The DC Cinematic Multiverse

Let’s end by discussing some of Joker‘s DC window dressing. It’s arguably the least essential facet of the plot, which is why I’ve saved this section for last. Feel free to check out now, if you want, unless you’re like me and were one of those fanboy fanatics who dressed up as Joker back in the day. (Review bias, betrayed?)

When you have a hero as mythic as Batman, cinematic retellings of that hero’s origin are par for the course. In the DC Cinematic Multiverse (my preferred nomenclature for the growing web of every DC movie ever released), we’ve seen pieces of Batman’s origin approximately umpteen times. However, someone really needs to call a moratorium on filming another version of the Wayne killings for at least a decade. It was only three years ago that we saw Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan of The Walking Dead portray Thomas and Martha Wayne in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. At this point, seeing the Waynes exit a theater with a Zorro movie on the marquee (in Joker, it’s the 1981 comedy Zorro, The Gay Blade) can only elicit an eye-roll of, “Here we go again, down Crime Alley. Martha, with the pearls.”

We’ve seen the pearls go spilling from Martha’s neck enough times that they can afford to give that part of the origin retelling a rest for a while. If Spider-Man can move beyond Uncle Ben’s death on film, Batman should be able to move beyond Thomas and Martha’s. As it is, the twist in Joker — whereby a clown-masked rando guns down the Waynes during a riot — initially struck me as asinine, but it’s understandable from the perspective of this as a big-screen Elseworlds tale. Were Joker a graphic novel published by DC Comics under a revived Elseworlds imprint, you can bet they might have something like that in there, winking at how this world was different from the main DC Universe continuity.

Having the Waynes become victims of the clown mob serves the larger theme of reckless individuals whipping up forces beyond their control. Yet seeing Joker shape Muppet Baby Bruce’s history might have been more impactful, for DC fans, had we not already seen Bat-villains emerging ahead of Batman’s existence on the TV series Gotham.

Before Thomas and Martha do bite the bullet, Joker plays with our expectations that it might be Arthur Fleck who orphans young Bruce. There’s a precedent for the Jack Napier Joker creating Batman this way in Tim Burton’s genre-heralding 1989 film; and Arthur would certainly have plenty of motive to do the deed, given his relationship with Batman’s dad in this movie. The Thomas Wayne connection is actually one tie-in with the Batman mythos that feels fresh in Joker.

For a while, it seems like the movie is going the route of Blofield and Bond in Spectre: setting up a new character dynamic wherein the two classic archenemies, Joker and Batman, become long lost brothers. This, in and of itself, is a bad idea, but on paper, positioning Arthur as the illegitimate son of a face-punching, plutocratic Thomas Wayne is an inspired choice for a movie told from the Joker’s perspective. It feels like the sort of psychological reframing that a Joker who had figured out Batman’s secret identity might sit around and do in his padded cell while he was hallucinating.

In the movie, we see Arthur acting like a child predator with Bruce outside the gates of Wayne Manor. Up till that moment, Arthur has appeared in a not-unforgivable light. It’s all well and good when he’s playing Death Wish with bullies on the subway, but when you see him stick his fingers in a kid’s mouth and force a gummy smile onto the boy’s face, that’s when he starts to look creepy and potentially monstrous in an unredeemable way.

Thankfully, Alfred the butler is there to swoop in and save Bruce, and also inform Arthur of his mother’s delusional history. Seeing Arthur manhandle Alfred through the bars of the gate only further diminishes him in our sight. Alfred is one of the good guys. There aren’t enough of those in the movie or in the real world.

Joker plugs itself into our corroded culture and asks us to follow along as a little man with a gun spirals out of control. It’s a movie that might make some viewers want to climb in their fridges to await the nuking of them. All I can say is, it and the broader cultural conversation surrounding it gave me, personally, a lot to digest (as you can probably tell from the sheer novelistic length of this review). See you in the funny pages.

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About the Author

Joshua Meyer is a Tokyo-based freelance writer who contributes to /Film and WDW News Today and has also contributed to GaijinPot and Japan Today. You can join his growing network of 100+ Twitter friends @TheGaijinGhost.