by Steven Harris
Joker is a fascinating movie. Despite having no clear comic analogue, the version of the Joker presented in the 2019 film is arguably the most definitive version of the character on screen to date. Joker will undoubtably go into the film canon for the character due to how compelling Phoenix’s performance is. Not only is Phoenix’s Joker going against other on screen representations for top spot in the canon, but it’s also going against the comic book representations. For years fans have heralded Mark Hamill’s various voice performances as being the epitome of what the characters with a subset championing Heath Ledger’s performance from the The Dark Knight as the definitive version. However, Phoenix’s performance manages to tap into to something more primal and unsettling which is what puts it over any other adaption of the character to date. Phoenix’s version of the character is not humorous — he is however fully detached from reality which makes him more dangerous.
When analyzing what makes Phoenix’s version of the Joker canonical, it is easy to see how his performance overlaps with versions of the character created by Alan Moore and Grant Morison.
The origin presented in The Killing Joke by Alan Moore is widely accepted by most fans as the character’s definitive origin. Previous to The Killing Joke, the Joker was given an origin story where he was a former criminal who was set to retire before his transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime. Flashbacks in the The Killing Joke focus on an unnamed, struggling, stand-up comedian who becomes a criminal in order to provide for his pregnant wife. Ultimately, the comedian falls into an all-too-familiar vat of unnamed chemicals and emerges with the now iconic green hair and white skin. While Alan Moore uses an unnamed comedian, it is clear that Moore believes that anyone could be the Joker — that all it takes is just “one bad day.” That logic is evidenced by the Joker’s plan to kidnap and traumatize Commissioner James Gordon, thereby forcing him down the same spiral of insanity the Joker has previously slid down. However, this origin story should not be accepted at face value. Within the story itself, the Joker makes the comment: “Something like that happened to me, you know. I…I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice”
This statement should call into question the entirety of the flashback that is presented in The Killing Joke. The flashbacks are very much within the mind of the Joker, and are being presented to you the reader. With this confession that he is an unreliable narrator, Moore set the precedent that the Joker is somehow capable of breaking the fourth wall (or at the very least aware of the reader). Furthermore, this one statement allows for other writers to propose their own origins for the character with the possibility that their origin is the “true story”.
Grant Morrison has done the most of any Batman writer to explicitly fold a sense of “cosmic awareness” into the Joker. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth is the first time Morrison posits the theory that the Joker is suffering from a sense of “super sanity” — that the Joker is reacting to reality (possibly multiple realities) as fast it/they presents its/themselves to him, During his Batman run, Morrison has the Joker explain that every so often he has to reinvent himself with a new persona (a clever way to explain different writers’ take on the same character.)
Arthur Fleck shares the same hyperawareness that defined both Moore & Morrison’s versions of the Joker. Arthur is not a reliable narrator in his own life, and is very much in control of the narrative that he presents to others. For example, when confronted about his condition (and whether or not he can actually control it), Arthur does not definitively answer the question. Evidence exists that he actually can. In the opening scenes of the movie Arthur walks away from an uncomfortable situation where a joke has been made to his disabled co-worker and does his trademark uncomfortable laugh. However, as soon as he turns the corner and exits the social situation, the laugh stops. This is similar to how once the face paint is applied to Arthur, the laugh is no longer uncontrollable.
The most distinctive characteristic of Arthur Fleck is his dancing. Whenever Arthur dances in the film, it is largely in sync with the orchestral score that the audience is hearing as well. (Side note: the use of music in Joker is utterly fantastic. Early in the film, music is used to denote which scenes are “real” vs. what Arthur is imaging in his head. After his psychotic decent, the use of music becomes much more unpredictable and only adds to the viewer’s discomfort). Typically, orchestral scores are never acknowledged by the characters on screen. However, Arthur’s movements are perfectly in sync with the music being played during his bathroom dance scene and before being introduced to the late night show audience. The music is being played at moments close to moments where Arthur is at his most violent is reveling in his “true nature”. Having the audience hear the same music that Arthur does only invites them into his narrative and demonstrates that Arthur has control over his narrative.
Furthermore, during the film’s final moments, Arthur makes two comments that show he is fully aware of the narrative being presented to the audience. First, Arthur is singing along to the closing song “That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra. Despite being slightly stilted, Arthur is singing along in time to the song and matching the lyrics verbatim. Second, there’s a moment where Arthur is laughing and it cuts to a young Bruce Wayne in front of his dead parents. When asked why he is laughing by his therapist, Arthur replies “you wouldn’t get it.” Due to the canonical nature of how closely Bruce Wayne and the Joker are destined to become, one can interpret the scene as that Bruce would, in fact, get the joke. Arthur knowing that someone in the universe can finally get the joke is another example of how this version of the Joker shares a similar sense of hyper awareness to Moore and Morrison’s version of the character.
The aloof detachment from reality that exists in both Moore and Morrison’s version of the Joker is present in Phoenix’s performance. Being detached from reality makes him indifferent to his surroundings and the value of human life. Having a foot in reality makes the character less effective as evidenced by the greed obsessed Nicholson version and the hypocrisy of planned chaos found in Ledger’s performance. Having the Arthur Fleck version of the Joker carelessly dance as the surrounding city burns adds a level of discomfort only previously seen in works by Moore and Morrison. A discomfort that reminds you that there is nothing to celebrate about this character. He might be dancing and laughing, but there is no reason why you should be as well.
What do you think— does Joker’s similarity to comic book canon make it more effective as a film? Sound off in the comments below.