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Arthur Fleck just wants people to smile more.

Let’s face it: The folks of Gotham could use a good smile. A garbage strike has spawned “giant rats.” Violence is on the rise. Social divisions have never been higher, it seems, and everything seems to be spinning out of control.

“Is it just me?” Arthur asks. “Or is it getting crazier out there?”

The question comes freighted with a certain level of irony. After all, Arthur is talking with his legally mandated counselor after a stint in an asylum. He takes seven kinds of psychiatric meds—none of which seem to help one of his most obvious conditions, in which he laughs wildly at the most inopportune times.

But his mother always told him to “smile and put on a happy face,” and so Arthur does. He literally paints one on every morning, entertaining children or spinning signs as a clown. He scribbles constantly in a journal, where jokes mix with his own dark thoughts and pasted-in pornographic pictures. (“I just hope my death makes more cents than my life,” reads one.) Some nights, he tries out his material in low-rent comedy clubs. Some nights he’s the only one laughing.

Still, Arthur keeps trying. He takes care of his invalid mother (who pins her own hopes on the beneficence of her former employer, Thomas Wayne). He reliably clocks into work every day and searches desperately for new human connection somewhere, anywhere: on the bus, on the street, in the apartment elevator.

Gotham does not care. Its machinery tears into the softer things until they’re annihilated or turn as hard and cold and ruthless as the city itself. Not all the rats in Gotham have tails.

One afternoon, street punks steal Arthur’s twirling sign and, when he pursues them, they smash it over his head and beat him senseless. When he shows up at work the next day, Arthur’s boss tells him that he’ll have to return the sign, or pay for it out of his own pocket.

And so it goes. Every day brings a new setback, a new slight, a reason to stop smiling. City budget cuts strip away away his counseling. His meds run out. He’s given a gun—a gun he can’t legally carry—and loses his job because of it.

Then, one dark night on a graffiti-covered subway car, Arthur watches as a trio of well-dressed, well-to-do stock brokers harass a young woman. And he begins to laugh.

He can’t help himself. The laughter shoots from him like water from a half-kinked hose, sounding sometimes like sobs. The brokers sidle up to him, pull him up and punch his still white-painted face. He lands hard on the subway floor and his assailants begin to kick.


Blood splashes against the subway car walls. Two brokers slump, dead. A third, shot in the leg, tries to make his escape. But the clown follows, gun pointed and cocked.

For most of his life, Arthur only wanted to make people laugh—to give them a sense of joy and release that he’d never known himself. But as the broker tries to scurry up the station stairs, leg bleeding, Arthur feels a different purpose burbling inside.

And he pulls the trigger again.

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