Entertainment

The Shocking, Violent Ending of 'Joker' Sets Gotham Ablaze

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Why so serious? | Niko Tavernise/Warner Brothers
Why so serious? | Niko Tavernise/Warner Brothers
This post contains spoilers for Joker and discusses the ending to the film in great detail. You can always check out our spoiler-free ranking of the best movies of 2019.

Since it was first announced, Joker, the highly controversial comic book villain origin story, made great pains to present itself as serious, gritty, and adult. With his invocations of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy as artistic inspirations -- along with the casting of no-nonsense, hyper-intense Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix in the title role -- director Todd Phillips, still best known to casual moviegoers as the auteur behind Old School and The Hangover trilogy, was clearly aiming to make a shocking, disturbing film rather than another corporate-approved, kid-friendly superhero product. Still, the most surprising aspect of Joker might be how tightly it clings to certain conventions of the genre.

Let's get this out of the way: There are moments in the final stretch, particularly once Phoenix's put-upon loner Arthur Fleck murders his co-worker Randall (Glenn Fleshler of Billions) and dances down a set of concrete stairs in full-clown makeup to Gary Glitter, that have a visceral impact. While large sections of the movie are ponderous, the final 30 minutes or so do achieve some genuine tension, allowing Phillips to work in a more kinetic, less severe style. As the city of Gotham rallies around him, Phoenix's Joker shoots Robert De Niro's talk show host Murray Franklin on live television and delivers his ill-defined message of chaos to the world.

At the same time, the script from Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver (The Fighter) is still obsessed with questions of lineage, one of the key recurring themes of the modern comic book movie. Even in Joker, it all comes back to Daddy and setting up future events for Gotham's abandoned sons. The city may burn, but Phillips hasn't completely torched the superhero playbook. Let's take a look at some of the big questions from Joker's disruptive-yet-familiar finale.

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Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in 'Joker' | Warner Bros. Pictures

Are Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne brothers? 

Early on in Joker, the viewer is introduced to Arthur Fleck's troubled mother Penny, played with commendable restraint by Six Feet Under's Frances Conroy. As a character, she has two defining traits: She never misses an episode of Murray Franklin's late night comedy show, which broadcasts live from Gotham, and she has a perhaps unhealthy fixation with Thomas Wayne, the enterprising billionaire running for mayor on a platform of cleaning up the streets. Though she now struggles to make ends meet, relying on her son Arthur to take care of her and help pay the bills, Penny used to work for Thomas Wayne at Wayne Manor. Repeatedly, she tells Arthur that Wayne would help the two of them if she could just get a letter to him.

Eventually, Arthur reads the letter that Penny intends to send to Wayne and he learns that Penny believes Wayne is actually his biological father. Seeking the truth in his own roundabout way, Fleck travels to Wayne Manor, where he briefly meets young Bruce Wayne, passing the boy a trick bouquet of flowers through the gate, and finally gets dismissed by Alfred Pennyworth. Humiliated, Fleck later seeks out Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen of Narcos) at a charity event and confronts him about having an affair with Penny, but Wayne claims Penny is lying about Arthur's paternity. He also punches Fleck in the face; Phoenix spends a lot of time getting beaten up in this movie.

While in the comics and in movies the Joker is often presented as the anarchic flip-side to the Caped Crusader, it's an unconventional reading to suggest that the two are actually siblings (or even half-siblings). In fact, Joker quickly backs down from this idea -- or at least muddles it. Fleck soon discovers in his mother's medical file, which he steals from the Arkham hospital, that he was adopted. Is this the definitive truth? Or just a Wayne family cover-up? The movie leans pretty hard into making you believe Wayne's side of the story, but there's likely enough ambiguity to keep fans theorizing after the credits roll.

Batman's costume in 'Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice' | Warner Bros. Pictures

Is Batman in Joker?

Here's the short answer: No, Batman doesn't make a cameo in Joker. Though Robert Pattinson has been announced as the next Bruce Wayne in director Matt Reeves's upcoming The Batman, the creators of Joker have been insistent that the film is a stand-alone story that exists independently of the increasingly complicated DC Extended Universe. Unlike in Suicide Squad, which featured a quick appearance from Ben Affleck's gravely voiced crime-fighter, Joker goes without a direct acknowledgment of Batman. There's no flash-forward or post-credits teaser. 

However, as mentioned above, young Bruce Wayne is in the film. Oddly enough, he's played by child actor Dante Pereira-Olso, who also played the younger version of Phoenix's hitman character Joe in You Were Never Really Here. Besides the confrontation at Wayne Manor, young Bruce returns during the movie's finale to reenact one of the most iconic (and overdone) scenes in all of Batman lore. So, even if Batman isn't in the movie, his origin story is still given a place of prominence. 

Yes, we're talking about the death of Batman's parents, a sequence seen in movies from Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, Zach Snyder, and in countless TV adaptations. The Joker doesn't commit the crime here, like he does in Burton's film, but one of his mask-wearing followers does fire the gun that slays the Wayne's and sends their son down a path of brooding vengeance. Besides that detail, Phillips's version plays the moment pretty straight: We get the gunshots, the cries of terror, and the falling pearl necklace. (I believe the Wayne family was leaving a theater advertising Blow Out and Zorro: The Gay Blade.) At the very least, he doesn't dwell on it for very long.

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Robert De Niro in 'Joker' | Warner Bros. Pictures

Why does Joker kill Murray Franklin?

Joker is a literal-minded movie about a character who resists interpretation by design. As Fleck spirals out of control, growing increasingly aggressive and prone to violent outbursts, the film attempts to draw a connection between the institutions that failed to assist him and his monstrous actions. At the same time, Phillips also sprinkles some populist political imagery onto the finale, portraying a city under siege by mask-wearing protesters revolting against the whims of the rich. It's an often potent yet oddly toothless mix of loaded signifiers. 

The confrontation between Joker and Murray Franklin, who initially invites Fleck onto his show to mock him, might be worth looking at more closely to figure out what exactly Phillips is up to. As a performer and a public figure, Phoenix is no stranger to the archly artificial rhythms and barbed rhetoric of the late night comedy show. During his appearance on Franklin's show, Joker tells cruel, unfunny jokes that elicit groans from the audience and a verbal scolding from one of his fellow guests. "Comedy is subjective," says Fleck, almost echoing some of the comments about the state of comedy that got Phillips into hot water online earlier this week. He's on the defensive and under the lights. We know he brought a gun with him, possibly to kill himself on camera, but we can see him grow more resentful as the scene builds. 

Taking on a vaguely paternal tone, De Niro's Franklin disapprovingly notes Fleck's "self-pithy." In that moment, Franklin becomes a mocking stand-in for all the people who have "failed" Fleck throughout his life: His father, his mother, his doctors, and his employer. Fleck responds by telling Franklin he'll get what he "fucking deserves" and then shoots him right in the head on live television. The audience screams, the other guests run for safety, and the crew members abandon their posts. Joker takes the camera in his hands, speaking directly to America. At that point, the rest of the movie, which follows Joker as he escape a police car, stands amongst his followers, and heads back to an institution, feels redundant. Like most tiresome comedians, Joker doesn't know when to quit.

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.