Joker Is a Deliberate Perversion of the Superhero Origin Story

This article contains major spoilers for Joker.

Joker co-writer and director Todd Phillips doesn’t see the film as a conventional superhero movie but as an extended homage to ’70s and ‘80s cinema. The film was originally meant to be produced by Martin Scorsese and owes an obvious debt to his films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. Joker includes sequences that evoke landmarks of American cinema from the long stairs in The Exorcist to the visceral train chase in The French Connection. Phillips has even cited Chantel Akerman’s documentary set in 1970s New York as an influence of his film.

Phillips told star Joaquin Phoenix to think of Joker as a heist movie, stealing the superhero budget from Warner Bros. to make a different sort of film. Phillips has openly dismissed standard superhero cinema, admitting that he doesn’t even watch most comic book blockbusters. “They give me headaches half the time, they’re so loud,” he told IndieWire. Joker does not draw from any particular comic book source material. Phillips told Empire, “We’re not even doing Joker, but the story of becoming Joker.”

In spite of these protestations, Joker is very much a superhero movie. DC Comics chief creative officer and co-publisher Jim Lee has argued that there is nothing in the film that explicitly contradicts the long-standing characterization of the Batman villain. While that might be a stretch, Joker carries over a surprising amount of comic book material for a film that eschews the classification.

Although the first half of the film teases a linear and clear-cut origin for failed comedian Arthur Fleck, the second half adds a lot more ambiguity and shading reflecting the “multiple choice” origin that Alan Moore and Brian Bolland proposed for the character in their graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke. The film’s talk show-based climax evokes the Joker’s triumphant return to public life in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

Joker Is a Deliberate Perversion of the Superhero Origin Story

Joker offers a warped reflection of the classic superhero origin story, which is typically about transcendence. Tony Stark is reborn in a cave in a wartorn country and Steve Rogers becomes a new man after taking a special superhero serum. Christopher Nolan articulated the concept very literally in Batman Begins when Bruce Wayne makes himself “more than just a man.”

In Joker, Arthur also aspires to be more than he is. “I want to be seen,” he scrawls in his notebook. He tells his social worker, “My whole life, I didn’t know even if I really existed. But I do. People are starting to notice.” When Arthur finally appears on the late-night talk show that he loves, he takes the stage name “Joker.” Over the course of the film, Arthur’s clown makeup becomes a larger symbol than the man himself. It is adopted by populist protests against the city’s elites, like the chalk bat symbols in The Dark Knight Rises or the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta in real life.

Superheroes are meant to represent ideals. When Lois Lane asks about Superman’s iconic “S” shield in Man of Steel, the hero explains “On my world it means hope.” The irony of Joker is that Arthur’s elevation to a symbol is entirely empty and meaningless. Arthur is not a champion of the working class or an avatar of a populist uprising. “I’m not political,” Arthur repeatedly states when pressed about the movement’s use of clown imagery, and he seems to believe it.

The subway murders that turned Arthur into a celebrity were not an act of class warfare, but simple self-defense. As Gotham descends into anarchy, Arthur is not leading the people inspired by his example. He is appearing on Murray Franklin’s (Robert DeNiro) show, indulging his own yearning for celebrity. When Arthur finds himself feted by rioters at the end of the movie, it is by accident rather than by design.

Joker Is a Deliberate Perversion of the Superhero Origin Story

Joaquin Phoenix lost 52 pounds to play the Joker, which seems like a pointed inversion of the standard superhero template. Chris Hemsworth put on 20 pound of muscle to play Thor and Chris Evans gained 30 to play Captain America, presenting superheroes as hypermasculine ideals. Phoenix’s emaciated form is a parody of the template.

Flying is a powerful visual metaphor for the way in which heroes rise above themselves in films like Superman or Iron Man. In contrast, Joker is about descent. In the first half of the film, Arthur is constantly trundling up steps to humiliation after humiliation: a job he hates, a toxic home life, and comedy club embarrassment. Joker suggests that Arthur is liberated through descent. Arthur often skips and bounds down steps, to the point that one of the film’s most distinctive (and mimetic) set pieces finds the character dancing down the stone stairs from his apartment building.

The standard narrative arc of the superhero origin story involves the loss of a surrogate or biological parent, usually, although not exclusively, a father figure. Thomas and Martha Wayne die so that Batman may be born. Tony Stark’s fellow captive professor Ho Yinsen sacrifices himself to help Stark escape and become Iron Man. Steve Rogers cradles Dr. Abraham Erskine’s dead body in his arms on the same day the scientist turned him into a superhero. Peter Parker learns the importance of responsibility after the death of Uncle Ben.

