“Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another…If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
When it was first announced Joker would be getting his own standalone origin story film, the internet had a lot of thoughts. One big concern that many fans had was the “multiple choice” aspect of the character. In the Alan Moore comic book The Killing Joke, Joker expressed his desire to have such a multiple choice past — one that only worked to incite more in the readers’ imagination than any confirmed origin would.
This idea continued in The Dark Knight when Heath Ledger’s Joker told two people two different ways he got the scars on his cheeks. As with The Killing Joke, this only added to the mythos surrounding the character and helped with the intrigue that led to Ledger landing a posthumous Oscar for his role.
So, when we were told about this origin film starring Joaquin Phoenix, we were concerned that it would somehow cheapen the mystery behind the character we’ve grown to love and hate over the decades and decades of storytelling. Surely, no one story could effectively fill the imaginational void we’ve been filling in our heads with our own stories, right?
Well, Joker has hit theaters, and many of us have seen it, and while some may say this film does do a good job of telling such a story in a more realistic and grounded take on the character, I’d argue that the film still maintains that air of mystery we like with the character.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), if you haven’t seen Joker, be warned, there are spoilers abound.
Of course, you can look at most of the events in the film as a mostly-true telling and think of it as a Joker origin film, but there are plenty of times the movie tells us that Arthur Fleck isn’t meant to be seen as a reliable narrator. Early on in the movie, we see a moment where Arthur imagines himself in the studio during a taping of the Murray Franklin show — an even that clearly did not happen and only played as a Rupert Pupkin-esque dream sequence.
We were treated to a heavier dose of this later on when it was revealed that the girl Arthur had been seeing, played by Zazie Beetz, actually didn’t really know him at all. She only knew him as the guy from down the hall, meaning that nearly every interaction he had with her following an awkward elevator ride near the beginning of the movie, was totally fabricated.
Later, at a key moment in the film, Arthur’s therapist tells him her department was getting shut down, and that she would no longer be able to see him, to which Arthur asks where he’ll be getting his medication (hint: the answer seems clear that he won’t actually be able to get his seven or so medications following this meeting). It is after this event that the bulk of the crazy clown movement begins to take hold in Gotham City.
Now, it’s debatable as to which point things start to go off the rails in terms of reality and imagination. Some may point to everything after that final therapist meeting to be subject to embellishment from Arthur’s imagination. Some may point to pretty much anything positive — including his appearing on Murray Franklin’s show, his murdering of his former co-worker, his murdering of Murray Franklin, and his clown cohorts breaking him out of a cop car — all being wishful thinking.
Some may think that it’s just the moment where the ambulance crashes into the cop car, and a legion of clowns carries Arthur from the vehicle and places him on the hood. When he comes to, Arthur stands up, draws a more definitive smile on his lips with his blood and pretty much hams it up for the crowd. It seems like another King of Comedy-like moment of delusion.
If we wanted, we could probably cherrypick which scenes we think are real and which aren’t. From the idea that he could be the son of Thomas Wayne to his taking back his own agency through a series of murder, the film has proven that no event is safe from alteration in Arthur’s own mind. Then again, I’m sure you’ll also have plenty of fans who like to think all the events not confirmed to be real are, in fact, real.
And then we have the therapy sessions. Early on, we get a quick flash of Arthur being kept in a mental institution, and at the end, we see him in a similar white room. It’s very possible that the white room at the end is the same as the one we see glimpses of earlier, and that this entire thing could be a fabrication in his own mind.
Then again, one could read that ending as a simple confirmation of how loose the threads are in Arthur’s head, as we see him walk down the corridor with bloodstained footprints, hinting that he’s killed his therapist, and that he’s just a murderous lunatic capable of all the things we saw him do over the course of the movie.
Pretty much what I’m saying here, is that while Joker does tell the pretty straightforward story of a man who’s been wronged by an entire society, and how it can lead them to do dangerous things, it could also plausibly tell the story of a man who creates stories in his own head, and that, based on how he feels in any given moment, he can shape that story to fit his own memories.
So, yes, Joker is kind of an origin story for the character, but if you were worried about this film taking out some of Joker’s mystery, you can put those concerns to rest. Somehow, director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix were able to craft a film that allows us to sympathize with the villain of a world without eliminating one of Joker’s more important aspects: his overall ambiguity.
So, what do you think happened here? Which origin of Joker do you buy from the movie? Sound off down below!
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