When the words "The End" appear on the screen at the conclusion of "Joker", this is really the end.
Unlike just about every other modern comic film, the movie – which circulates today in theaters in a wave of well-divided criticism, concerns about possible violence and endless reflections on what it all means – has no post-credit sequel. If you expect to see a tease from the upcoming Batman franchise, or any other part of DC's movie universe, you will be very disappointed. In every way this "Joker" stands alone.
But that does not mean that everything is perfectly wrapped up the moment the credits roll. When they leave the theater, the audience can reflect on more than the provocative portrayal of an alienated loner, pushed into monstrous violence by an indifferent society on the brink of chaos. At a more fundamental level, they may be asking some basic questions about the history of the movie – and if there is more than it appears.
Both Todd Phillips, who directed and co-wrote "Joker", and Joaquin Phoenix, who plays the disgruntled clown renter and possible comedian Arthur Fleck, say that was their intention.
"This movie requires some audience participation," Phoenix told The Times recently. "It's up to you how you want to interpret it and try it. It's less you being presented with the facts than being presented with those possibilities. "
In August, just before the film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, Phillips shared his thoughts on some of these possibilities.
Warning: Big "Joker" spoilers ahead. Seriously, we're not kidding.
From the beginning, Phillips was drawn to the Joker largely because, for all of the character's numerous iterations over the decades, there has never been a single definitive version of Gotham's Clown Prince of Crime background story. Hit man turned criminal genius? Former hypnotist and master of disguise? Mobster whose face was disfigured after falling into a vat of acid? Being immortal evil? At various points in Batman's canon, the Joker has been all that and more.
Phillips appreciated the freedom and opportunity for creative antics offered. "I loved being able to take this fictional character and do what we wanted with him," he said. "It was one of the funniest scripts to write because you were just breaking rules."
This image of the Joker's "awakening" was one of many iconic scenes from "The Killing Joke" graphic novel.
(Brian Bolland / DC Entertainment)
As the Joker tells of his own story in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's 1988 graphic novel "The Killing Joke" – an important inspiration for the "Joker" screenplay that described the character as a failed comedian – "I don't have much sure what it was. Sometimes I remember one way, sometimes another … If I'm going to have a past, I'd rather it be multiple choice. "
Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver put this ambiguity in "Joker" from the start, with Fleck a fundamentally unreliable narrator of their own turbulent history.
Earlier in "Joker", we discovered that Fleck spent some time in Arkham Asylum, a notorious hospital for insane criminals in the Batman universe, because of an unspecified mental problem and that he is taking the medicine that helped him administer it. . From then on, "Joker" sometimes blurs the line between realism and fantasy, with certain moments and even whole stories, such as Fleck's novel with an empathetic neighbor (Zazie Beetz), revealed to be apparent delusions arising from his growing disturbed mind. .
In the final scene of the film, Fleck, having inspired a violent uprising throughout the city after committing a series of brutal murders, landed in handcuffs at Arkham Asylum, where he is being questioned about the events that led to him there. When he laughs to himself – interspersed with a picture of Bruce Wayne crying over the bodies of his murdered parents – his interlocutor, apparently a psychiatrist or social worker, asks what's so funny. He says he was thinking of a joke, but she didn't understand.
When the movie ends, we see Fleck running down the halls of the asylum, to the sound of Frank Sinatra's “That's Life” (“I was a puppet, a beggar, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king”). dragging bloody footprints, clearly claiming another victim.
What is real anyway?
"Joker" offers a fresh take on Batman's villain, with Joaquin Phoenix in the title role.
Given the film's slippery relationship to certain basic facts, it is fair to question, as some fans do, whether Fleck was actually at Arkham Asylum all the time and just imagined the whole narrative as a kind of pathological mental confabulation or insane form of wish fulfillment. .
Although Phillips welcomes this debate, he doesn't want to tip his hand one way or the other. He will say, however, that throughout the making and making of the film he deliberately avoided defining Fleck as psychotic or schizophrenic or suffering from any other clearly established disorder.
"Me, Scott and Joaquin, never talk about what he has – I never meant, 'He's a narcissist and this and that,'" said Phillips. "I didn't want Joaquin as an actor to start researching that sort of thing. We just said, 'He's off.' I don't even know he's mentally ill. He's just with his left foot." in the world. "
That said, given Fleck's increasingly fractured mental state, Phillips can certainly understand why viewers may speculate that much, if not all, of the story may not really have come out the way we see it.
"There are several ways to see this movie," said Phillips. “You can look at it and continue:‘ This is just one of your multiple choice stories. None of this happened. I don't want to say what it is. But a lot of people I showed said, "Oh, I see – he just made up a story." The whole movie is a joke. That's the thing this Arkham Asylum guy invented. He can't even be the joker. & # 39; "
More than one "Joker"?
This raises another intriguing possibility. Even though everything in the movie happened the way we see it and Fleck unintentionally brought Gotham down into chaos and violence, is he the real Joker we know? Or, as some fans have theorized, could one of his followers – perhaps the clown-masked bandit who kills Bruce Wayne's parents – or another disturbed and angry loner who comes his way be the one who eventually becomes the ultimate enemy of Bruce Wayne? Batman?
Maybe Joaquin's character inspired the Joker. You really don't know. The last sentence of the movie is: "You wouldn't understand."
"Maybe Joaquin's character inspired the Joker, ”said Phillips. "You really don't know. His last sentence in the movie is:" You wouldn't understand. "There's a lot of interesting stuff here."
This explanation may explain the significant age difference between middle-aged Fleck and Bruce Wayne, who is seen in "Joker" as a child. In earlier portraits of the Joker-Batman relationship, including Tim Burton's "Batman" and Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight", the characters are much closer in age.
Here too Phillips is letting the public decide what they think. But he offers that while he has no plans to follow up on "Joker", he should meet with Phoenix to follow up, we should not expect to see Fleck's Joker confront an adult. Batman "We would never do that," he said. "No no. We just want to see where he goes from there."
The last laugh
Some laughs may not be happy: Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in "Joker".
There is one thing – call it a clue or just an interesting rumor – that Phillips will unambiguously say about the ending of "Joker."
Throughout the film, Fleck laughs uncontrollably and often inappropriately, as a result of an involuntary real-life condition called pseudobulbar, which Phillips and Silver researched in writing the script. But, says Phillips, the laugh the character lets out in the final moments of the movie is different from the rest.
"That laugh in that scene is really the only time he laughs genuinely," Phillips said. “There are different laughs in the movie. There is the laughter of Arthur's distress and then his fake laugh when he tries to be one of the people, which is my favorite laugh. But in the end, when he's in Arkham Asylum's room, that's his only genuine laugh in the movie. "
What does this mean exactly? Well, again, it's up to you to decide.
In some ways, the open nature of "Joker" is in keeping with some of the earlier, more subtle film studies that profoundly influenced Phillips – in particular, 1976's "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy," 1982. They were directed by Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro, who has a supporting role in "Joker" as the host of the evening Murray Franklin.
Over the years, many viewers have been intrigued by the conclusions of both films, wondering if the oddly optimistic ending of "Taxi Driver" represents the dying thoughts or thoughts of vigilante Travis Bickle and the final scene of "King of Comedy," ” In which the failed comic Rupert Pupkin achieves fame and glory is pure fantasy.
Such deliberately unresolved ambiguities can make you feel tormented or frustrated. But as the person who brought this new vision of the Joker to the screen, Phillips …