Warning: This article contains SPOILERS for Joker.
As if Joker wasn't creepy enough, it also features a nod to Jack Nicholson's Joker that can only be described as chilling. Directed by Todd Phillips, the latest DC adaptation delves into R-rated territory for the first time with a wholly standalone origin story for Batman's greatest foe. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, Arthur Fleck is an aspiring stand-up comedian who spirals deeper into madness. More a psychological character study than a traditional comic book adaptation, Joker evokes such classic films as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy more than it does Avengers: Endgame or other such DC outings as Aquaman.
Equally, Phillips stated that Joker doesn't take anything from comic books. That being said, the film still features numerous similarities to Joker's comics and multiple references to previous incarnations of the character - whether entirely intentional or otherwise. The mere depiction of Arthur failing to forge a career in the comedy circuit, for example, comes straight from the pages of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke. Similarly, Arthur's concluding mantra regarding the subjective nature of comedy and finding a twisted kind of humor in murder fits with Joker from the comics.
The specific nod to Nicholson's turn in the role appears in Joker's third act. As Arthur awaits his long-aspired appearance of Murray Franklin's show, mentally preparing to perform "his ultimate joke", an image can be seen on the wall behind him. The image is merely a depiction of the idolized talk show host played by Robert de Niro. However, it wears a grin that bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Nicholson's Joker from Tim Burton's 1989 version of Batman. The artwork's whole demeanor is actually Joker-esque, right down to the hair and some wrinkles around the eyes. But the Clown Prince of Crime's unnatural smile is most apparent - even in the mirror where it looks even more distinctly scar-ish.
De Niro has played a number of psychotic characters over the years. Although Joker was never one of them, there is no doubt many fans who have imagined him in the role. This will likely be as close as such fans will come to having that idea realized, however. The Joker movie also features a number of similar connections to another past version - one played to Oscar-winning acclaim by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Again, in the third act, Phoenix's Joker can be seen traveling in a police car, evoking a similar scene in Christopher Nolan's film. There is also a moment when Phoenix puts on a clown mask even though he's already wearing face paint - similar to Ledger's version when committing a bank heist. Even Arthur's dance on the city steps is arguably similar to another Ledger performance, in 10 Things I Hate About You.
Phillips is admittedly a fan of all previous Jokers, so it's conceivable that this is one of many homages. The artwork even works somewhat within the context of the film itself. With certain aspects (if not all) of Arthur's story perpetually in question, the nature of the world is somewhat undefined. Is it genuinely skewed against Arthur or does Arthur himself skew things to fit his own rationale? Whatever the case, De Niro's Murray serves as both an aspiration and an antagonizing force in Arthur's life. Given that, and Arthur's dawning realizations regarding Murray's intentions to further humiliate him, it makes an odd sense for Arthur to have this version looming over him. An image that is at once eerily mocking and also a depiction of an already successful version of that which Arthur is attempting to ascend. Whatever one thinks of the movie, this is yet another sign of the intense attention to detail that went into Joker's production.
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