There were these two guys in a lunatic asylum… and one night they decide they don’t like living in an asylum any more. They decide they’re going to escape! So they get up onto the roof, and there, just across this narrow gap, they see the rooftops of the town, stretching away in the moon light… stretching away to freedom. Now, the first guy, he jumps right across with no problem. But his friend didn’t dare make the leap. Y’see, he’s afraid of falling. So then, the first guy has an idea… He says “Hey! I have my flashlight with me! I’ll shine it across the gap between the buildings. You can walk along the beam and join me!” But the second guy just shakes his head. He says “What do you think I am? Crazy? You’d turn it off when I was halfway across!” (The Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland)
Joker is nominally an origin story of Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime. But it wasn’t originally conceived as such, and it shows. The names of Gotham City, Arkham Hospital, and the Wayne family feel shoehorned in, and the scene near the end showing the fateful moment that turned young Bruce Wayne into Batman could easily be removed without making an iota of difference to the plot.
Rather, the thumbprints of Martin Scorsese, the former Roman Catholic seminarian turned filmmaker, are all over this film. Scorsese was asked to direct, but was unable to do so due to scheduling conflicts with another film, The Irishman. However, Joker owes heavy debts to two previous Scorsese films, Taxi Driver (in which New York City provides a metaphor for Hell) and The King of Comedy (about a failed comedian obsessed with a TV talk show host), while Joaquin Phoenix’s resemblance to a younger Robert De Niro in some shots is startling.
Fortunately, the failed comedian angle provides a convenient, if tenuous, link to the Joker’s origins in the comics, particularly the above-quoted The Killing Joke, as it’s unlikely the movie would have been greenlit without it. The logic of late capitalism dictates that a film that takes as many creative risks as this one has to tie into an existing brand in order to get made, at least by the major studios. In truth, Arthur Fleck, the protagonist of this film, bears little resemblance to any previous depiction of the Joker. The unnamed comedian turned small-time gangster portrayed in The Killing Joke could plausibly develop into a criminal mastermind. It is hard to say the same of the barely-literate Fleck. Rather, the film’s courage comes into devoting its entire running time to following “the least of these,” the sort of mentally ill loner that most of us pointedly ignore as they mutter away to themselves on the bus.
The Gotham City of this film starkly, if unwittingly, depicts the Orthodox notion of Hades as not so much a place of punishment, but a condition of alienation from God which begins in this life due to ancestral sin. The atmosphere of the film is almost unbearably oppressive throughout. People are unrelentingly cruel, and only ever obey the Gospel command to “love one another” in Arthur’s fantasies, where talk show host Murray Franklin (De Niro) acts as a surrogate father, and his pretty neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz) as a supportive girlfriend. In reality, Franklin turns out to be a cruel bully, humiliating Fleck on air, while Sophie is terrified of him—justifiably so, given that he stalks her and breaks into her apartment. But Fleck’s interior life does at least offer up the possibility that even the wickedest among us are not born that way, and carry the divine spark within them. However, it should be noted that Arthur’s fantasies are entirely self-centred—he dreams only of receiving love, never giving it.
If Gotham City is Hades, it is Hades before the crucifixion, lacking a saviour to break open its gates and lead its souls out of darkness. The man offering himself up in this role is Thomas Wayne, who is running for mayor. Wayne is no Christ figure, though, more Lucifer disguised as an angel of light. He refers to those below him on the social ladder as “clowns,” and may or may not be Fleck’s biological father. His mother (Frances Conroy) worked for Wayne years ago, and insists that Arthur is his son. He insists that he did not have sex with that woman, but he wouldn’t be the first powerful man to knock up a subordinate and then abandon her and their child (*cough*Boris Johnson*cough*).
Beetz was asked in an interview whether it was possible to sympathise with Arthur. She replied that it was possible to sympathise with his situation, but not with him, due to the monstrousness of his actions. I would concur with this sentiment. His murders are not the desperate actions of a man pushed over the edge by society’s cruelty. At least two of them are cold-blooded and premeditated. It is true that the system has failed him, but that does not rob him of all responsibility for his actions. Nevertheless, some have painted him as a rebel against an unjust world.
I would characterise this as a satanic perversion of the Orthodox archetype of the fool for Christ. Arthur is more a fool without Christ. Like the holy fools, he defies society’s conventions, adopting the persona of a clown. Unlike them, he does not represent opposition to the darkness, but surrender to it: the triumph of the ego over the virtues.
I came out of the cinema feeling profoundly depressed, which is perhaps why the Church counsels us against contemplating the infernal. An Orthodox Joker would perhaps end on a more hopeful note, finding a way for Arthur to somehow overcome Gotham’s cruelty and stay true to his original stated purpose in life, “to bring joy and laughter to the world.” But it would be hard to make such an ending work dramatically without becoming cheesy, and harder still to tie it to a profitable brand like Batman.
Perhaps ultimately, there is only One who can shine a flashlight beam across the darkness and be trusted not to turn it off when we are halfway across.
See the Faith & the Arts section in our Archives and the call for articles for this series.
Nick Xylas is an Orthodox Christian and writer of comics and, occasionally, pulp fiction. Orthodoxy in Dialogue has previously published his Towards a Theology of Comics. He resides in the United Kingdom.