Todd Philips has taken one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time and forever altered his persona through Joaquin Phoenix's fractured and disturbing portrayal. In the movie Joker, we follow a lonely, isolated man as he's forced to work menial jobs around people that hate him, care for his mentally unstable mother, and survive in a callous world that wouldn't notice if he lived or died. He faces opposition with every social system designed to help him, until his total disenfranchisement swallows the last shred of his humanity.
His slow descent into madness, from a mild-mannered and mentally ill man into the sort of sinister, confident persona he creates for his own survival in Gotham City is unlike any version of The Joker we've seen. Over the years, many incarnations onscreen have featured a theatrical supervillain, and in the comics, he's been depicted as everything from a mentally deranged terrorist to a campy exhibitionist. Here are 5 changes the movie made to The Joker for the better, and 5 that are worse.
10 BETTER: MADE THE JOKER RELATABLE
While traditional incarnations of The Joker have been notoriously over-the-top, campy portrayals involving slapstick humor and exaggerated angst, Joaquin Phoenix's version is much more grounded in reality. He has a job that he derives little pleasure from and pays horribly. He has to take care of his ailing mother as an adult. He aspires to have a romance, and he wants to be noticed.
His Joker is a relatable figure who is shaped by societal forces; a persona created after Arthur Fleck is driven to the point of retaliation against the inequality that saturates his existence. In Joker, Gotham City is an inhospitable place for the disenfranchised, and no one personifies it more than him. He's not a theatrical supervillain, but someone you could sit next to on the bus.
9 WORSE: MADE THE JOKER SYMPATHETIC
While Joker does a good job at making Arthur Fleck a relatable human being, shaped by societal forces and curtailed by its pressures, it also unfortunately turns him into a sympathetic character. Because he's mercilessly bullied on screen for doing nothing more than existing with a mental illness, he entreats upon viewers' feelings of compassion and empathy.
The Joker has always traditionally been the antagonist. The problem with making a figure like The Joker sympathetic is that it has the unfortunate result of excusing his violent actions. His retaliation for the abuse he's suffered is homicidal and extreme, and should never be justified.
8 BETTER: SHOWED HOW THE JOKER CAME TO BE
While Heath Ledger's gritty portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight has been attributed to creating a more realistic version for a modern era, he was still a mystery. The reasons for him becoming The Joker were never explained, and at most he was thought of a dangerous psychopath. Phoenix's Joker provides us the exact moment when Arthur Fleck loses his grip on reality as The Joker persona takes over.
This schizophrenic response to his constant bullying ensures the dominant, more confident Joker side prevails because Arthur Fleck, on his own, would die. In fact, he does. In a particularly provocative scene involving a refrigerator, he commits a "visual" suicide, and re-emerges ready for his appearance on the Murray Franklin show in full Joker grandeur, visibly more confident, and even speaking differently.
7 WORSE: EXPLAINED WHAT MAKES HIM TICK
"Why does anyone do anything?" Joker asks Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) while appearing as a guest on the late night host's talk show. His question pertains to why Joker/Arthur Fleck shot and killed three men on the subway, who just so happened to be investment clerks that worked for Wayne Enterprise.
Joker answers its own rhetorical question: Joker killed them because he's a sociopath and doesn't have any sense of morality. But Arthur Fleck was driven to become The Joker after years of societal neglect and abuse. By explaining Joker's motivations and development, it robs the character of his truly terrifying component: he cannot be explained.
6 BETTER: MADE HIM SEEM REAL
Phoenix's Joker is by far the most realistic portrayal of the character onscreen. A downtrodden introvert with big hopes of one day being a stand-up comedian, he yearns for human connection. We see him go to work, take care of his ailing mother, and try to strike up conversation with a neighbor he has an obvious attraction towards.
We also see him get swept up in a socio-political movement after he murders three investment clerks who work for Wayne Enterprise. His Joker persona manifests when he no longer desires to play by society's rules, because the systemic failure of society has let him down. This makes him much more likely to really exist than any other more cartoonish incarnation.
5 WORSE: TIED HIM TO THOMAS WAYNE
The Joker and Batman have often been described as two sides of the same coin in the comics. They are each other's polar opposites, and reflect what each other represents. Chaos and anarchy on one side, with self-righteous order on the other.
By implying that Thomas Wayne may be Arthur Fleck's father, this concept is taken to a problematic new height. Now that Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck could be brothers, it implies that the privilege one has access to (in this case, the Wayne family wealth) determines how one will flourish or otherwise. It not only paints Thomas Wayne in a salacious light, but it also ties Bruce Wayne to the avarice of the 1% that use and abuse those less fortunate than themselves.
4 BETTER: TIED HIM TO TOPICAL ISSUES
Joker makes many references to topical issues that have never been touched on in typical cape-and-cowl films. The superhero genre largely shies away from making any sort of political statement, as well as using its characters to reflect on pertinent talking points.
By giving Arthur Fleck a mental illness like Pseudobulbar Affect, depicting him as the victim of horrendous bullying, and conveying the impact of income inequality, gentrification, and civil unrest on his life, Joker can create a dialogue about issues that are active concerns in our society today.
3 WORSE: MADE HIM CARE TOO MUCH ABOUT OTHER'S PERCEPTION OF HIM
One of the more curious elements of Joker involves his desire for acceptance. He wants to relate to people - his co-workers, his absentee father, his cute neighbor, etc. He wants to be acknowledged as a person, and wants nothing more than to make something of himself to stand out in the crowds of Gotham instead of being constantly neglected and ignored.
In the comics, The Joker has never been concerned with the perception of others. He refutes societal norms because he isn't a part of it. He's typically been a sociopath in the pursuit of chaos, so making him concerned with fitting in goes against one of the defining parts of his character.
2 BETTER: DIDN'T RELY ON BATMAN
As Batman's arch-nemesis, The Joker has always been tied to Batman. He appeared in the very first issue of Batman over 80 years ago, and has often been depicted as being a direct result of Batman's presence. The Joker is a response to Batman, and his antithesis.
Joker doesn't rely on Batman's presence to tell its story. In fact, if you didn't know who the Waynes were, their presence in the film as Bruce Wayne's/Batman's parents wouldn't affect the plot at all. It stands on its own as an independent story that only suggests its events inspired Batman to be created.
1 WORSE: MADE HIM THE HERO
One of the most salient concepts Joker introduces is that The Joker is a hero. He becomes a symbol for overturning unjust societal rules that no longer serve Gotham's citizens and a bastion of control for a population that's become sick of their lives governed by the wealthy few.
While it isn't inherently wrong to paint villains as victims of circumstance, making them heroes can be problematic. It can glorify their actions in unintentional ways, and absolve them of narrative consequence. Everyone is the hero of their own story, and it's no different in Arthur Fleck's case, but he commits a lot of heinous crimes that he must eventually atone for.