The Comic That Explains Where Joker Went Wrong
Alan Moore’s classic 1988 story, Batman: The Killing Joke, was an inspiration for Todd Phillips’s grim new film—but not in the one way that really mattered.
In The Killing Joke, Moore took that earlier tale and tried to deepen it. The 45-page “one-shot” story reveals the Joker’s past: He was a struggling stand-up comedian who had lost his wife and unborn child in an accident, embarked on the robbery of a chemical plant to make ends meet, and fell into a vat while fleeing Batman. The narrative removes the Joker’s background as a master criminal and emphasizes that he was a relatively ordinary man who had “one bad day” that drove him to lunacy. In the present, the Joker kidnaps and brutalizes Barbara Gordon (the daughter of Commissioner Jim Gordon and the current Batgirl), paralyzing her and torturing her, then taking lewd pictures of her to torment her father with.
It was a shocking story within the parameters of DC Comics, all the more so because it was presented as canon, not as an adult-oriented tale existing outside the monthly Batman story lines. Barbara Gordon remained paralyzed for decades, all because of a stunt by the Joker intended to demonstrate that what had happened to him could happen to anyone. “You had a bad day, and everything changed. Why else would you dress up like a living rat?” the Joker says to Batman. “When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot! I admit it!”
The story ends with Batman bringing in the Joker “by the book,” as Commissioner Gordon insists, to “show him that our way works”; the Joker’s efforts to drive Gordon mad fail. Batman, also transformed into a costumed creature by trauma (the death of his parents), reminds the Joker that he himself never succumbed to evil. But despite that bittersweet ending, The Killing Joke helped cement the villain’s reputation for nihilism, forging a modern template for a man once portrayed as a vicious trickster.
Phillips’s film keeps much of Moore’s characterization, tracking the life of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) as he struggles with mental illness, is attacked and harassed in the street multiple times, and becomes a figure of public ridicule when one of his strange stand-up sets is mocked by a legendary talk-show host (Robert De Niro). But the thing that Joker lacks is Batman. The film does include a young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), but flips the order in which the characters’ alter egos are created, having Joker’s transformation into a public menace spur a riot that ends with Bruce’s parents getting murdered.
Without Batman to play off, the reason for Joker’s existence as a protagonist in Phillips’s film is vague at best. The narrative tracks his evolution into an evil creature, providing a revamped and simplistic origin story for a figure who has only ever existed as a distorted mirror image of the Caped Crusader. Even when compared with Moore and Bolland’s comic, Joker is a bitter and humorless work, an attempt to add gravitas to a character who typically hasn’t stood for anything broadly metaphorical. In the movie, Joker commits an act of murder on live television and somehow becomes an icon of rebellion and class upheaval as a result. It’s an arc that tries to justify his leap from supporting player to star—and fails spectacularly