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Thomas Wayne is a good man.
~ Penny Fleck about Thomas Wayne.
I mean, don't you have to be funny to be a comedian?
~ Penny to her son, Arthur.
Penny Fleck is the deuteragonist of the 2019 psychological thriller film Joker, the first installment of the DC Black film series.
Penny Fleck is the adoptive mother of Arthur Fleck, a mentally unstable failed comedian whose lack of success and respect triggers his transformation into the Joker. Much like her son, Penny is a mentally ill woman who was responsible for letting her former boyfriend abuse Arthur in his childhood and was temporarily sent to the Arkham State Hospital for her claims of having an affair with Thomas Wayne.
Penny Fleck was born around 1927. When Penny was younger, she worked as a housekeeper for Thomas Wayne and developed an obsessive crush on him; however, she could not pursue the relationship, either because she was already in a relationship with her abusive boyfriend or because Thomas was already in a relationship with Martha and/or was not the least bit interested. This caused her to adopt Arthur Fleck and take him in as her son, but she was sent to Arkham Mental State Hospital because of her mental instability and her inability to save Arthur from abuse in the hands of her boyfriend.
Arthur, as a result of the constant abuse and trauma he had endured, grew up to forget that Penny was apart of this abuse and this resulted in him growing up with her. She began writing letters to Thomas Wayne to get his attention, believing that she once had a relationship with the man. Arthur soon finds out her letters, causing her to explain to him about her supposed relations with Thomas, stating that he is a good man.
After Arthur investigates the truth about her claims after being told off from Alfred Pennyworth and assaulted by Thomas Wayne, he finds out that what she said was not true, and that the letters were feigned. Fed up with lies, Arthur meets her in the hospital after she suffers from a stroke. Having found legal documents from Arkham who reveals that she is not his real mother, that she is insane and that she even is responsible for his uncontrollable laughter by letting her boyfriend abuse him as a child, Arthur kills her while in the custody of the medical hospital by smothering her with a pillow, making Penny pay for all those years of abuse and lies. However, given her role in Arthur's descent into complete insanity, there's one certain thing about Penny Fleck: she is partially responsible for making her son to become the monster he is now.
Penny is not mentally well as a person as she possibly has schizophrenic and narcissistic tendencies hinted in the film. She delusionally believes that Thomas Wayne will respond to her letters and help her and Arthur. She is shown to be neglectful as she didn't save Arthur as a child from his abuse, it's unknown why she didn't but it's presumed she was abused by her boyfriend as well, causing or contributing to her mental problems.
While Penny cares about her son, she has shown to lie to him multiple occasions which eventually leads to her downfall once Arthur finds out the truth. Penny is also shown to be somewhat degrading to Arthur at times, claiming that he "needs to be funny" in order to be a comedian.
She seems to spend almost all of her time watching television or sleeping, never leaving the apartment and relying on Arthur for most things.
Penny Fleck marks the second time in Batman media where the Joker's mother has appeared, especially given that the Joker's origins are a mystery as well his name in the mainstream comic book continuity. The first time was in the television show Gotham, which featured Lila Valeska as the mother of the Valeska Twins: Jerome Valeska (the precursor of the Joker) and Jeremiah Valeska (The Joker). Even so, however, it was left ambiguous whether Penny adopted Arthur or if she was indeed Arthur's biological mother and his adoption was fabricated.
In Alan Moore's 1988 comic book one-shot Batman: The Killing Joke (where the Joker was depicted as a failed stand-up comedian like in the 2019 film), the Joker is supposedly revealed to have been married to a woman named Jeannie with whom he was to have a child until Jeannie and their unborn offspring died due to an accident. However, as the Joker later muses that he does not exactly remember what transformed him, it's left beyond anyone's speculation if such account of his origins is true or not as well as if Jeannie and her child truly existed after all.
In The New Batman Adventures animated show, part of the DC Animated Universe, the Joker tells Harley Quinn about his abusive father, who constantly abused him with or without reasons. However, as Batman later notes, the Joker was simply manipulating Harley to win her sympathy and is stated to always change his version of the story for his gain.
In the 2008 film The Dark Knight, part of the Nolanverse, the Joker once tells Gambol that his father was an alcoholic who physically abused his mother and was responsible for his Glasgow smile. However, he later tells Rachel Dawes that he did himself his Glasgow smile after his wife was left with one by some criminals, leaving ambiguous which of the two stories is the true one or if the two are fake.
Penny Fleck is Frances Conroy's second DC Comics role; she previously voiced Martha Kent, Superman's mother, in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies All-Star Superman and Superman Unbound, released in 2011 and 2013 respectively. Unlike Penny, however, Martha is a sane and loving mother.
While the film leaves it ambiguous, there are some hints that perhaps Penny was Arthur's biological mother after all and that she indeed had an affair with Thomas Wayne, who fabricated the adoption to maintain his image and influence:
Despite the claims of the Arkham State Hospital's files that Arthur was adopted by Penny, it's a bit odd that both Penny and Arthur were mentally ill. It could have been a coincidence, but maybe Arthur inherited it from Penny and it worsened due to the abuse he suffered from her boyfriend.
After her death, a picture signed to Penny with different handwriting from the letter she had feigned, inscribed "Love your smile - TW" was found by Arthur inside the Fleck apartment. However, considering that Arthur was an unreliable narrator, this could be all for naught.
Coupled with these facts, it should be noted that Brett Cullen, the actor who played Thomas Wayne in Joker, does opine that Thomas was indeed Arthur's illegitimate father, as well that while playing him, Cullen portrayed Wayne as if he had really been in an affair with Penny.
Also, while many fans don't realize it, it is important to note that Alfred and Thomas, out of all their employees, immediately remembered her after apparently 30 years when Arthur mentioned her name since he possibly would have forgotten about her and would have had time remembering who she is. He also seemed to be aware that Penny may have adopted Arthur, which is odd seeing that he would have paid her no attention.
How Penny gets killed by Arthur (smothering her to death with a pillow) can be a reference to how Commodus (who was also portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix) kills his father Marcus Aurelius via the same way in Gladiator.
Frances McDormand, who voiced Chantel DuBois in Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, was offered the role of Penny Fleck, but she turned it down.
Originally, there was going to be a scene in which a funeral was held to Penny after her death, as some trailers depict Arthur in Gotham Cemetery. However, it's unknown if Arthur was visiting the cemetery for Penny's death or not, as Penny nor Arthur seemed to have any friends nor living relatives who could attend her funeral.