Arthur Fleck may not need Batman, but Joker does.
The new movie, The Joker, is being marketed as an origin story of one of fiction’s most famous villains. Based on the trailer and various interviews about the movie, the Joker’s origin story does not include Batman, which has confused several DC comic fans, including myself. It also removes some of the power of both the Joker as a character and the message of this movie by yoking one to the other.
The confusion does not come from Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role, who can absolutely act. It has nothing to do with Todd Phillips being the director because, although he is best known for his comedy work like Road Trip and The Hangover Trilogy, he can absolutely direct. It also does not come from the idea that the Joker, as a human being, is older than Batman.
The reason for the confusion and, frankly the concern, is by removing Batman from the movie, the Joker character has also been removed. The Joker does not exist in a Batman-less world. The Joker, since his inception, has evolved and changed as Batman has. There can be a criminal clown without Batman. But the Joker, no?
Joker Needs a Batman
In some versions of the Joker’s creation, Batman literally made him by being involved in the Joker falling into a vat of acid, which warped his appearance. The man who became the Joker was a gangster before the accident which gave him his name. But even in situations in which Batman was not involved in the accident, one of the essential characteristics is, in addition to his being a psychopath with a sadistic sense of humor, his belief that only he and Batman are humans in the world. No one else has value outside the lens of hurting Batman. In Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight, Joker has been so obsessed with Batman that he doesn’t notice Harley Quinn has left and been replaced by another woman using the same name. In The Killing Joke, the Joker takes apart the Batfamily in order to send Batman over the edge. Changing the tone, but not the message, in the LEGO Batman Movie, story really gets going after Batman refuses to acknowledge how important the Joker is to Batman. At the end of the movie, peace is only achieved when Batman tells Joker that the clown prince is the reason Batman is the hero he is today.
There is a lot of truth to that. As Batman over his history, has grown lighter and darker, the Joker has changed to match. The Adam West Batman had the Cesar Romero Joker. The Michael Keaton Batman had the Jack Nicholson. The Kevin Conroy Batman had the Mark Hamill Joker. Christian Bale’s Batman had Heath Ledger’s Joker. And just as Adam West’s Batman and Christian Bane’s Batman feel like opposite ends of the Batman spectrum, so do their Jokers. However, the goal was not consistency of the character throughout time, but how dark both of them went in response to the trauma that defined their existence.
The Unreliable Narration of the Joker
This reflection and the obsession are key because the Joker is otherwise unknowable, which is part of his effectiveness. The Joker did not even have a traditional name until the Tim Burton movie, Batman, where Jack Napier was first introduced. Some might argue it is because the Joker was a Batman character, so it did not matter. However, this lack of comprehensive backstory helps the Joker bring chaos. Chaos requires confusion, and when a backstory and motivation are introduced, confusion is lessened and therefore the chaos. Ledger, in the Nolan Batman movies, embodied this element extremely well with the various stories of how he got his scars. It does not take long for the line “wanna know how I got these scars” to cause a chill.
The idea of the Joker’s inconsistent origin story is used powerfully in The Killing Joke. As he is telling us his story, the Joker says he remembers his origin very differently. So maybe the story he is telling us is false or maybe not. Maybe the “one bad day” the Joker says is all that is required to go insane pushed him so far over the edge he cannot remember the actual trauma. Or maybe because he embodies chaos, he is enjoying keeping the reader in the dark. Either way, the mix of insanity and chaos keeps the Joker from having a known origin story.
The Potential of Arthur Fleck
On one hand, as a fan of DC Comics, I would like the movies labeled with the DC name to be well received. This movie has that potential. It received an ovation at the Venice Film Festival that lasted more than eight minutes. Phoenix is receiving Oscar-buzz for his acting. So, if the Joker is a huge success commercially, critically, and generated awards, I would probably feel some sense that comic book movies are redeemed, especially if two actors won an Oscar for playing a comic book villain.
But on the other hand, Arthur Fleck, the character Phoenix plays, could have been allowed to play in his own universe. Clowns have a pop culture history of being violent, so a down-and-out comedian who puts on a clown costume and becomes a criminal does not immediately send critics and fans to declare “oh, that is a Joker movie under a different name.” As of this writing, It: Chapter Two is currently in theaters with Pennywise the Clown serving as the monster. There are so many clowns in pop culture, Entertainment Weekly has a list of the 26 scariest of them and a list of 18 TV/movie clowns the world loves (although there is some duplication across the lists.).
Fleck could have chosen one of a million names and he could be uprooting the status quo in any number of cities. Making Fleck the Joker attaches him to the destiny of the character, rather than giving him his own. Fleck’s story, if it existed on its own, could have had an entirely different impact. However, as it currently stands, the viewer does not need to worry about Fleck, because at some point, Batman will show up and those two will battle. This undermines what the director called the movie’s “broader cautionary tale” because if the movie is successful, the clamoring will begin for Batman and Harley Quinn to appear in a sequel.
When that happens, Fleck’s story of a man undone and ignored by society will disappear, but he will actually becomes the Joker, but this time at the cost of his chaos.
Beth Keithly is a graduate from The University of Missouri’s School of Journalism and works on grant development at a North Texas university. She is a fan of most science fiction and fantasy, especially Star Wars, Star Trek, Supernatural, DC comics and the Arrowverse, and the Marvel movieverse. When she is not teaching her children about her fandoms and the importance of a quality pen, she is reading, running or discussing fictional universes and their impacts on reality with her husband. She is @beth_keithly on Twitter.