the guy that’s given Batman so many impressive fights throughout their long and storied history, is not a weak, frail, mentally ill individual that leaves us wondering if the movie was all taking place inside his head or if it really happened. Zoe Rosensweig of Screenrant does a good job of covering a couple different angles by arguing for and against the theory, but as it happens a lot of people would willingly embrace the idea of Arthur Fleck not being the actual Joker, but perhaps a template for the eventual character to follow. There are a number of reasons why this would be a desired path for so many fans and it has to do with the origins of the character in a big way. Quite a few fans don’t want the Joker to have an orderly or even faintly ambiguous back story.
When The Dark Knight came out we were given three different reasons why Heath Ledger, as the Joker, bore the distinctive scars that were such a big part of his character. This left us wondering what was real about the Joker, what he was lying about, and whether there was any real story behind how he came to be the way he was. All that could be divined was that he was about as off the grid as a person could be while doing what he wanted within Gotham since he couldn’t be identified by fingerprints or anything he had on his person. It was like he dropped out of thin air to bedevil the city and the Batman. Jack Nicholson’s Joker had a back story that was faintly familiar from the comics since as a thug he was dropped into a vat of chemicals that ended up giving him his customary look and turned him psychotic. Jared Leto’s version was just a nutcase posing as a gangster that had some serious issues, and is still to this day the least respected Joker out of any of them.
One thing that anyone might feel the need to do is take a step back and realize that we’re arguing over a fictional character, meaning that the Joker’s story can be written, re-written, and then rebooted as anyone might see fit, as it has been a time or two in the past. The real argument as to whether Arthur Fleck is the “real” Joker is one that is kind of hard to make with a straight face since there have been a few Joker’s throughout the years, like it or not. But since we’re talking about the character that everyone knows the best, the most idealized version, let’s go with Zoe’s arguments that 1) Arthur is not good in a fight, even if he does have violent outbursts. If not for an element of surprise he really can’t defend himself or harm another person that easily unless they’re weaker than he is. 2) He doesn’t appear to be a mastermind in any way. The argument that people follow him is pretty weak since in the movie the people of Gotham are looking for something, anything, that will help them stand against the rich and the Joker just happens to be there at the right moment to strike back in whatever way possible. 3) Arthur’s mental illness is a serious detractor since it comes and goes as it will and leaves him doubled over in pain from laughing so much. Never have we seen the Joker, in the comics and other movies, with this type of condition.
The idea of Arthur being the ‘real’ Joker is kind of weak since it gives rise to the idea that although he could get tougher, he could possibly learn how to run a gang and become a mastermind of sorts, he still falls way too short of the actual character since the Joker from the comics was a guy that could outwit Batman on occasion and even come up with elaborate traps and mechanical devices that were insanely clever as well as deadly. Arthur’s lucky if he can walk down the street without getting his butt kicked and his issues are so plentiful that learning how to do much of anything would appear to be something of a chore for him. He’s a different take on a classic character, there’s no doubt about this, but unless a sequel comes along that shows a drastic change in his behavior, mentality, and character, a lot of people won’t be accepting him as the ‘real’ Joker for a long time.