[TIFF 2019] Does The Joker actually need to take place within the Batman universe?
After circulating through Venice and Toronto to great, albeit controversial buzz, Todd Phillips’ The Joker is finally set for wide release next month. There’s a lot to dissect here, and anyone who has seen the film will know that classifying The Joker as a superhero movie would be a complete joke (!) of a statement. No, this is far from a superhero film, and the marketing team has been quite open about this too. In fact, there wasn’t even a DC Comics logo during the film's opening credits. But what The Joker does have, is a heavy presence from the Wayne family and some key details pertaining to Batman’s well known origin story. Which begs the question; did the film need the be set within the Batman universe?
Long story short, the answer is yes, but with some caveats. At its core, The Joker is a character study of pure madness in a society that seems to hinge on and gravitate towards chaos. Reports of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance being completely transformative and sublime are absolutely true, and the film is really just about the deranged psychology behind the character of Arthur Fleck. It forces audiences to take a deep dive into the crevices of a psychopathic mind, and does so in a painstakingly visceral way. I had goose bumps from the shear discomfort I felt during multiple parts of the film, which really speaks to the quality of filmmaking Phillips managed to pull off. It’s a damn good film.
But despite all this, in the brooding background, anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of who the Joker is as a character will not be able to shake off the fact that Arthur Fleck is meant to become one of Batman’s greatest enemies. It’s not something that’s clear and center throughout the entire film, which again, given how iconic the Joker is in the comic book world really speaks to the film’s success as a cinematic experience. But it’s always kind of there in the background, and the film even brings it to the foreground by introducing Bruce Wayne and showing that infamous alleyway shootout scene.
While that certainly answers the question of whether The Joker is set within the Batman universe, it doesn’t answer whether or not it needed to be. And as good as Phoenix’s performance was, and as crafty as Phillips’ filmmaking abilities are, the answer is still yes. If this was simply a film about a mentally ill and maladjusted man who blends his own reality into the identity of a clown, it would not have been the same experience. Knowing that Fleck is meant to transform into the Joker is what grounds the film with a sense of relatability, which is crucial in getting audiences to feel some degree of empathy towards the character. It somehow makes his actions more surprising, yet also feel more familiar. It’s a strange dichotomy that creates a tension for viewers, pulling them in when they clearly want to get out.
I suppose what made me so interested in this particular question is the fact that I had not expected The Joker to really feature any direct mentioning of either Batman or the Wayne family. So when they ended up getting a good amount of screen time, it made me examine why this might’ve been the case given that the film could seemingly work as a pure standalone. But as I’ve managed to convince myself on further reflection, the film would probably be something else entirely if Batman was completely removed from the equation. I’m certain that most viewers will agree with this, and I’ll assume that’s the reason why Todd Phillips and Scott Silver made the creative choices that they did. Don't get me wrong, this isn't a simple origin story for the famed villain either. It's something that hasn't been done before in the comic book movie world, so I don't really even know what to call it.
The fact that The Joker won the Golden Lion at Venice might indicate that the film maybe works as a pure standalone, assuming the festival’s jury members probably wouldn’t be comic book fans. But when you look at this year’s panel of jury members, I’m certain that all (if not most) of them would be familiar with the Joker as a character. My arguments here might not be completely airtight, but I’m sticking with them!