Major spoilers ahead for Warner Bros. new film, “Joker.”
Director Todd Phillips’ “Joker” depicts the gradual unraveling of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled man who, through some very disturbing circumstances, breaks bad and transforms into the criminal who will one day become Batman’s greatest enemy.
While existing entirely on it’s own as a standalone story and unconnected to any other DC Comics films, “Joker” presents a possible origin story for the clown prince of crime connected both to the Gotham City setting and to the history of Batman as a character. In fact, it’s the second time a film has gone out of its way to connect the Joker’s origins to the Caped Crusader in some fashion, after 1989’s Tim Burton-directed “Batman,” which revealed that as a younger man, the Joker is the one who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents.
So it’s understandable to wonder if the Caped Crusader himself ever makes an appearance in the film. So, does he?
Seriously, major spoilers from this point on.
The short answer: No. The superhero Batman does not appear, nor is the name Batman ever once uttered or alluded to, in “Joker.”
But the longer answer: Although Batman isn’t in “Joker,” Bruce Wayne, and his parents Thomas and Martha Wayne, very much are and they play a central role in Arthur Fleck’s delusions that lead to his eventual descent into criminal madness.
Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in particular looms large over the film and its plot, much like Robert De Niro’s late-night TV host Murray Franklin. In 1981 (when the film takes place) Gotham City is suffering a major economic depression, with widespread unemployment and rising class tensions. Thomas, Gotham’s richest citizen, is publicly considering a run for Mayor and in his early appearances seems to be presenting himself as the only man capable of solving the city’s woes.
Thomas Wayne also has a more direct connection to the plot: Arthur’s mother, played by Frances Conroy, tells Arthur that she had an affair with Thomas Wayne during her time working as his housekeeper, and what’s more, Wayne is Arthur’s father.
After learning this, Fleck goes to Wayne Manor to try and meet Thomas, where he encounters — and has a lengthy and very menacing exchange — with a young Bruce Wayne, played by Dante Pereira-Olson (“You Were Never Really Here,” “Jessica Jones”) before being interrupted by Alfred.
Much later in “Joker,” Arthur confronts Thomas directly, only to be coldly told that his mother is delusional, that she was fired for, essentially, stalking Thomas, and that Arthur is adopted. The situation is however left highly ambiguous: Arthur gets his hands on paperwork from when his mother was committed to Arkham Asylum, and though it seems to support Thomas’ version of events, it also looks like his adoption papers might have been faked.
The Waynes pop up one more time after that, right near the end, for the film’s most direct allusion to Batman when we see the “Joker” version of Batman’s origin story.
Now, much like the death of Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man films, if you’ve seen the death of Bruce Wayne’s parent’s, you’ve seen it a thousand times: After seeing a movie, Thomas, Martha and Bruce take a short cut through crime alley where they’re accosted by a robber, who rips off Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace, then shoots Thomas and Martha to death and bails. Cue a years of grieving and trauma until Bruce Wayne grows up to become the Dark Knight.
The “Joker” twist is that the thug who kills Thomas and Martha isn’t a career criminal named Joe Chill — it’s a protester participating in Occupy Wall Street-style demonstrations inspired by Arthur. See, earlier in the film, Arthur, in his first criminal act, murders three finance bros who were sexually harassing a woman on the subway. The bros happened to work for Wayne Industries, leading observers to conclude the men were murdered as part of a political statement.
Witnesses noted that the killer happened to be wearing a clown costume (Arthur dressed like a clown for his job and was still wearing his work clothes), and as the city’s grim economic conditions escalate protesters begin wearing clown masks. So near the end of the film, as police are trying to catch Arthur, they accidentally shoot a clown-masked protester and in response riots break out all over Gotham City.
For some reason, the Waynes decided that was the perfect time to take in a showing of “Zorro: The Gay Blade.” They come out of the theater, duck into an alley to avoid the riots, and run into someone wearing a clown mask, who does the Bruce Wayne childhood trauma honors.
And in case you’re wondering: That… unusual take on Batman’s origins likely won’t carry over into other movies. “Joker” exists in its own standalone universe, and it definitely won’t be connected to director Matt Reeves’s upcoming “The Batman,” starring Robert Pattinson.
And besides, for what it’s worth we wonder if he’s even the Joker at all.