Warning: This article contains spoilers for Joker.
Joker is as much an origin story for Batman as it is for the Clown Prince of Crime. Back in 1989, director Tim Burton brought Batman to the big screen for the first time. Batman rewrote the Dark Knight's origin, revealing that the man who killed Bruce Wayne's parents was destined to become the Joker. Ever since, Batman adaptations have liked to tighten the narrative threads between Batman and his arch-nemesis.
Although Joker is a standalone movie, not connected to the DC Extended Universe, it's nevertheless packed with Batman nods. The film features Brett Cullen as Thomas Wayne, Bruce's father, and it presents him as just another rich businessman who fancies himself God's gift to Gotham City. He's sleazy and bad-tempered, and in one scene lashes out at Arthur Fleck in anger.
Given the setup, it's no surprise that Joker ends on the day Martha and Thomas Wayne were murdered - but it's done in a refreshingly original way. In Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime has unwittingly inspired riots across Gotham City. Mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne has unwisely headed to the cinema with his family - probably a deliberate act, as a way of showing he would be strong enough to resist the city's unruly elements. When the Waynes leave, Thomas is recognized by one of the rioters, who follows them into an alley and assassinates both Thomas and Martha Wayne. The young Bruce is left standing there, in a version of the famous image where the child grieves for his two parents.
Joker presents probably the most interesting version of Batman's origin to date. Firstly, it suggests that Bruce Wayne didn't have the idyllic childhood the comics have always seemed to claim. Thomas Wayne appears to have been a distant father, and as a result Bruce was emotionally withdrawn even before his parents' deaths. That sets the scene for a now-traumatized Bruce to grow up lacking in the social skills that would allow him to integrate with society and properly relate to others. A common Batman trope is that the Dark Knight is no people person - and Joker plants that idea in his upbringing, rather than in the tragedy of the Waynes' murders.
Meanwhile, the dynamic between Batman and Joker becomes far more complex than in any other version of the Dark Knight's origin. In Joker, the Wayne family's murderer was inspired by Arthur Fleck himself, and Thomas Wayne was essentially assassinated rather than mugged. Madness consumed Gotham City on that one fateful night, and it reached out to claim Martha and Thomas Wayne. In response, of course, Bruce will dedicate himself to becoming the antidote to the clown madness consuming Gotham. Joker ends with a flash to Bruce stood in the alley over his parents' bodies, and then moves to a scene where Fleck is on the run in Arkham Asylum. It seems to symbolize that the game has begun - that Arthur has set in motion events that will mean his entire life is defined by the thrill of the chase. This is a brilliant twist, fitting perfectly with the broader themes of the Batman mythology, and creating a fascinating and intense link between Batman and Joker.
Of course, it's important not to take Joker on surface value. The script deliberately invites viewers to question reality itself, to the extent that it's unclear whether or not any of the events actually happened. It's entirely possible that it's all a narcissistic delusion on Fleck's part, imagining himself into the story of Gotham City. If that's the case, it could be that he read about the Waynes' deaths in the paper, and simply incorporated them into his delusions. Ultimately, fans will have to decide for themselves: was this reality, or was this just fantasy? Is this another version of Batman's origin story, or is it just the fevered dreams of a madman?
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