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[This story contains spoilers for Joker]
If there’s one thing that Todd Phillips’ Joker isn’t, it’s a Batman movie. Set almost 40 years ago in a Gotham City that’s closer to New York than it’s arguably ever been, the movie is intentionally devoid of all of the traditional trappings of what audiences expect from a movie about DC’s Dark Knight — almost. Because, despite everything that’s different about Joker, it nonetheless includes the inciting incident that turned Bruce Wayne toward a life of late nights and flying mammal-themed ephemera, and raises the question, What would this Batman be like, anyway?
Admittedly, the death of the Waynes as seen in Joker isn’t the version most fans know; they’re not mugged in Crime Alley, leaving Bruce alive and permanently traumatized. Instead, they die as the result of a riot sparked by Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) having become a symbol of a corrupt elite. To be fair, the idea that the Waynes, pre-Bruce, were symbols of an out-of-touch upper class is hardly a new idea, despite the more common portrayal of them as benevolent philanthropists, but the shift in not only the details of the Waynes’ murder, but also the city’s understanding of it — and of who the Waynes were before their death — could result in a number of different outcomes. To start, the film leaves it ambiguous as to whether Bruce and Arthur are brothers. If Bruce comes to accept this to be the case, would he have more sympathy for Joker given their connection?
But perhaps the most obvious is that, given the different circumstances, Bruce Wayne wouldn’t have been motivated to become Batman at all. Stripped of the element of random chance in their deaths, would Bruce Wayne have been moved so strongly to ensure that no one else suffer the same fate? And, even if he was, what would that vow mean, exactly? Would he still become a vigilante vowing to defend his city from criminals, or would it instead translate into something more focused? Instead of Batman, would Wayne become obsessed with protecting the rich from the desperate actions of his city’s underclass?
Maybe he’d do just the opposite. A recurring criticism of Batman from those who take the concept too seriously is that Bruce Wayne could do more good by funding social programs and trying to work to fix a system that leaves too many poor and needy, pushing them toward crime. If the Bruce Wayne of the Joker-verse wanted to prevent other people going through what he did, could that translate to attempting to address the systematic failures that created the social environment of the riot in the first place?
All of this exists with the assumption that this particular Bruce Wayne wouldn’t wear a mask. But…what if he did? What if Joker-Bruce still was sitting in that library when the bat flew in, setting various events in motion?
A Joker-verse Batman would, I suspect, be a very different person than any incarnation most audiences are familiar with, existing in a city less likely to be accepting of him. After all, it would almost certainly be suspicious of any colorful, larger than life figure after the example of Arthur Fleck, even if this one showed up and seemed to do good. But…would he really want to do good, or would he just be a guy in a funny costume obsessed with beating up clowns? That aspect of his parents’ murder would certainly be the most resonant for Joker-Bruce, perhaps even overriding the regular Batman’s famous dislike for guns, after one was used to kill his parents. Could a Joker-Batman prove to be a version of the gun-toting Dark Knight introduced in DC’s The Batman Who Laughs comic book series last year?
(Warners, I have a great idea for a Joker sequel, called The Punisher, but He Only Shoots Clowns; call me.)
For that matter, would this Bruce Wayne even care enough about Gotham to want to make it better, costumed or otherwise? There’s an argument to be made — and one that almost certainly would have been made by those around this particular Bruce Wayne — that Gotham City kills the Waynes, as opposed to any one individual. Given that, why would Batman or Bruce Wayne feel particularly strongly about keeping the citizens who were, in part, responsible for the death of his parents and his resulting childhood trauma safe, given the opportunity to do…almost anything else in the world?
In the end, then, Joker succeeds in not being a Batman movie by, inadvertently, creating a world in which Batman as audiences know him is all but guaranteed not to exist. Sure, the Waynes once again die while leaving the movie theater and taking a shortcut, but by changing the rest of the details, the Dark Knight audiences know and love might become an impossibility altogether. Looked at from that point of view, this may be the only time that the Joker has finally, comprehensively, defeated his archnemesis. If that’s not worth laughing about, what is?
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