Joker plays with that template. Arthur spends most of the film actively looking for his father. Initially, he fantasizes about being embraced by talk show host Murray Franklin, who Arthur imagines likening him to an ideal son. Later, Arthur buys into his mother’s confession that Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) might actually be his long-absent biological father. This absence drives Arthur as much as anger at society or desire for human connection. When Thomas asks what Arthur wants from him, Arthur denies wanting money. “Some warmth,” he suggests. “A hug.”

Superhero stories often hinge on cementing the connection between father and son, from Bruce Wayne saying, “Yes father, I shall become a bat,” to Thor proving himself worthy of his inheritance. Instead, Joker further strips away this connection. Arthur isn’t even the biological son of Penny (Frances Conroy), the woman he calls mother. He was adopted by her and abused by her boyfriends.

Joker ends with the death of Arthur’s two surrogate fathers. He shoots Murray at point blank while Thomas is murdered by a stranger wearing one of the clown masks Arthur inspired. Joker is employing the language of superhero origin stories, but the execution is deliberately perverse. Arthur doesn’t just confront the mortality of his father figures; he is responsible for their deaths. The result is an unsettling twist on many of the core ideas and motivations of a superhero story, using the perversion of familiar beats to produce something truly uncanny and unsettling.

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a self-professed nerd living on the East Coast of Ireland. He runs his a blog (the m0vie blog), co-hosts two weekly film podcasts (The 250, Scannain) and has written books on The X-Files and the films of Christopher Nolan. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.

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    1. I really don’t see how this is a ‘perversion’ of a superhero movie, other than being slightly more violent. Like, in Spiderman 2, Doc Ock’s trajectory towards becoming a villain is set up as a contrast to Spiderman. He is a talented and sensitive individual who shares a lot in common with Peter Parker, but when given power and the tragic loss of a loved one, for which he is partly responsible, he turns to violence and villainy. It is an inversion of Spiderman’s origin story. But it is not a ‘subversion’ or ‘perversion’ of a superhero story. Supervillains have always been positioned as dark contrasts to heroes and frequently have origins that mirror the heroes they confront. That’s kinda the point.

      In fact, the Joker has often been an outlier among villains by intentionally not having any sort of relatable origin story that contextualizes his actions. That is more subversive to the formula than this movie, which gives a fairly traditional origin of ‘bad stuff happens to this guy that pushes him over the edge.’

      1. Completely agree. A complete subversion would be to the Joker actually trying to do good things or believing he is doing good.

        1. Wouldn’t that just be a superhero origin story, then?

          1. But this movie is a superhero origin story for the Joker. What’s subversive about the Joker being bad and killing people?

            1. Well, as discussed above, it’s structured to invert many of the core beats of the superhero origin story.

              Superhero origin stories are about ascent (flying) while this is about descent (the stairs). Superhero origin stories are about people coming into their own after the death of a (possibly surrogate) father that infuses meaning to a character’s life (Uncle Ben, Thomas Wayne, Jor-El, Jonathan Kent, even Erskine or Yo Hensin) while this is about finding surrogate fathers and then killing them as a process of “becoming” (Randall, Murray, even (indirectly) Thomas). Superhero origins are about characters elevating themselves into a meaningful symbol (“hope”, “more than just a man”) while this is about a man who is elevated to a symbol by outside forces but who refuses to be that (“I’m not political”).

              In essence, what you end up with is a story that is very similar to a superhero origin in formal terms and on a beat-by-beat basis, and is recognisable as such, but which ultimately underscores the empty power fantasy that runs through so much of the genre. The whole point is that Arthur is taken up on the shoulders of the mob as an avatar of their desires and their ideals, despite the fact that all that really motivates him is his own self-aggrandizement. And that’s, I think, a valid commentary on a superhero genre that often comes down to “the hero should be allowed to do whatever they want with no consequences”, which is – I would contend – close to the default mode of the modern MCU. (Why shouldn’t Peter Parker have access to killer drones that can kill his classmates? Why should Bucky Barnes be held to account as an unstoppable killing machine?)

              Which gets at one of the interesting things the film does with genre. Phillips is open about making an homage to the urban vigilante thrillers of the seventies and eighties. The film itself includes a scene referencing the Bernie Goetz vigilante killings, albeit one consciously de-racialised. “The Wolverine” and “Logan” both drew a straight line between the superhero genre and its origins in samurai films and westerns. “Joker” suggests that there’s a clear line through the grotty urban thrillers of the seventies and eighties. It’s not “Travis Bickle as a superhero”, it’s “Travis Bickle would today see himself as a superhero.”

              Which is a very valid way to engage with perhaps the most ubiquitous blockbuster genre of the modern age.

            2. Do you really think this is the first movie that subverts those tropes about super hero movies?
              Fro the rest, I was going to write a Lengthy answer but Bob made me the great favor saying some of the things I think about it:

            3. I never described it as the first movie to subvert these tropes, although I do appreciate that you agree it is subversive in that regard.

