Spoilers ahead for Joker.
In the past, I’ve questioned the heroism of Batman. Part of the character’s appeal is his obvious complexity. He’s a wealthy vigilante who was traumatized as a child and now goes around at night fighting crime so that other people won’t have to suffer what he went through. He’s both benevolent and selfish, operating in a system free from rules that allows him to punish bad guys. He’s a chaotic good mirrored by Joker’s chaotic evil. In its best moments, Todd Phillips’ Joker makes us question the appeal of Batman and why any “freak” in a mask would be revered.
For his part, Phillips seems largely unconcerned with comic books. He read the landscape, saw that the only way to make a “serious” movie was to connect it to superheroes, and the result is Joker. But that doesn’t mean the film itself is unconcerned with the larger Batman universe since Phillips and Scott Silver’s script makes a point of not only bringing in Thomas Wayne, but also his son, a young Bruce Wayne.
For those that need a refresher, Arthur Fleck makes a discovery that leads him to believe that his absent father is actually the wealthy business magnate Thomas Wayne, who is considering a run for Mayor of Gotham. Arthur goes by Wayne Manor where he meets a young Bruce Wayne, who Arthur believes at the time is his half-brother. Eventually, Arthur has a confrontation with Thomas, Thomas punches Arthur, Arthur laughs/cries at the father figure who has rejected him (it’s left ambiguous as to whether or not Arthur is truly Thomas’ son as we later see a love letter to Arthur’s mother signed “TW”), and moves one step closer to being the Joker.
Tying Joker and Batman together as brothers helps better contrast not only the two characters, but how they are perceived by Gotham. Since Joker is the hero of his own story, he gets to serve as the inspiration and the (to borrow a line from The Dark Knight) “hero Gotham deserves.” If a city is on the brink of madness with a garbage strike and super rats and corruption and income inequality and no mental health services, shouldn’t its “hero” be a mentally ill, violent man in clown makeup? Why does Batman get to be the hero just because he dresses up like a rodent and punches criminals?
The darkest place Joker goes isn’t to suggest that a violent psychopath can become an icon and a hero, but rather that there’s a ready and willing audience for such a creature in the first place. Arthur doesn’t intend to change Gotham as much as he takes advantage of becoming a symbol in a Gotham that has already gone to seed. The crucial place where Joker and Batman depart is what they stand for. Ultimately, Batman seeks order and the restoration of family whereas, in Joker, Joker gives up on both and lets the chaos wash over him, embracing the rioting and violence that he helped precipitate. Joker is a fascinating figure, but he always works best when contrasted against his opposite rather than dancing around in a vacuum.
The critique that the citizens of Gotham are just as open to Joker as they would be to Batman is a pretty bleak view of humanity and given humanity’s predilection for charismatic strongmen who use violence to achieve their goals not entirely unwarranted. Unfortunately, Phillips undercuts this third-person omniscient view by pulling an unnecessary twist where it turns out that Arthur has been telling this story, reducing it to just a power-mad fantasy. But it’s a nice idea while it lasts.