By Joseph Ha
It’s a bit difficult to summarize “Joker” (2019). The plot has so many aspects and twists to cover that a summary could drag on for pages. Fortunately, if you’ve read Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” (the 1988 DC Comics graphic novel that gives the origin story of the Joker villain), you’ve got about half of the story and themes of Todd Phillip’s “Joker.” Basically, aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) fails at being funny, struggles to make ends meet, and eventually becomes the notorious criminal named Joker.
On the other hand, there are major deviations that distinguish “Joker” from “The Killing Joke.” Unlike Moore’s anonymous pre-Joker character, Phillip’s Joker has a name, and instead of a pregnant wife, he lives with single mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). Additionally, Phoenix’s Joker suffers from mental illness—the most notable being his pathological laughter—and in addition to pursuing stand-up, works a day job as a clown.
Some other key deviations include the ambiguous subplot of whether the Joker is actually the illegitimate son of Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), or just the adopted son of Penny. Finally, Arthur’s self-defense killing of three Wayne Enterprise businessmen inspires riots against Gotham’s elite, moving the film into a realm of social commentary unusual for superhero movies. In fact, “Joker” even has critics worried that the morally ambiguous character of the Joker may inspire similarly awkward and unvalidated moviegoers to embrace the Joker’s message of violence as a route to societal acceptance.
I’m a firm believer that any story involving clowns can be framed in the same structure as a joke. In order for the movie to be effective, both the setup and the punchline have to be effective. Within the Joker franchise, it’s seemed that any cinematic portrayal of the Joker is a great joke only if it’s not bound by one setup.
One reason for the appeal of Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” (2008) is that his origins don’t affect his characterization. We don’t need to know how Ledger’s Joker got his scars; the scars themselves are already terrifying like the man who has them.
That’s why, for me, Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989) was a bit of a bad joke: Nicholson’s concrete origins as the killer of Batman’s parents simplifies his relationship with the Dark Knight to a soap opera-like conflict in the veins of Inigo Montoya, from “The Princess Bride.” One could almost expect Michael Keaton’s Batman to say to Nicholson’s Joker, in a Montoya-esque fashion, “Hello. My name is Batman. You killed my parents. Prepare to die.”
In the newest “Joker” film, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is unique in that he works with both multiple setups and multiple punchlines. Of course, this is in some ways expected, since “Joker” is meant to be an origin story. But due to the ambiguity around the Joker’s entire character arc, it’s better to label “Joker” as a character study, since it’s more about Phoenix’s reaction to his environment and situation that defines his Joker. It’s literally a choose-your-own-adventure with Phoenix’s Joker, where one possible origin can lead to another possible outcome and interpretation.
If it is true that Phoenix’s Joker is the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne, then his later fight with Batman is basically a family conflict. On the other hand, if he is really just Penny’s adopted son, then his fight against Batman is one of class conflict—a disenfranchised man who’s been ignored by society versus a privileged boy who may be unaware of his father’s sins.
For these reasons, “Joker” is a much more complicated film than its predecessors, and Phoenix’s mesmerizing, nuanced performance as the Joker has been hailed as Oscar-worthy. “Joker” is meant as a stand-alone film, but if it ever does have a sequel, my only hope is that it will continue giving multiple setups and punchlines to keep us viewers alert.