Joker may offer a completely new origin story for the iconic Batman villain, but it’s an origin story that feels like trying to find a single pebble at the bottom of muddy waters. In an effort to make his central character interesting, writer-director Todd Phillips relishes ambiguity, making it unclear if what we’re seeing is ever really the truth.
That sense of mystery harkens back to just how little we knew about previous iterations of the Joker (Heath Ledger’s take, notably, told conflicting stories about how he got his distinctive scars), but ultimately, it’s not a gambit that works. In Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is the central character rather than a villain going toe-to-toe with an equally large opposing presence; he needs to be grounded in a little clarity.
The biggest twist in the film hinges on a revelation about Fleck that we eventually discover could be the product of delusion. However, unlike other instances in which what we see is proved to be fabrications of Arthur’s imagination, this particular change is never hammered home, and is even pushed back by details that suggest he may not have been making it all up, after all. So what really happened?
[Ed. note: Major spoilers follow for Joker.]
When we realize that Arthur’s relationship with his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) has all been in his head, the film takes the trouble to show us each scene she’s been in, but with her presence removed. Similarly, when Arthur makes the discovery that his mother Penny (Frances Conroy) was delusional, we see the young version of her in Arkham Asylum, being interrogated about her neglect of her son.
The latter scene occurs as Arthur is forced to face facts about his supposed Wayne heritage. When he finally opens one of the letters that his mother has been sending to Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), he discovers that he’s Wayne’s son — Bruce Wayne’s (Dante Pereira-Olson) half-brother.
It’s a bombshell, certainly, and one taken to new heights when the elder Wayne — and Arkham Asylum records — reveal that Penny may have made the whole thing up.
The twist upon a twist that makes sense, with Arthur’s delusions about Sophie mirroring his mother’s about Thomas, but the film’s flashbacks of Penny in Arkham don’t focus on her relationship with Thomas so much as her neglect of Arthur and the abuse she allowed to be inflicted upon him. It’s a notable difference from the way we see Sophie’s relationship with Arthur cleared up, especially as, later on, we see a photo of Penny that’s been signed affectionately by one “TW.”
That single note leaves the door open for Penny to have been telling the truth, and the film’s avoidance of a clear answer feels more like a continued attempt at rejecting its comic book roots than sending a message. At best, this iteration of Joker would be a morality tale about class warfare and the treatment of the mentally ill, but by shying away from a clear answer about Arthur’s heritage — which eats up a considerable chunk of the movie and plays a significant role in his downward spiral — the film is undermining its own chance at making a statement.
Wouldn’t a story that claims to be about the people society abandons gain at least a little more poignance if its impoverished main character were revealed to be a billionaire’s son? The movie doesn’t gain anything by leaving it ambiguous, except to visibly try to keep itself at least a half-step further removed from its comic origins. It’s a great dramatic beat for the Joker to be a blood relation of Batman’s, it seems to say, but let’s hedge it in a little unreliable narration so we don’t have to call this a Batman movie.
There’s a surface-level argument to be made that some of Joker’s influences do the same thing — there are theories that the end of Taxi Driver was all a dream — but influences do not a movie make. The other thing that’s left ambiguous, Sophie’s fate, also seems conveniently left out to try to keep Arthur sympathetic. Some of my peers have told me they thought Arthur killed her, others have said he simply left her alone, but regardless, it’s not made crystal clear, and the way the door is left open for interpretation doesn’t make the film more interesting as much as it makes it messy.
That flip-flopping between hitting the audience over the head and withdrawing completely leaves the door open as to the ultimate statement of the film in a way that undermines, rather than enriches, the whole experience. It’s not ambiguous in an interesting way, à la whether or not the increasing horrors in The Lighthouse are the byproducts of being cooped up too long or genuine supernatural powers.
Instead, it rings of someone trying to have their cake and eat it, too, setting up too many story threads and neglecting to bring them all to a conclusion. So, maybe the Joker is Bruce Wayne’s brother. That such a detail is left unclear might be fine were Arthur only a part of a greater whole, but he’s front and center, here.
There’s little room for such half measures; if the film doesn’t ultimately care, then why should we?