A Detached Joke: How Phoenix’s Performance Goes Into The Joker Canon

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”

Batman: The Killing Joker by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, DC Comics (1988)

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.) 

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On A Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, DC Comis (1989)

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.  

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019) by Todd Phillips

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. 

Building Multi-Medial Comic Book Canons

by Steven Harris

After Tara’s explanation of what “canon” means in regards to both literature and this podcast, let’s expand upon what can be considered canon.

While a canon is typically limited to only one medium (i.e. novels or films), with fandoms demanding more content for their favorite franchises, creators are more willing to expand their canon to multi-media platforms. Multi-media adaptions of comic book based intellectual property can never share the same linear canon as their source material due to the never ending nature of comic books. However, due to the strength in the writing of certain adaptions and how widely they’ve been embraced by both the comic community and mainstream audiences, select few multi-media adaptions of comic inspired works can be folded into a particular character’s canon. 

Multi-media canons are not a new phenomena. For example, Star Trek originated as a television show in 1966 and has since become a multi-media franchise that has grown to include five additional television series, thirteen full length feature films, and countless novels and graphic novels. Previously, for a fan to consume everything that existed in the canon of the  Star Trek Universe they would have to consume no less than four different types of media. For a new fan, that much content can be intimidating and lead to struggles in determining what is canon — a debate that is only exacerbated with the inclusion of the dreaded “reboot” phenomena. Reboots often leave fans scratching their heads over what is still in canon  and what is being quietly swept under the rug.

Occasionally, the owners of the intellectual property will descend from their high perch and plainly state for fans what is and isn’t canon. Perhaps the most controversial example of this is when Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise in 2012; after picking up the franchise, Disney firmly stated that from 2012 on only the Star Wars films and Clone Wars animated series would be considered in continuity and that all other stories (video games, comics, novels, etc.) would be considered non-canonical and be retired/rebranded as in-universe “legends”. To further drive home their point, Disney stated they would be creating an entirely new canon that would be established solely by material that they would exclusively oversee. This declaration alienated fans who spent decades enjoying these previously published works because they were being told that the stories they revered were no longer important to the other franchise. This frustration that was all too similar and all too familiar with DC Comics fans who struggled to determine what was in still in continuity after the company wide “New 52” relaunch of 2012.

Sometimes fans themselves are divided about a canon being divided between different mediums. A more recent example of a multi-medial canon is the creation of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  If a fan wishes to complete the full Harry Potter canon that was established with the original novels, they must switch mediums at least three times. J.K. Rowling launched Pottermore, an exclusively online library of short stories and various writings that Rowling has stated are all canonical. In 2016 J.K. Rowling co-wrote Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a stage play that acts as an epilogue to the Harry Potter sage. Furthermore, 2016 saw the launch of the Fantastic Beast series — a five part film saga that canonically takes place sixty years before the first Harry Potter novel and features several characters referenced in the original book series.  The Fantastic Beasts series has been met with a mixed reception with some voicing frustration with J.K. Rowling by comparing her to George Lucas due to her inability to stop tinkering with her previous stories. 

While the previously examples of Star Trek, Star Wars and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter are multimedia canons, they are still linear progressions of the same story.  If a timeline were to be created for any of those franchises, each entry (regardless of medium) could be plotted in a mostly linear path. Comic books and comic books films cannot share the same linear canonical timeline due to the ongoing nature of comic books. At best comic books films can be adaptations of poplar comic book storylines. It would be impossible for comic books films to be anything other than loose adaptations of already pre- existing comic books storylines — film studios would not expect film goers to read the complete 70+ years of superhero comic books before watching a single two hour film. Conversely, it would be just as alienating for a comic book reader to be forced to into a cinema to see how a particular storyline would be resolved.  However, an argument can be be that select pieces of media should have a place in certain character’s individual canon. 

Due to the mass popularity of superhero media, a cross pollination effect has occurred where media outside of comics has started to effect comic books own continuity.  The best example of this is with Batman and how the various forms of multi-medal Batmen have affected the character’s in universe continuity. Without the creative output of Bruce Timm & Paul Dini on B:TAS, there would be no definitive takes on characters such as Ra’s Al Ghul, Mr. Freeze, or the Joker

Unquestionably, the legacy of B:TAS is the creation of Harely Quinn. Harley Quinn first appeared in “Joker’s Favor”, the twenty-second episode of B:TAS’s inaugural season. What could have been an inconsequential throw away character was welcomed by fans with open arms. Quinn made her first published appearance in 1993 in a printed spinoff of B:TAS. Five years after that, Harley officially entered the Batman canon when she was introduced during the No Man’s Land crossover. Within a decade of her appearance on the B:TAS she was given her own solo series in 2001. Since being introduced into the DC Universe, Harely has become a staple in Batman’s canon but has become popular anti-hero and well celebrated LGTBQ icon. Due to fans connecting with the character, she ended up being a lead in 2016’s Suicide Squad feature film where she was portrayed by Margot Robbie.

Another example of outside media having seismic ramifications on the comic book industry is the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In attempts to capitalize on the success of their films, Marvel has made several attempts to streamline the comic book versions of their characters to match what is seen on screen. The biggest example the MCU has had on Marvel Comics is the way that Iron Man/ Tony Stark has been written for the past decade — what is seen on the page is a complete distillation of Robert Downey Jr.’s personality. (We will dive more into the MCU’s effect on Marvel comic books in an ongoing blog series after Avengers: Endgame is released.)

While our podcast will continue to focus on what published comic books can be considered canon worthy, we will be launching a regular blog post series to determine what pieces of comic book inspired media can included in individual characters’ own personal canon. These characters have transcended off the page and established their own non-linear multimedia canons – canons that are not defined by events that add to their overarching story but instead a canon made up of pieces of work that cut to the core aspects of the character.