Let’s Talk About Joker‘s Wild Batman Connection
*Obviously, major Joker spoilers below.
So you’ve seen Joker. Good, then this story is for you. Writer/director Todd Phillips (he co-wrote the script with Scott Silver) and Joaquin Phoenix delivered on their promise that Joker wouldn’t be like any previous superhero film. True enough. In nearly every conceivable way, Joker defied the conventions of the comic book movie and set itself apart narratively, stylistically, and emotionally. No superpowers. No faceoff between equally matched, diametrically opposed characters. No capes. No heroes. Just one deeply troubled individual’s descent into madness and mass murder. It’s not easy viewing.
The story of clown-turned-comedian-turned-sociopath Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is one of a man seemingly doomed to a demented life since childhood. The particulars of this 1980s-set psychodrama put Arthur in a world closer in tone and texture to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) and Taxi Driver (1976) than they do any previous film in the DC universe, to say nothing of any Marvel film. The fact that Robert De Niro plays the late-night talk show host and eventual Joker victim Murray Franklin only strengthens this connective tissue.
Yet Joker does contain a connection to the Clown Prince of Crime’s nemesis, Batman, and it’s a wild one. More than halfway through the film, Arthur finally opens up one of the letters his mother, Penny (Frances Conroy) has been writing to her former boss, and Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Through the first half of the film, Penny keeps insisting that Thomas Wayne is a good man, and if he only knew the squalor she and Arthur were living in, he’d step in to help. Arthur had, up until this point, entertained his mother’s obviously misplaced hope as something innocent, even sweet. Gotham’s a mess, but Thomas Wayne can set everything straight. He’s even running for mayor on that very premise. But then in the letter, Arthur finds out that Thomas Wayne wasn’t just his mother’s former employer—he’s Arthurs’ father.
The idea that the Joker and Batman might be half-brothers is an intriguing one and could be a potentially rich way to explain and explore the Joker’s longstanding obsession with the Dark Knight. Yet Joker muddies the waters considerably by never letting you firmly settle on what’s real and what’s a product of mental illness, be it Arthur’s or Penny’s. It’s clear Arthur’s troubled from the opening minutes of the movie, but we don’t learn about Penny’s apparent mental illness until after Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne. In this pivotal scene, the elder Wayne tells Arthur that not only is he not Arthur’s father, but his mother suffers from severe psychological problems and was committed to Arkham Asylum. Thomas Wayne isn’t done; he then tells Arthur that he’s adopted. For good measure, he punches Arthur in the face for having had the temerity to show up at Wayne Manor and lay his hands on little Bruce Wayne. (Who jumped to the boy’s rescue in that scene? A young-ish Alfred.)
Arthur eventually goes to Arkham and tracks down his mother’s file—in it, he learns she was committed to the insane asylum after having endangered the life of her adopted son (Arthur himself) when she did nothing to stop an abusive boyfriend from beating them both. Arthur was found shackled to a radiator with bruises all over his body.
So what’s real? That’s the question you might have had after you left the theater about the potential bond between Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne, and, frankly, everything else that happened. The fact that Arthur’s entire relationship with Zazie Beetz’s character Sophie was revealed to be in his head certainly increases the chances that nothing you saw in the film can be guaranteed to have happened. Was Penny telling the truth (and Thomas Wayne had her medical records doctored in order to shield himself and his promising career from her claims), or is Thomas Wayne correct and Penny was insane?
According to Thomas Wayne himself, Brett Cullen, the connection between the Joker and Batman is real. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Cullen had this to say:
“I was very surprised when I read the twist. I went to Todd and asked, ‘Are we playing this the way I think we’re playing this?’ Todd responded with, ‘What would be a compelling reason for the Joker to hate Batman so much?’ The idea that the Joker is an illegitimate child that didn’t get anything from the Wayne family is a very compelling motivation for his character’s hatred. This movie makes you feel for Arthur, when you see him struggling with his mother. And she’s saying, ‘Go see Thomas Wayne, he’ll help us. He’s a good man.’ It’s gut-wrenching.”
Cullen is pretty adamant about Thomas Wayne’s culpability, and goes on to say this:
“I asked Todd how Thomas Wayne would’ve known Arthur’s mother. The backstory was that Arthur’s mother had worked for Thomas in his home, and she was a beautiful woman who Thomas was attracted to and it led to a physical relationship. Later in life, she’s in and out of mental institutions. And in my mind, Thomas Wayne put her there. What I like about the film is that it’s about real people with real faults who make mistakes. Some are done out of protection, like moving Arthur and his mother out of the picture.”
There’s likely never going to be a clear answer to the question of whether the Joker and Bruce Wayne share a dad. Unless, of course, the unthinkable happens and Phoenix agrees to a sequel. Considering Joker ended with Arthur Fleck in Arkham Asylum and hinted that maybe nothing we saw was real, the brotherhood between the Joker and Batman will remain a lingering question, a possibility, nothing more, that Gotham’s most twisted relationship is actually a sibling rivalry.
For more of our Joker coverage, read our interviews with composer Hildur Guðnadóttir, costume designer Mark Bridges and makeup department head Nicki Lederman.
Featured image: Caption: JOAQUIN PHOENIX as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “JOKER”, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise