'Joker,' an Uneasy Embrace of Comics and an Ambiguous Meaning

The film's events are ultimately thrown into question by its lead's fantasies and unanswered questions.
'Joker' was billed as an anti-comic book movie, yet it has plenty of references.   |   Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
The film's events are ultimately thrown into question by its lead's fantasies and unanswered questions.

[This story contains spoilers for Joker.]

When is a comic book movie not a comic book movie? While that may seem like a riddle courtesy of Edward Nygma, don't worry, it's not. But maybe it is a joke. Played on who, is the question. This weekend sees the release of Todd Phillips' Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. There's a lot to be said about the film's departure from the comic character of the same name, and much has been said by both the filmmakers and early audiences. Numerous comparisons have been drawn by Phillips, Phoenix and the film's cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, about Joker's inspiration from Martin Scorsese's films Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), alongside Serpico (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Yet for all of its numerous New Hollywood cinematic influences, few links have been made between the film and the comic books the central character hails from.

Joker, written by Phillips and Scott Silver, doesn't open with a DC Comics logo or even a title card suggesting the character's comic book background, something every audience member innately is aware of regardless of reading habits. Instead, Joker opens with the mid-'70s Warner Bros. logo, the suggestion that this is something different, a prestige film that distances itself from comic book mythos in order to achieve a kind of elevation, which some have suggested may be dangerous. That's the set-up, and it's what the filmmakers would seemingly have us believe. But it's not entirely true, and the gap between comic book movie and awards season character study is a small divide.

Joker isn't based on any comic book storyline, and its comic book characters are few and far between. There are no narrative ties between this Joker and the one we've watched Batman beat into the pavement time and again. Yet there is a thematic one. Arthur Fleck's downward spiral is taken seriously but with a certain irreverence that's only a gutter removed from the real world and comic world that border it like funny book panels. On the subject of comics, Phillips has said he enjoyed finding the balance between keeping "one foot in" and one foot out of the comic book world.

Despite that affinity for balance, Philips didn't look to the source material of the character when creating the film. "We didn't follow anything from the comic-books, which people are gonna be mad about," the filmmaker told Empire. "We just wrote our own version of where a guy like Joker might come from. That's what was interesting to me. We're not even doing Joker, but the story of becoming Joker. It's about this man." While we can debate the semantics of Phillips' words, the truth of the matter, whether deliberate or accidental, is that Joker isn't a far cry his comic book counterpart.

In the comics, Joker's name is unknown, and as for his origin story, it has varied drastically over the years while still remaining a mystery. The very idea of making a movie about the Joker, telling his origin, suggests a deconstruction of his myth and intrigue. While the comics, particularly those since Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986), have often allowed Joker to lurk in the shadows of unpredictability, biding his time so that his appearances become events, the film puts the spotlight right on him, holds him in frame so that we know him, intimately. Joker is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) in its level of demystification, given the sheen of Scorsese's New York nightlife. Because of the attention placed on him as the lead character, there are even more parallels to be drawn between the comics and Phoenix's Joker than there are to the character's most iconic live-action appearance, Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning portrayal in The Dark Knight (2008).

Most of the film focuses on Arthur Fleck before he adopts the persona and chilling confidence of the Joker on Murray Franklin's (Robert De Niro) show. Fleck is a sad sack, not unlike the man who would become the Joker in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's controversial graphic novel, The Killing Joke (1988). In that story, Joker begins as a struggling comedian trying to support his pregnant wife. Like Fleck, his immediate concerns are focused on proving he has talent and escaping the poverty that Gotham has sucked him into. "I just want enough money to get set up in a decent neighborhood. There are girls on the street who earn that in a weekend without having to tell a single joke." Instead of a wife, Joker gives the character a mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) whom he bathes and shares a bed with. There's a Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) element to Fleck, and the end result of matricide is the same. Like Bates, and later psycho Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from Taxi Driver, Fleck becomes obsessed with a woman who shows no romantic interest in him, resulting in an act of violence. Although Moore and Bolland's proto-Joker is largely innocent, Fleck is not. Financial concerns, mental illness and feelings of inadequacy remain the same between the two iterations, but in the film they are explored to an extreme, a lifetime of abuse and hardships culminating in "one bad day" that sends Fleck over the edge and further blurs the lines between reality and fiction.  

The Joker's story has always relied on Batman. Ever since his first appearance in Batman No. 1 (1940), he has been adjacent to the Caped Crusader. Their stories have become so parallel, in both the comics and films like Batman (1989) and The Dark Knight, that one seemingly cannot exist without the other. Whether it's Batman failing to prevent the Red Hood from falling into a vat of chemicals, a young mobster named Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) killing the Waynes, or Batman's very existence creating the escalation that Gordon (Gary Oldman) describes at the end of Batman Begins (2005), these characters are responsible for each other. "You can complete me," Ledger's Joker famously said in the 2008 film. There is no Batman in Joker, yet the Waynes play a prominent role in the film.

