Spoilers ahead for Joker.
The ending of Todd Phillips’ Joker is meant to be a joke of sorts on the audience. We’ve just been treated to this entire origin story of Joker. We’ve seen how Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) went from a street clown with a mental illness to the unintentional leader of a riot against Gotham City’s wealthy elites. It’s a story where Arthur is painted at turns as a tragic figure who never received the love and support he needed from his mother, his co-workers, his neighbors, or society as a whole. The film crescendos with unhappy Gotham citizens wearing Joker masks tearing the city up, and one of those rioters kills Thomas and Martha Wayne, thus making way for Bruce Wayne to become Batman. What a twist that Joker was responsible for Batman rather than the other way around!
And then it turns out it’s just a story being told to a psychiatrist in a mental asylum where Arthur Fleck is kept. The film ends with him having killed the psychiatrist (denoted by the bloodstains coming from his footprints) and being chased around the asylum.
As I noted it my full review, Joker wants credit for touching on hot button issues, but doesn’t know what to do with them. It will take topics like social unrest and mental illness, toss them out, and then just kind of let them sit there. It doesn’t have anything to say about those topics because that would mean standing for something, and if the Joker movie believes in anything then the character can’t be chaotic and nihilistic. But even here, the film is in an awkward middle ground as it tries to explain the Joker’s origins while not trying to invest any reveal with deeper meaning. For example, we learn that Arthur was abused by his mother. He then kills his mother. There are no insights about domestic abuse; it’s just a shocking thing that leads to another shocking thing and boy, if you’re shocked, then the movie must be doing something right, I guess.
This need to have it both ways—Arthur’s story touches on an important issue, but we’re not going to actually explore that issue because that would mean we care about something—reaches its apotheosis at the ending where Phillips basically splits his movie in two because he can’t even settle on what actually matters in this story. Both stories can’t be true, and so they cancel each other out, leaving the film with a shrug rather than a captivating ambiguity.
If Phillips had simply followed through on the origin story aspect, he would have something pretty interesting. In the origin story presented, despite all of its shortcomings, you have an interesting dark mirror of Batman’s story where Joker posits that the line between hero and villain is remarkably thin. If Batman can be an inspiration to the people of Gotham, then why not the Joker? When things are bad, aren’t people just as likely to look towards someone who represents chaos and violence than they are to someone who represents honor and justice? The final touch of having the Joker be responsible for Batman is a nice way of turning the entire mythos on its head. If Phillips’ goal was to upend the superhero movie, concluding the story in this way is a solid way of achieving that goal where we treat the villain’s origin as if he’s the hero.
But Phillips doesn’t have the courage of his convictions, so at the last second, he backs away and says, “Well, maybe this is all concocted by the Joker and none of this happened.” There are a few hints that Joker is an “unreliable narrator” with the brief shot of him banging his head against the glass in the mental asylum and the reveal that his neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) was never really his girlfriend. But because the movie is never framed in such a way that Arthur is our narrator in the first place, the final scene feels like a massive cop out that then fails to make any sense.
If the entire movie, or even parts of it, are just Joker making things up, then he has to have access to things he couldn’t have known, most notably, the origin of Batman. I suppose you could argue that Joker just knows that Thomas Wayne and his wife went into an alley and got murdered in front of their son, but once again, this is a film that can’t bridge the gap between chaotic nihilism and meaningful payoff. Either Thomas Wayne still matters to Arthur and he needs to include this kind of comeuppance in the story, or it’s just a random thing that happened because Joker tipped Gotham into full-blown madness. Either way, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver are trying to have their cake and eat it too. “The Joker is responsible for Batman!” but also, “lol nothing matters.”
The final scene is meant to make you question everything that came before, but to what end? The direction is all over the place so at some points Arthur is sympathetic and at some points he’s a monster and so simply providing a twist doesn’t make us rethink everything that came before. All the final scene does is remind us that you can’t trust the Joker (assuming that Arthur is even the Joker and not just a mental patient obsessed with murderous clowns), which, yeah, we were already there. Rather than drawing the audience in further, Phillips once again undermines his narrative with a lack of follow-through and substance. If you want to make a movie about how Joker is a dark mirror of Batman, make that movie. If you want to make a movie about how a violent psychotic can’t be trusted to tell his own story, make that movie. But by trying to make both, Phillips ends up making nothing.