              I’m glad you found a review that matches your opinion, though. Even when I don’t agree with Bob, his work is insightful and well-observed.

              Each’s own. Life would be boring if we all agreed.

            4. First, thanks for taking the time to have this conversation. Secondly I don’t think it’s subversive in any way. I think it’s a by the numbers super hero movie, but with Joker.
              I do think life would be boring if everyone agreed.

            5. Not at all, I always worry about these conversations and was reluctant to wade in – particularly as I was concerned the initial question would seem snarky (the “if you give the character an origin where he thinks he’s a good guy, isn’t that just a superhero origin?” question), despite the fact it was entirely sincere.

              It’s very easy for comments sections to be unnecessarily combative, and I try to avoid that. That’s why I’ll tend to steer clear of engaging with more openly antagonistic comments. (Typically any insinuating bad faith or lobbing insults at me.) These pieces are about advancing an argument; not everybody’s going to agree, and that’s fine. I just hope we can all be respectful.

              Anyway, thanks for being so polite and thank you for your time as well.

            6. I have to say I felt your super hero comment was a bit snarky. I may disagree with what you say, but I definitely believe that any real discussion’s purpose is indeed to advance the arguments in the topic at hand.

    2. This movie was all over the place. Let’s be honest – it was not that good of a movie. Whenever it started to make a point, it went sideways. It mirrored a lot of Scorsese scenes, trying to invoke this sense of nostalgia. It felt weirdly boring in spots, plodding along to reach a sense of villainy that barely had any impact. It felt empty because it was empty – unfortunately the strange attempt to lead into a Batman tie-in made it actually less interesting. I kept waiting for it to turn the corner into a good movie, but it didn’t.

      1. It’s supposed to be that way, it’s an origin story about the prince of crime, king of chaos, they took it literally as in princes don’t have much to do with what happens and nothing is more chaotic that the joker and his upbringing

        1. My main issue about it is that I grew up in the 80’s, and what was portrayed as problematic in the movie had nothing to do with the 80’s. All the issues that plagued Arthur? Those are all modern day problems, not so much 80’s problems. The problem with the movie relies heavily in being relevant to the period its supposed to depict, and then sticking to that formula. It really didn’t make a lot of sense in that regard – the 80’s were largely about mobs protesting racial issues. The main concern government-wise was the response to the AIDS epidemic. Also … how did Arthur’s performance end up on TV unless someone was using a camera that recorded Beta or VHS? It felt like they were also trying to make a statement about social media shaming, but it fell really flat to me because the chances of someone being able to do that in the 80’s was slim to none.

          I just didn’t find it engaging. It was a very pretty film, and two actors tried to carry the entire movie themselves, but it really didn’t … say anything to me other than hey if this movie took place in 2019, it could be more realistic and impactful.

          You know what would have made this movie better? If Arthur admitted or the film admitted that Arthur was the one who influenced the current day Joker. That all these Jokers we’ve seen have picked up either the look or the mentality of Fleck, but aren’t him. Which would explain why we have Jokers with different background stories. However, they didn’t really explain that or even care, because it was an homage to Scorsese and not really a movie about the Joker himself.

    3. Todd Phillips’ Joker falls in the same vein as Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman *hurg* Dawn of Justice. Both directors try to make an adult take on superheroes like Watchmen but completely miss the point. They’re juvenile power fantasies with a emotionally stunted and intellectually disabled view of the world around them. Warner Bros gave these two over-hyped dolts a megaphone and all they had to say is this…

      1. At least this one is watchable and it kiiiinda works as an origin story. It’s shallow and derivative, but I still liked it for what it was, not what it was trying to be.

    4. *desperate perversion

      He’s not the first Libertarian dipshit to lather the superhero genre in grimdark aesthetics, and he won’t be the last. Stop hyping up this toothless Scorsese ripoff as something that anyone will give a shit about even a year from now.

    5. this is the Escapist’s obligatory positive take after Movie Bob’s scathing reviews, isn’t it

      1. This was pitched, written and edited entirely separately from Bob’s piece – his review is great of itself, even if I obviously have a different opinion of the film than he does.

        I imagine Bob and I saw the film around the same time and reached our conclusions independently. And there’s nothing obligatory about it, I pitch my own stuff rather than following a dictated editorial line; I think a plurality of opinion is conducive to conversation.

        These are just two different ways of looking at the same film.

        1. of course.

    6. It’s a direct inversion, not perversion. The Boys is a perversion of a superhero story. As for Joker, decent, except for where the director decides to get cute with Thomas Wayne’s placement in the story. I still say it was entirely superfluous as it’s just the beats of Falling Down with clown makeup and no Duvall over a longer period and makes no sense in the larger scheme of him being a Batman villain.

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