If you’re a fan of stories about superheroes and their nemeses, chances are you have seen Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joker’ by now. The reviews from my friends have been mixed, some loved Phoenix’s acting, but hated the story. Some loved the whole thing. And some said they liked it but didn’t get it. For the most part, the latter group is made up of friends of mine who enjoy a good story but are unfamiliar with Batman canon. Explaining it to them led me to make the list giving rise to this article.
This is was actually one of the biggest points of contention about ‘Joker’ in its run up. The film’s director, Todd Phillips was unapologetic about his vision for the film, which he explicitly said was not going to be tied to any of the canon. He did later admit that he was influenced by the stories that have gone on before, but he was clear that this Joker was going to be his own interpretation of the character. Having seen the film, I can affirm that the story definitely had obvious influences from the canon, but was not faithful to the usual storyline in any significant way.
So for those of you who are not entirely familiar with the Joker from the Batman stories, I offer to you the following comparison of how Joker from ‘Joker’ compares to the traditional version. In case it’s not obvious, I’m about to spoil pretty much everything about the movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ve been warned.
1. Joker’s Backstory
In the comics, there is very little, if any, backstory for the Joker character. He’s been around for a long time, as long as Batman himself in fact, having first appeared in Batman #1 from 1940. He’s gone through many iterations, but there hasn’t been an official backstory in the comics other than one where he was the Red Hood who fell into the familiar vat of acid that turned him into the killer clown that we all know and love. Even then, it was a pretty minimal story, we don’t even know his real name.
On the other hand, ‘Joker’ is nothing but extensive backstory for one Arthur Fleck, whom we watch with fascinated voyeurism as his life goes from worse to horrible one agonizing step at a time. We obviously assume that every human in comics has a mother (with a few exceptions, I know), but in the movie, we not only meet Joker’s mother Penny Fleck (played by Frances Conroy) we learn all her intimate and horrifying details.
2. Joker’s Insanity
One of the things that makes Joker an interesting nemesis for Batman is his insanity. In the comics, Penguin is always out for money or power, Scarecrow wants to make people afraid, Killer Croc wants to eat everything, etc. Each of the Batman villains usually has some kind of relatable or understandable goal to their criminal actions. Not so with Joker. Sometimes he seems to be out for money but will do contrary things. Sometimes he’s just out to cause chaos. One of the more famous Joker portrayals was in the graphic novel, ‘The Killing Joke.’ In that book, Joker committed his deeds all in an attempt to prove that even Commissioner Gordon could be broken and turned into a killer. One of the interesting things about the comic book Joker is that you never know what he’s going to do from one panel to the next.
However, in ‘Joker,’ while Arthur does eventually get to a level of insanity that is comparable to the comic book version, that’s only the last 10% of the film. The rest of it shows the man simply trying to get by and make sense of his world. He works an awful job, gets beat up and picked on regularly, is manipulated by his mentally ill mother, and generally descends little by little into a bottomless pit of despair. There comes a breaking point when he feels like the world may finally make sense when he learns that Thomas Wayne is his father (more on that later), but even that is taken away from him and reversed so harshly that it leaves him with less than he started.
Arthur’s descent into Joker isn’t fully of the same random craziness that you see in the comics. It’s actually pretty understandable, perhaps not strictly “predictable,” but definitely something that you can think, “Yeah, I can see how that happens.” Even more, part of the genius of the film is that the descent is presented in such a way that you can almost see yourself in Arthur’s shoes and think, “If I was in that position, I’m not sure I would have handled it much better.” … At least up to the point he starts killing people. That I don’t relate to so much.
3. Joker’s laugh
Joker’s laugh has always been one of his trademarks in the comics. He’s frequently accompanied with the stereotypical “Ha! Ha! Ha!” I would argue that he’s the one that made it a stereotype. In the comics, it’s presented as sort of an uncontrollable giggle or guffaw, a punctuation mark, or a “sign” of his madness. Sometimes, his laughter is an indication of his actual amusement.
In ‘Joker,’ the laughing is completely off-canon. In the movie, Arthur has three kinds of laughing. First, the poor guy suffers from a neurological condition that causes him to laugh inappropriately at inappropriate times. It was never quite defined, but it appeared to happen whenever he was particularly stressed or scared. It always ended up with unintended consequences, because what bully likes to be laughed at when he’s torturing his victim? It results in a bigger beatdown.
Second, he has a laugh that is loud and obnoxious. It appears he uses it when he can tell that it would be appropriate to laugh, and while he’s not actually amused, he wants to fit in. So he belts out a too loud and too pitchy “Ha Ha Ha!” At times he cuts it off mid-Ha, making it a very stark and somewhat startling transition. It clearly draws the distinction that while he’s making the noise, it’s meaningless to him.
Finally, after completing his transformation to Joker, he offers a genuine chuckle. It’s soft, disarming, and even a little endearing. It’s the first time we see a genuine happy laugh, followed immediately by a lot of blood.
