I think enough time has now passed since the release of Joker last year to properly delve into some talking points, now being a comfortable time to start giving away the kind of spoilers that would see me flogged in the street immediately post-release, but now people have had time to watch, there is now time to talk about it in depth.
I named Joker as my film of the year last year, and in truth, it was a tough call between that and The Irishman, with Joker getting the nod mainly because of my previous investment in the character, and its sensational lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix.
I do think it has flaws, there are very few films that I’d be willing to say there are no flaws in, and there are many arguments to be had over whether it lionised a psychotic murderer, or its portrayal of mental health, but I said all I wanted to say on that matter in the review itself, no, what I want to discuss is something that affects the canon at large; the question I’ve been asking myself since I saw the movie the first time around, that question being: ‘Is Arthur Fleck really The Joker?’
The film itself leaves this point rather ambiguous; it presents him as a character who calls himself The Joker, and even makes him resemble the characters design, albeit with its own twist, but that isn’t to say he is THE Joker.
To me, it isn’t so much a question of figuring out whether he is or isn’t the clown prince of crime, but whether I WANT him to be. Part of the Joker’s oeuvre is his mystery, not knowing who he really is or where he came from, all the while layering on multiple stories of how he might have come to be, but never definitively stating it; which is the very reason why The Killing Joke is so good, it gives us a possible reason, but makes us question the stories place in the canon.
There’s also the argument that the events of Joker take place entirely within their own universe, with little to no connection to the rest of DC canon, therefore making the excuse that it doesn’t matter that Joker’s origin was explained, because it isn’t part of the official canon, but for this argument to hold water, you have to ask why Bruce Wayne plays a part in the story, and indeed, why his parents death is also shown, possibly the most defining moment in Bruce becoming Batman.
You could argue, for the sake of this line of thinking, that Bruce may not become Batman in this universe, he may instead be affected in the opposite way, and start his own life of crime on the path for vengeance. But all of this requires entirely too much unestablished context that the audience couldn’t possibly figure out for themselves; the portrayal of the Wayne’s death is actually entirely unnecessary in the story UNLESS Bruce is going to be Batman one day. If this story were set in another version of the DC universe, there is no reason for this event to happen.
So, with all this established, let’s say for the sake of argument that in this universe, Bruce Wayne does become Batman later on in the timeline, if that’s the case let us also assume that Arthur is actually The Joker too, not a possible inspiration, or someone having delusions.
The first issue that springs to mind is one of age. If Bruce does become the Bat, and Arthur is his Joker, the Bat would barely break a sweat in defeating his nemesis, given that he’d be so much older than him.
It’s established that when Arthur becomes Joker, Bruce is still a child, probably about 10 or 12, whilst Arthur is a fully-grown man, probably well into his 30’s, if not his 40’s, so by the time Bruce has been away and completed his training Arthur will be pushing his 60’s if not even older, it does beg the question then as to whether this discrepancy was deliberate, and we’re supposed to question this age gap.
It is true that we never really know the Joker’s age in the comics, and he isn’t exactly known for his physical strength, but you’d be hard pushed to imagine the Joker from the comics as being someone in their 50’s or 60’s, even the Joker from The Dark Knight Returns doesn’t seem that old!
So then, what does this mean? Well, it could mean that Arthur was perhaps the inspiration for the actual Joker, who establishes himself later on in the timeline? Or it could be that Arthur was in the asylum all along, and everything that happens in the film is just his delusions. We are explicitly shown that Arthur has been imagining some of the events in the film, just look at the side-plot with Zazie Beets’ character for an example of that.
Both of these arguments are flawed to me, if Arthur is just the inspiration for the real deal further down the line, then why is all of the attention of the film on him? It seems foolish to make a film about someone’s descent into madness and having him only be the inspiration for the actual Joker later on. It would render the film and its events completely pointless if he were only the warm-up to the real deal.
The second argument is several magnitudes worse. To me, it’s no better than the old ‘and then they woke up’ ending that only the very worst writers fall back on. It again brings up the actual significance of the story if none of it happened, if it was all imagined, then you’re telling your audience that they’re stupid for investing in it.
It makes sense for Arthur to have imagined a relationship with someone who would realistically never look twice at him; to infer that the rest of the story is also just a figment of his imagination makes the film immediately worthless, draining it of all its possible stakes.
I think a lot of these arguments come from a place of people not WANTING Arthur to be The Joker, and as I said earlier, I sympathise with this viewpoint, I would rather he not be, but the question of whether he is or not is part of what makes the film intriguing, it encourages discussion and never offers a definitive answer, like any good mystery.
When asked in a pinch whether I myself think he is The Joker or not, and if forced to give an answer, I’d go with not. Primarily because of the aforementioned age difference, but also because of one seemingly insignificant scene.
Remember before he goes on the Murray Franklin Show, he’s visited by some old work friends? He brutally kills the guy indirectly responsible for his firing earlier in the movie, then lets the other guy, Gary, walk free, does that sound like something The Joker would do?
It could also be argued that he hasn’t fully descended into his Joker mindset at this point, maybe he’s only past the point of no return after he shoot Murray, but I’d say he’d fallen off the edge of the proverbial cliff long before that, since he saw his file, and killed his mother, he was already far past retribution.
All of these arguments and more, are part of what makes the film so great. It offers many great questions, and many possible angles of debate without definitively providing answers, it can be watched and interpreted in a million different ways, each more interesting than the last.
So, my final answer to that question then, after many paragraphs of looking at the evidence? I’m still none-the-wise, and there’s a part of me that’s glad, because without an answer, the conversation goes on. It would be a very boring world if everything could be explained.