WARNING: The following contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in theaters now.
Joker depicts a Gotham that's unlike virtually any version of the city that's ever appeared on-screen, stripped down of most of the more absurd elements of the Batman mythos. As Arthur Fleck, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, becomes increasingly unhinged, so too does Gotham.
One person trying (and failing) to impact Gotham is one of its most powerful men, Thomas Wayne, played Brett Cullen. Despite his wealth and mayoral campaign, the city is soon consumed by the growth of the Joker as a symbol. Along the way, Thomas reveals his true feelings about "men who wear masks," hinting at how he might have actually responded to his son, Bruce, becoming Batman -- had he lived to see it, that is.
Thomas Wayne fuels much of the conflict in the film. He's the center of Penny Fleck's obsessions, inadvertently drawing Arthur's attention to the wealthy man. Arthur accidentally forms a connection with Thomas' company, Wayne Enterprises, after getting fired from his job as a clown for bringing a gun to work. Despondent, Arthur ends up alone on a train with three drunken Wayne employees, who berate and assault him. He then pulls his gun and kills them.
Arthur avoids prosecution because his clown makeup obscured his face. He quickly becomes a mythic figure to the lower classes of Gotham, who aren't aware of his motivation for killing the men, but instead interpret the act as the first shot in class war. Many people even begin to wear Joker masks and makeup, spreading the symbol as the city is gripped by heated protests. During an interview following the deaths of his employees, Thomas Wayne speaks out against all the people who are rallying behind the image.
He specifically calls out the killer for wearing a mask when he committed the crimes. A mayoral candidate, Thomas points out that he's out there trying to save Gotham, his identity exposed to everyone, and goes so far as to brand as a "coward" and a "clown" anyone who dons a mask while trying to change the world. Given the eventual direction of the fictional universe, and the person who eventually stands against such colorful characters as the Joker, the moment is a knowing wink to an audience well aware of the mythology.
THE PROBLEM WITH MASKS
The opinion from Thomas carries additional layers, of irony given his history and place within the DC Universe. Despite his belief that people who wear masks are weak-willed clowns, both Thomas and his son don the cape and cowl in different DC comic book realities. Joker even hints that this will, of course, eventually be the fate of this version of Bruce Wayne, too, as it recreates the tragic events of Crime Alley, and leaves young Bruce Wayne alone with his trauma.
The elder Wayne's opinion suggests that, in this iteration at least, Thomas would be disappointed in the path his son takes as the protector of Gotham.
A MASK OF HIS OWN
The Thomas Wayne Batman -- an even darker version than his son -- hails from DC's Flashpoint universe, where it was young Bruce who was killed by Joe Chill, leaving Thomas and Martha alive to grieve the loss. That motivates Thomas to become a brutal version of Batman, and Martha, driven mad by the incident, to become the Joker. Although the character was seemingly wiped from existence at the conclusion of Flashpoint, he has reappeared throughout writer Tom King's run on Batman, where he's battled his son and even attempted to resurrect his long-dead wife.
The idea of Thomas Wayne openly resisting what eventually defines his son is an interesting wrinkle in a world where the elder Wayne died because of the actions of a man in a mask. The riot that breaks out because of Arthur murdering Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on live television sends the entire city into chaos. Leaving a movie theater, the Waynes try to avoid the bedlam by fleeing down Crime Alley, where they are cornered by a man in a mask who shoots them dead.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham.
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