“Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants — nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?”
Hannibal Lecter’s striking riposte to Clarice Starling in Thomas Harris’ novel The Silence of the Lambs is as good a place as any to begin contemplating a movie about the origins of an equally iconic pop-culture villain — one for whom no definitive or canonical origin story exists, with good reason.
From the comics to the big and small screens, the Joker has often been portrayed in his most memorable incarnations as an embodiment of nearly Satanic anarchy and nihilism, an inscrutable agent of chaos with no agenda but to shatter the illusion of social order and normality, to deal out terror and death as spectacularly and absurdly as possible.
He is a pure psychopath, with no conscience, empathy or fear. That he is both insane and a criminal mastermind may not be a contradiction in terms; that his insanity so seldom constitutes a handicap in matching wits with the DC universe’s greatest detective probably is.
So capricious a character would be diminished by almost any origin story due to their tendency to explain, to reveal “what happened.”
Take the most influential version of the Joker’s origins: the acclaimed but controversial 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland — one influence on Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix.
The Killing Joke proposed that the Joker was once a sad-sack chemical engineer with hopeless dreams of doing stand-up comedy until being driven mad by the accidental death of his pregnant wife and his disfigurement in a crime gone wrong.
This is crashingly absurd. A man, even a fragile, vulnerable man, doesn’t go from grieving his wife and unborn child one day to a career of random, remorseless mass murder the next because of the emotional trauma of one horrific day. Someone like the Joker would already have been dangerous and scary as a child and a teenager.
Phillips’ film tells a less implausible tale of mental illness and childhood trauma, in the process trading the popular picture of the Joker for a vastly smaller, less capable character.
Phoenix’s Joker, a party clown and human billboard named Arthur Fleck, could never become Batman’s archnemesis, even if he wouldn’t be in his mid-60s by the time little Bruce Wayne (9-year-old Dante Pereira-Olson) will finally be old enough to put on the cape and cowl.
Set in the early 1980s in a decaying, crime-ridden Gotham City, Joker depicts Arthur as a serial victim of random violence whose own violence begins in a subway shooting meant to recall New York’s 1984 subway shooting by Bernhard Goetz. Goetz was dubbed the “Subway Vigilante,” but no one would ever mistake him for a Dark Knight in the making. No more will Arthur ever be a Clown Prince of Crime, except perhaps in his own mind.
Perhaps Arthur isn’t the Joker, but a forerunner who will eventually inspire some younger, more gifted criminal. Even in this movie, in a kind of inversion of the “Sons of the Batman” army from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Arthur inspires others to put on a happy face and lash out at the world — but this is part of the problem.
While Arthur may not fit the profile for supervillain, he does look — up to a point — like the sort of person who might go on a shooting spree. (Note what I’m not saying: Most people who look like Arthur are not dangerous or violent.)
There is no useful profile for a mass shooter. The one constant is that they are overwhelmingly male; while it’s often suggested that mass shooters are disproportionately white, this seems to be untrue.
Still, there are familiar themes. Arthur struggles with social isolation, bullying violence and other stressful circumstances, fostering a sense of aggrieved victimhood. He lives with his frail mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), and the absence of any father he has ever known may be a factor, along with troubling things he learns about his childhood. (A sacred image of the Madonna and Child, suggesting that the Flecks are Catholic, is the only scrap of religious content.)
Arthur leads a marginal existence but longs for success and applause. Like his counterpart in The Killing Joke, Arthur aspires hopelessly to work in stand-up and idolizes TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, strengthening by his mere presence the obvious links to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver).
Spree shooters are often triggered by a crisis event, such as loss of a job or a romantic partner. Arthur gets triggered in spades, though his romantic attachment to a gorgeous single mom named Sophie (Zazie Beetz) whose apartment is down the hall from Arthur and his mother leads to a particularly wrenching destination that may catch some viewers by surprise.
Arthur kills several people, but not at random; like most mass killers, he starts close to home, targeting people he perceives as having wronged or hurt him in some way. Really random violence against innocent victims might be too alienating to audiences for a film that at least wants to allow viewers inclined to do so to identify sympathetically with the protagonist.
To what extent are we meant to identify sympathetically with Arthur? His relationship with Sophie is an instructive study in ambiguity. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Reading between the lines, it’s clear that Arthur has been stalking Sophie — behavior he believes she should and would take in good-humored stride, along with a creepy joke about robbing her apartment at gunpoint. In Arthur’s mind, this is how one flirts and begins a caring romantic relationship.
Yet this is all implicit, without a hint of the resentment and anger against women someone like Arthur would feel. Viewers are free, if they wish, to regard Arthur as a hapless victim of his own mental illness and not a man whose anti-social attitudes make him a threat to innocent people around him.
Mental-health professionals have worried that Arthur’s unspecified mental illnesses, for which he receives therapy and an assortment of medications until social services funding cuts, may contribute to stigmatization of mental illness, particularly in connection with violence. (In an effective conceit, Arthur suffers from a condition called pseudobulbar affect that manifests in uncontrollable and inappropriate laughter.)
More troublingly, Arthur’s descent into violence seems to have a liberating, empowering effect on him. By making spectacular use of a gun, he gets the attention and even apparently the celebration that all mass shooters desire.
Or does he? One can choose, not unreasonably, to regard some or all of the denouement as a self-gratifying delusion. (I know where I would draw the line between reality and fantasy.) Regardless, though, Joker does nothing to cross-examine the Joker’s experience of triumph. On some level the film offers a mass-shooter fantasy fulfilled.
Perhaps the most provocative aspect of the film’s revisionism is its indictment of the Wayne family in its anti-elite animus.
Tellingly, as Alison Willmore points out, where Bernie Goetz’s targets were black teenagers, Arthur shoots a trio of drunken, white Wayne Enterprises finance bros who were harassing a woman before they began beating him up. Thomas Wayne’s televised response may be meant to suggest the 1980s-era Donald Trump’s law-and-order rhetoric, most notoriously his calls for the execution of the Central Park Five.
This Thomas Wayne is a far cry from the civic-minded philanthropist of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. While he is eventually cleared of one odious charge laid on his doorstep — a twist that could prove controversial in the #MeToo era — Thomas is ultimately a callous representative of the same privileged contempt for the needy that results in slashing the social services Arthur relied on.
The indictment of Wayne, and the intertwining of the Joker’s life with the Wayne family and Batman’s origins (an instance of what I’ve called Shrinking World Syndrome, one even more dramatic than Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman), raises inevitable questions about young Bruce Wayne’s earliest years and what kind of Batman he will be.
Is it possible, in the world of Joker, to believe in real heroism? Do the filmmakers even care about that question?
Caveat Spectator: A few instances of graphic, bloody violence and menace; heavy rough and crude language. Mature viewing.