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‘Joker’ is One Hell of an Origin Story

By retelling the iconic Joker as a character as tragic as he is terrifying, Todd Phillips film succeeds as a challenging and rewarding origin tale.

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*Please note that the following article contains spoilers for ‘Joker’*

Depending on who you might have asked over the short time Joker has been out, it’s either the end of civilized society as we know it, or one of the greatest films ever made. In truth, Joker is neither of these, but it is one hell of an origin story for the clown prince of crime.

Beginning with Arthur Fleck (a wonderfully out of control Joaquin Phoenix), a party clown and struggling comedian in 1970s Gotham, Joker paints one of the most brutally unhinged maniacs in the history of comic books as something of a sad sack. More Norman Bates than anything, Fleck bathes his mother at night and dances with her in the living room whenever the opportunity provides itself.

Joker

Joker’s opening scene sees Fleck struggling to find his characteristic smile as he applies his clown make-up.

Finally Fleck snaps, murdering three Wayne Enterprises employees amid a violent subway altercation. The stark, brutal violence of the killings is one of the first inclinations we get that this will be very different from your usual comic book origin story. Brain matter spatters out the back of the first man’s head, while the third is gunned down in cold blood as he struggles to escape his fate.

Interestingly, this is where the beginnings of a cultural movement plants its seeds in Gotham City, and it’s one not too far removed from our reality. As the wealthy elite and the police call for justice, many of the poor, disenfranchised public see the killings differently. The class war at the center of the film begins to emerge, and the Joker becomes as much of an anti-hero as he is a villain.

With his chillingly uncomfortable laughing condition and his unfavorable knack for messing up his life at every turn, somehow Arthur Fleck has emerged at the head of a cultural movement — the first shot fired in a long-simmering class war between the increasingly disparate haves and have-nots of Gotham. It’s a welcome addition to this origin story, and it certainly goes a long way toward explaining the Joker’s seemingly never-ending crew of disposable goons in other stories. Hell — if even half of the crowd cheering in the streets at the end would join the Joker’s violent crusade, he’d be set for years.

Is this unhinged maniac Bruce Wayne’s half brother? If so, the class war at the center of the film takes on even more significance.

Yet there’s still more to the character to decipher. After an incel/stalker fantasy seems to lead to a relationship, the most unlikely event of this wild film emerges as Fleck’s romance with a beautiful neighbor twenty years his junior. Of course, this turns out to be all in Arthur’s head, showing another layer and hammering home for the audience that his perception of reality cannot be trusted.

Like Heath Ledger’s take on the character over a decade ago, Phoenix’s Joker doesn’t seem to know who he himself is. Here, however, the reason why is more clear: lied to by his mother and horribly traumatized as a child, this version of Joker has ambiguous beginnings that could lead to any number of possibilities. The hanging thread that Fleck may be an illegitimate child of Thomas Wayne, making him young Bruce’s half-brother, is a tantalizing tease, and something fans will be debating with great anticipation for the eventual sequel.

That Arthur’s accidental movement and the riots it causes eventually take the life of Thomas and Martha Wayne make this possibility all the more tempting. There is a certain poetic justice to an impoverished man causing the murder of his wealthy brother’s parents, and it would certainly make for a great rivalry in the next film. It allows for the personal nature of the conflict of Burton’s 1989 Batman,but doesn’t compromise the Caped Crusader’s origin story in the process.

As the sad sack Arthur becomes a force of nature over the course of the film, the audience grows conflicted but remains enraptured.

So what will the inevitable Joker sequel look like? Will it be a younger Batman facing off against the Joker in the 80s/90s, or will we see a more grizzled Batman in modern times facing off against his greatest nemesis at last? What Phillips and DC are laying the groundwork for is unclear, but whatever it is seems a hell of a lot more interesting than the cynical, box-checking, three-to-four movies a year model that Disney and Marvel have built over the last decade.

Regardless of what’s to come for the Joker, Phillips and Phoenix’s reinvention of the most iconic villain in comic book history rivals the best takes on the character, from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Whatever you think of it, the Joker is certainly the most bold take to come from the by-the-numbers superhero genre since it exploded to popularity in the early years of this millenium. For that, if nothing else, Joker is the origin story we didn’t know we wanted, and one of the biggest surprises of the year.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

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