4. Joker’s perspective of the world
In the movie, it’s actually kind of difficult to track what’s real because Arthur spends a lot of time fantasizing about his own anticipated fame and success. Since the movie is shown from his perspective, it’s impossible to tell whether his perception is accurate until he’s confronted with an irrefutable proof that what he saw before was false. For example, he gets to know his neighbor, they hang out, and become good friends, until he goes to her house to talk and she freaks out because she doesn’t know him as anything but the weird neighbor. Another example is when he does his first stand-up routine at an open-mic night and he’s a huge success and everyone is laughing until he sees a recording someone made of his performance and it proves he bombed horribly. It makes his mental break even more heartrending when you realize at the same time with him that everything that he clung to for stability was false.
In the comics, there’s no indication that Joker is fantasizing or hallucinating anything. He’s just a murderous psychopath who likes messing with people. You can always be sure that whatever you read in the panels of the comic is what is actually happening with him. There’s nothing to sympathize with because he’s deliberately entirely unsympathetic.
5. Joker’s relationship with Bruce Wayne and his father Thomas Wayne
In the comics, Joker’s relationship with the Wayne family is limited entirely to his interactions with Bruce, usually via Batman. It’s as simple as that.
However in ‘Joker,’ there’s a whole story about how Arthur’s mom lets it slip that he’s actually the love child of her and Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s dad). Predictably, he tried to contact Mr. Wayne to gain the father figure he’s always missed in his life. He first goes to the manor and fails to get in, but does have a quick and creepy interaction with a child named Bruce. He later corners Thomas in a bathroom to confront him, but instead of decency and understanding, which he was never going to get anyway, he’s told that his mother made up the whole story. Then Thomas socks him in the face and threatens to kill him. All of this is entirely off-canon, but critical to Arthur’s final steps in his transformation.
6. Thomas Wayne is a huge jerk
In the comics, the Wayne family was always portrayed as kindly philanthropists. Their deaths are horribly tragic and of course, serve as the catalyst for Bruce’s eventual donning of the famous Batman cowl. Not much is known of them other than that they are murdered and were doing good charity work.
In ‘Joker,’ the Waynes are completely different. Thomas, in particular, is anything but philanthropic. He’s aloof, out of touch with the common people, and openly disdainful of anyone who doesn’t think like him. He holds a press conference in which he basically calls all poor people “clowns,” which sparks massive protests. In the end when he is killed, rather than it being a simple robbery, it’s a deliberate act with the killer spitting out, “Hey Wayne! You get what you F#%@ing deserve!”
7. The death of Thomas and Martha Wayne
This is actually the only thing about the movie that is pretty much on canon. Aside from the bit about the Waynes being deliberately murdered, everything else is exactly as it is in every other portrayal. They leave a theater, run down an alley, get confronted, Thomas is shot. Then the killer grabs Martha’s pearls, they break, and are scattered all over the ground, and she gets killed too. Then poor young Bruce is shown standing over his parents’ corpses, looking forlorn.
On a personal note, I was very disappointed to see this. I’m so sick of seeing those freaking pearls bouncing in every Batman comic and film! I think as a society, we can all agree that we know Batman became who he is as a result of his family getting killed. Anyone who doesn’t know this probably will never see the film anyway. I was really hoping that given Phillips’ abject desire to avoid canon that we would be spared the pearls, but alas.
8. Joker’s philosophy
I could go on and on with these comparisons, but I’ll end it with this one – Joker’s overall philosophy. As I mentioned at the outset, the comic book Joker is pretty random at times, but in general, he likes to prove the depths to which people are capable of falling. He’s always up for sowing random chaos as well. You just never know exactly what he’s going to do or why.
However, in ‘Joker,’ during Arthur’s transformation, he wasn’t seeking chaos or making a point. He was just trying to survive. Yet, in the end, once he’d fully embraced the Joker entity by murdering his former co-worker and then dancing down the stairs, it became clear that he wanted to punish the hypocrisies of the rich and entitled and sow chaos in his wake. At one poignant moment right before he murders Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro) in mid-interview, he yells:
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?! I’ll tell you what you get! You get what you F#%@ing deserve!” (which leads to Wayne’s murder later).
Similarly, at one point as he’s coming into his new personality, he explains:
“I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I know it’s a F#%@ing comedy.” He later expounded, “My life is nothing but a comedy. Comedy is subjective. You decide what’s right or wrong the same way you decide what’s funny.”
Basically, instead of fighting against the tide of misery, he’s embracing it, directing it, and riding it full speed to its end.
He also embraces the chaos like his comic counterpart. While being taken away in a police car, they are driving through the streets that are erupting into chaos with riots everywhere. He laughs a little and one of the officers turns and yells at him,
“The whole city is on fire because of what you did!” To which Joker responds, “I know, isn’t it beautiful?”
The character of Joker is infinitely deep and has been through many iterations over the past 79 years. I hope you enjoyed the movie as much as I did, and if you’re new to the comics, take a dive into ‘The Killing Joke’ or perhaps ‘Arkham Asylum’ series to get a real taste of who the comic book Joker is.
Reference: ‘The DC Comics Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Characters of the DC Universe,’ Matthew K. Manning, 2016