Fleck reaches a major turning point in the film when it's revealed that his father is Thomas Wayne, who abandoned him and his mother to a life of poverty. The truth of this reveal is later thrown into question by Penny's medical records that tell of Arthur's adoption and her own psychosis that include narcissism and compulsive lying, records that Penny tells Arthur were falsified and forged by Thomas Wayne to keep his indiscretion and bastard secret. But this open-ended possibility of Joker and Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson) being brothers is a literalization that ultimately captures their entire relationship in the comics as a mythological figures akin to Abel and Cain, Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, Kokomaht and Bahotahl, the good son and his shadow.

The fascinating aspect about Joker is that it leaves open the possibility of Batman, something that Phillips' comments and the film's marketing made seem like an impossibility. We even see the Waynes murders, complete with Martha's pearls being torn from her neck and scattered on the sidewalk. For a film uninterested in comic book canon, Joker adheres to their canon and imagery. Though there have been a lot of critical comments about the bleakness of the film, its hopelessness and nihilism, the fact that Bruce Wayne isn't also killed in that alley, which perhaps would have been the riskiest move the film could have taken, provides a possibility of, if not hope, then escape by way of familiarity. Now whether young Bruce becomes Batman or something else will likely never be revealed outside of the viewer's imagination. But that transformation is suggested, though with a wink.

When Fleck comes to Wayne manor, Bruce slides down a pole from his treehouse to meet the stranger — a likely reference to the Bat-pole of the '60s Batman series. But an even more fascinating reference is the film the Wayne family exits before their lives take a tragic turn. While traditionally the film has been The Mark of Zorro (1940), here it is Zorro: The Gay Blade (1981) the comedy sequel to the 1940 film in which Don Diego Vega's long-lost twin, and flamboyantly gay twin brother, Bunny Wigglesworth (Guy Hamilton) takes over the mantle when the former sprains his ankle. The choice of film could be a reference to Joker's own potential label-defying queerness, something that has been suggested over the years, or it could be a reference to Batman's own possible homosexuality, which became a major point of contention during Fredric Wertham's rally against comic books in his publication, Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Comic book writer Grant Morrison teased the idea in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth (1989) in which Joker grabs Batman's ass, enraging the hero and leading the clown to quip "What’s the matter, have I touched a nerve? How is the Boy Wonder? Shaving yet?" While the sexuality of either character has no significant bearing on the film at hand, its utilization is yet another comic-aware deep-cut that suggests Joker is not as distant from its source character, or the Batman, as we've been led to believe.

What really drives home the connection between Phoenix's Joker and the comic book villain is the film's epilogue. While there's certainly room to debate exactly what's being suggested by these final moments, one possible outcome is that the entire film has been a story, a joke, that the Joker has told his psychiatrist while locked away in Arkham. The psychiatrist appears to be the same one Fleck had earlier in the film, though this time she's more put together and less of an emblem of Gotham's poverty and disinterest in mental wellness.

The film cuts back to a shot of Bruce Wayne, alone in the alley and standing above his dead parents, before the Joker interrupts with laughter, leading his psychiatrist to ask what the joke is. He replies, "You wouldn’t get it." The scene suggests that Bruce Wayne becoming Batman is the punchline to the joke of his story. But how much of that story is reliable, if any?

There are moments in the film where reality and fiction become indistinguishable: his relationships with Sophie, and his appearance on Murray Franklin's show. Not least of all is Fleck's pathological laughter, which he has a card for, explaining it as a neurological discharge. The condition actually exists, but the reality of whether Fleck suffers from it is debatable, much in the same way as Travis Bickle's Vietnam service in Taxi Driver or Rupert Pupkin's (Robert De Niro) fame at the end of The King of Comedy. The open-ended possibilities of his story, from his parentage to his entire ordeal we watched play out where the Joker becomes a revolutionary figure out of sheer happenstance recalls another line from The Killing Joke where the Joker talks about his origin story, "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" Joker's brilliance as a film is that its meaning is ultimately thrown into question by its lead's fantasies and unanswered questions.

In a recent profile on Phoenix from Vanity Fair, Phillips commented on Joker being a heist, "We're gonna take $55 million from Warner Bros. and do whatever the hell we want." It sounds cool in the same way that the Joker talking about anarchy or a lack of a belief system sounds cool. But Phillips is selling himself and the film short. Phillips plays right into the comic books he claimed to distance himself from in his efforts to make a “real movie.” In its use of images, themes and history, Joker is a comic book movie through and through.

Whether the joke is on Phillips for running right into what he claimed he wanted to escape, on certain segments of critics and awards season voters who otherwise turn their nose up at comic book movie fare, or on audiences who bought into the idea that the controversy of this film was novel and its existence morally irresponsible, we may never know. But the greatness of Joker isn't because it's taking wild risks. Its greatness is because at the end of the day the film understands the character. Joker is a lapel flower that shoots water, a gun that fires with a flag that says BANG! on the end. It's the absurd and fantastic packaged within the shell of apparent reality. It's a comic book rendered on film, and the funny part is, that's what it's always been: the seriousness of comic book mythos given the weight they so often deserve by those who would otherwise deny it. That's worth a few laughs.

  • Richard Newby
  1. by Carolyn Giardina , Aaron Couch