Todd Philips' gritty look at one man's descent into madness is both unremittingly grim and unexpectedly optimistic. Set in a Gotham City, not unlike New York City in the late 70s, Joaquin Phoenix's Joker emerges like a colorful butterfly from a cocoon of crime, pestilence, and degradation. Before he can bear any resemblance to The Joker character that fans of DC Comics have come to know, he must begin as Arthur Fleck, an isolated and mentally distressed man who simply wants to be seen.
As we follow Arthur's journey, from sign-twirling clown on the street, to tentative stand-up comic, to socio-economic figurehead, we get glimpses of the powerful forces around him that have shaped his existence. We learn of the crumbling healthcare system that dismisses him. Of his nebulous connection to Thomas Wayne, one of the most influential and wealthy men in Gotham. Of his turbulent childhood that may have played a hand in his eventual psychological erosion. And there are signs that even the main character we have been faithfully following may not be the most reliable narrator, right up to the inevitable conclusion. With that in mind, here are 10 unanswered questions a sequel must answer.
10 What Happens To Gotham City?
Even before Arthur Fleck engages in a series of subversive events that incite a raucous socio-economic movement, Gotham City is on the brink of total disaster. This Gotham has its roots in New York City in the early 80s, a gritty time of civil unrest, when crime rates sky-rocketed while the healthcare system declined. Here, "super rats" are as rampant in the city as the underprivileged masses.
By the time the ill-fated riot at the film's conclusion arrives, Gotham City has imploded. But how long will this period of time last? The real New York City eventually experienced an economic upswing. With at least another decade until Batman appears to save Gotham, will it descend deeper into chaos, or will the political tide turn?
9 Was Penny Fleck Really Delusional?
In Joker, one of the strongest relationships Arthur Fleck has is with his mother, Penny. Her health is rapidly declining, and he has to help her do everything, from dressing to bathing. A former employee of Thomas Wayne's, she insists that he (the wealthiest man in Gotham) should take an interest in her, and Arthur's quality of life, because, as it turns out, Arthur is his illegitimate son.
When Arthur finds this out, he's both incredibly angry and incredibly optimistic. For the first time, there's a chance that he might be somebody, not just another face in the crowded streets of Gotham to be bypassed and forgotten. However, he's unsure if what his mother has told him is true, considering she was institutionalized for delusional schizophrenia.
8 Why Was Arthur First Committed?
Early on in the film when Arthur Fleck is meeting with his assigned social worker, she asks him a series of questions—about how his job is going and if he's having any negative thoughts. His mental health "seems" to concern her, though Arthur makes it clear she's not really listening with any interest to his answers.
When she asks him if he remembers why he was institutionalized years before, he avoids the question. We learn later in the film about some of his abusive family history and head trauma, but it's unclear if he suffered from the same sociopathy that has so broadly painted The Joker in more traditional incarnations. Will it be revealed by his further descent into madness and murder?
7 Why Was Gotham City So Polarized?
When we begin Joker, we are dropped into a Gotham City based on the seedy state of New York City in the late 70s and early 80s, overflowing with garbage, graffiti, and civil unrest. Crime rates are high, but gentrification has slowly started to creep into even the most rundown neighborhoods.
The haves are becoming much more distinct than the have-nots, making citizens concerned over the extreme poverty and extreme wealth they witness occurring because of the rising income and wage gap. But how did it come to be this way? Was it strictly due to the avarice of figures like Thomas Wayne?
6 Is Arthur Fleck Thomas Wayne's Illegitimate Son?
One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the entire film is the legitimacy of Penny Fleck's claim that her son Arthur is really the bastard of Thomas Wayne. When Arthur confronts Wayne in the restroom of a posh theater, Wayne adamantly denies it, explaining to Arthur his mother is delusional and that he was adopted.
Arthur even tracks down his mother's file from Arkham Asylum and sees his own adoption papers, but Penny insists Wayne had them forged. If it's true, it would lend even more credence to the trope that he and Batman are each one-side of the same coin. It only takes privilege and pedigree to turn one son into Batman, and one son into The Joker.
5 What Sort of Batman Will Be In It?
Batman doesn't feature in Joker, but an eight-year-old Bruce Wayne does. Due to the riots that Arthur Fleck's socio-economic movement have caused, he witnesses as a hoodlum in a clown mask reminiscent of Joker's face stalks his parents into an alley and shoots them.
Like in Tim Burton's Batman, The Joker has some part to play in the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, but the Batman born from this tragedy would have to be a very different version from what we've seen onscreen. Joaquin Phoenix's Joker is much more grounded in a visceral reality, which doesn't seem to leave much room for a masked vigilante with tricked out cars.
4 What Time Period Will It Take Place In?
At the end of Joker, we see Arthur Fleck standing on top of a police car with his arms stretched out to his raucous followers. They cheer on their mysterious leader, envisioning him as some sort of leader to "kill the rich" and establish dominance over the 1-percenters of Gotham City.
Right after this scene, however, he's in Arkham Asylum after an indeterminable amount of time. What happened from the scene involving the rioters to that point? Was he immediately captured, or would a sequel flesh out that time period? Or will it involve him breaking out of Arkham Asylum, to incite mayhem and murder once again?
3 Did Gotham's Citizens All Become Rioters?
After Arthur Fleck fatally kills three young investment clerks that work for Thomas Wayne, a socio-economic movement mounts inciting Gotham's disenfranchised to lash out at its more opulent class. They target the rich, powerful, and elite among them by starting riots in the streets.
Traditionally, Gotham being overrun by street gangs and descending into chaos is what turns Bruce Wayne's mind towards suiting up as Batman. In this case, however, it appears that it's Gotham City's own citizens donning Joker-like clown masks to demonstrate in the streets. Are they ultimately turning to random acts of violence, or are they a part of "Joker's gang?"
2 Was It All In His Head?
There's a scene, roughly half an hour until the movie's dizzying climax, where Arthur Fleck wanders into his kitchen and absent-mindedly starts throwing the contents of the refrigerator onto the floor. After he empties it, he climbs in. Later, the phone rings, and he's lying on the bed. Did it actually occur, or was it all in his head?
At the end of the film, Arthur is wearing the clothing of a committed patient at Arkham. He's talking to a psychiatrist, replaying the events of the movie in his mind and laughing to himself. We've already established that incidents like his relationship with his neighbor were fictitious, so what else is he making up?
1 What's His Ultimate Goal?
While Arthur Fleck may not have intended to make himself a political figure, he became one after he shot three entitled investment clerks who worked for Thomas Wayne. He became a symbol of retaliation against the great class divide in Gotham City, and the citizens seemed to appreciate his efforts.
Assuming much of the film wasn't in Arthur's head (which is debatable), what would be his ultimate goal? Knowing he could incite people to follow his action, would he become the criminal mastermind of the Batman mythos? Would he target Bruce Wayne specifically? What is his ultimate goal going into a second film?