Joker, the controversial villain origin story for one of the famous villains from the Batman series is annihilating October box office records. Joaquin Phoenix masterfully plays the Arthur Fleck, the downtrodden, mentally disturbed man who would become the Joker.
The film is dark, even for Batman standards. But by pushing the limits further than they have ever gone in the Gotham City universe, the movie succeeds in creating a fresh new look that will likely be used as a model for others like it moving forward.
***Major spoilers for Joker from here on out. Do not read if you have not seen it***
Todd Phillips Creates a Gotham City that Pushes the Limits of Reality with His New “Joker”
Though it is getting mixed results from purists of the Batman series, where the film is most successful is in blazing its own path and reinventing the entire mythos of the series. Although Bruce Wayne himself is not directly involved in the plot, director Todd Phillips pulled no punches in the way he intertwined the Wayne family with the Joker’s story.
One of the more jarring scenes in the movie is when Arthur finds a letter addressed to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) from his mother Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). He opens it, and is shocked when to read Penny insinuate that Wayne is his father.
Obviously, this puts the entire mythos of Batman into a tailspin. This isn’t canon. Bruce Wayne was an only child, and the comics never even hinted that Joker and Batman were ever related.
Not only that, but Wayne is painted out to be somewhat of a villain in Phillips’ version of Gotham. At the very least, he is an out of touch elitist who literally calls the less fortunate clowns. It shows that Phillips was serious about going his own route on this twisted story.
What is Real in Gotham?
Another strength of the film is how Phillips succeeds in getting the viewers into the mindset of Arthur Fleck. We know he is unreliable. He questions himself and where he came from. But he also makes the viewers questions what is true and isn’t in Gotham City.
When Arthur is finally able to confront Thomas Wayne, he predictably denies any legitimacy to being Arthur’s father. But he doesn’t just deny it, he goes further to claim that Arthur was adopted by Penny. This not only serves to move the plot forward, and Arthur further into madness, but now the viewer is questioning what is real and what isn’t.
Now, even Penny’s reliability is in question, especially when Arthur gets her file from Arkham Asylum, which includes documentation that he was adopted. Still, one has to wonder how real that is, considering how powerful a man Wayne is in Gotham. In the end, nothing is truly confirmed, leaving the audience confused as to who Arthur’s true parents are.
The Mind of a Madman
As the plot moves on, the lines between reality and becomes more and more blurred between delusion. These delusions begin to take over the more Arthur’s mental state declines. He loses his state-appointed social worker who gives him his medications, and also his mother after her perceived betrayal. Then it is revealed that his “girlfriend” Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz) was never really his girlfriend at all.
Arthur lets himself into her apartment, and soaking wet sits silently on her couch. When Sophie walks in and notices him, without even really being sure who he is, she asks him to leave. Their entire relationship was just a figment of his imagination.
So what else was? Early on we see Arthur fantasizing about being on the Murray Franklin Show (with the host played by Robert De Niro). When he is invited on the show in the midst of his transformation into the Joker, one must wonder if the invite is real or not.
But it is, or at least it is presented to be, as Arthur gets his revenge on the man who was once his idol by shooting him in the head on live T.V. But when the movie ends with Arthur in Arkham Asylum stalking to a social worker, it is fair to wonder how much of the entire story is true.
Could the entire movie have been in his head? It’s certainly a possibility. And entirely likely that this ambiguity is exactly what Todd Phillips wanted. But overall, it gives the viewers the same sense of confusion that the extremely disturbed Arthur feels all the time.
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