One of the odd and divisive qualities of Todd Phillips' Joker is just how little its main character feels like any traditional version of the titular Batman villain. Radical reinterpretations of the Joker are par for the course, but detaching the character from Batman makes this version feel especially detached from past versions. Simply put, Arthur Fleck in Joker does not come across as the sort of criminal mastermind who could be Batman's archnemesis. He's a sad loner, not particularly bright and more reminiscent of the average spree killer than a plotting supervillain.
To be fair, this was intentional. Phillips has acknowledged the possibility that Arthur Fleck isn't the Joker but simply a Joker who inspires the future supervillain. Given that Arthur's greatest social impact comes about entirely by accident, unintentionally kickstarting a violent "clown" protest movement, the fan theory that an actual mastermind worthy of being Batman's greatest enemy could have been one of the people Arthur inspired makes a lot of sense. Still, those wanting a more traditional Joker story could still find this underwhelming.
Bong Joon-ho's Parasite has a lot of parallels to Joker. Both are bleak, darkly comic films that inspire the audience to uncomfortably sympathize with morally dubious characters in a story without heroes. Both also invoke issues of class and the potential for class-related conflicts to escalate into violence. The universally acclaimed Parasite handles these themes with more sophistication and nuance than the divisive Joker. In fact, not only is Parasite a better film than Joker, but you can make the argument that, with some trims to the ending, it would make for a better Joker origin story.
Parasite's Kim Ki-woo, in contrast to Arthur Fleck, is a genius schemer -- a con artist who'll do anything to take his poor family to the top and then keep them there. At first, the fraud is easy to root for. We see how much his family is struggling to get by, living in a basement where the WiFi only works on the toilet, so when he has to create fake identities for himself and his family members to get hired to work in the Park household, you want him to succeed. By the time Ki-woo, his sister Ki-jeong and father Ki-taek are triggering the housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang's allergies so mother Chung-sook can steal her job, you might be second-guessing that desire.
Once all the Kims are hired and getting comfy in the Kims' fancy house, the film's big secret "twist" drops. Moon-gwang shows up at the house desperate to return to her husband Geun-sae, who's been secretly living parasitically off the Parks in their underground bunker to escape loan sharks. The ensuing conflict between Geun-sae, Moon-gwang, the Kims and, after an early return from their vacation, the Parks is where the film transforms into a tense thriller that erupts into violence far more grotesque than anything in Joker.
Joker's approach to violent class conflict as a film is one of odd disinterest given how frequently it invokes the issue in the background. While poverty and the defunding of welfare programs certainly contribute to Arthur's problems, he's mostly unconcerned about them himself, constantly taking an apolitical attitude and only really invoking social problems in the end as an excuse to lash out.
Parasite has a similarly negative view of humanity, but a more thoughtful approach to class issues: It's not "rich people are mean, therefore poor people become psycho clowns." The rich family in Parasite isn't even really "mean" so much as just laughably clueless. Instead, it's the very nature of capitalism that demands everyone on every level end up abandoning some degree of morality in order to succeed. The thing with cut-throat competition is that someone's throat ends up getting cut -- and in Parasite, several other body parts too.
Ki-Woo doesn't end up actually killing anyone, but not for lack of trying. He's prepared to bash in Geun-sae's skull with the lucky rock his friend gave him to grant him wealth. In an ironic bit of symbolism, Geun-sae takes the rock and bashes Ki-Woo in the head, seemingly leaving him for dead during the birthday party bloodbath which kills his sister and leads his parents to kill in retaliation.
Surprisingly, Ki-Woo isn't actually dead. Waking up from a coma and brain surgery weeks later, Ki-Woo is told of everything that went down... and he laughs uncontrollably at everything. You could place a "Joker" title card right there and the audience would break out in applause.
Of course, Parasite still has a few minutes more in its runtime, with Ki-Woo ultimately recovering and seemingly returning to the straight and narrow in order to attempt properly raising enough money to buy the house his father's stuck hiding in. Still, if you ended it just a few minutes earlier, you'd have a more convincing supervillain origin than Todd Phillips' Joker.
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, in theaters now.
Directed by Bong Joon-ho, Parasite stars Song Kang-ho, Lee Sun-kyun, Cho Yeo-jeong, Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam and is playing in select theaters now.