This article contains nothing but Joker spoilers. You can read a spoiler free review right here.
Joker may be unlike other comic book movies, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possibly packed with comic book references! Yes, while Joker pays plenty of homage to iconic pieces of 1970s cinema like Taxi Driver, Network, and The King of Comedy, and may not be as open with its DC Comics roots as most superhero movies are, if you know where to look, there’s still plenty of Gotham City and Batman lore to be found.
“We didn’t take anything from one particular comic,” director Todd Phillips told reporters in September. “We kind of picked and chose what we liked from the 80-year canon of the Joker.” That he did, and blended it with cinematic deep cuts, song choices that help reflect the fractured state of its title character, and even bits and pieces of New York City’s less glamorous history. We’re here to take you on a guided tour of the Gotham City of Joker…
What Year Does Joker Take Place
Joker announces that it’s a period piece right from the outset in at least one unexpected way. The movie opens with the old Warner Bros. “Warner Communications” logo that was used from 1972-1984. DC movie fans of a certain age will remember this opening Superman II, for one thing. So this is the first sign that Joker takes place somewhere roughly between the 1970s and early 1980s.
Before that logo has even fully faded out, a radio broadcast is heard. The fact that news radio is centered also cements this further in the pre-internet era. The broadcast comes from 1080 WGCR, whose call letters presumably stand for Gotham City Radio, and with the W cementing Gotham itself on the east coast. But the style of the news intro sounds a lot like New York City news radio mainstay 1010 WINS, who you can hear announcing the news of the Lufthansa robbery in Goodfellas. Stan L. Brooks is the WGCR news anchor, but there doesn’t appear to be any connection to the comics there, nor does the name of Gotham’s Health Commissioner, Edward O’Rourke. But on that note…
The radio broadcast gives us some other clues to when Joker is set. It’s talking about a sanitation workers’ strike for one thing. NYC experienced three of these, in 1968, 1975, and 1981. Considering that all of the films screening at the theater when the Waynes are murdered at the end of the film (Zorro the Gay Blade, Wolfen, Excalibur, and Arthur) were 1981 releases, we can roughly say this is the year Joker takes place. And then, of course, there’s the de-funding of Gotham’s social services, something NYC had to face during its own late 1970s fiscal crisis.
And while it could be a coincidence, 1981 is also the year that John Hinckley, Jr. took inspiration from Taxi Driver (a movie that will keep coming up throughout this piece) to open fire on President Ronald Reagan in an attempt to impress Jodie Foster. There are faint echoes of Hinckley’s deranged behavior in Arthur’s obsession with his neighbor and his own assassination of Murray Franklin. (thanks to Hidari in the comments!)
JOKER HISTORY EASTER EGGS
– Joker’s name of Arthur Fleck has no significance from the comics (where his true name has never been revealed), and despite certain corners of the internet trying to draw some parallel with A. Fleck (Affleck!) director Todd Phillips has dismissed this as nonsense. Instead, the filmmakers chose the name “Fleck” because it sounds like “speck” or “flake” or something similarly insignificant.
– Arthur works at “Ha-Has.” The jokes write themselves, don’t they?
– His co-workers, Randall and Gary, in a different reality could be Joker henchmen. It’s somewhat significant that Arthur lets Gary live, not just because Gary was nice to him, but because throughout his criminal career Joker has had a habit of employing little people as his henchmen and accomplices.
– The Flecks live in apartment 8J. J is for Joker, boys and girls! And if you start counting with the 1966 Batman movie, that makes The Dark Knight, which featured Heath Ledger’s immortal interpretation of the Joker, the 8th Batman movie. I’m reaching here, but I don’t care.
– Making Arthur’s laugh a medical condition does recall the character’s earliest appearances when, as a chilling and mysterious killer, his laugh was often described as “mirthless.” Even Arthur’s “real laugh,” the one he produces when he’s “supposed” to laugh at something is fake.
– The comedy club Arthur frequents (and eventually performs at is Pogo’s). Pogo the Clown was serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s “respectable” alias.
– Making Arthur’s failed comedic ambitions part of Joker’s origin story mirrors three stories from the character’s past:
The first, of course, is Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. That story tells Joker’s origin (or a version of it) via flashbacks. In it, Joker is a hapless, unnamed standup comedian who gets roped into a life of crime against his will… one that doesn’t end well for him when he ends up in a chemical bath courtesy of Batman. Although in that story, the man who will one day become the Clown Prince of Crime is married and doesn’t live with his mother. But Arthur’s “I had a bad day” also echoes Killing Joke, when Joker speculates that all it takes is “one bad day” to turn a regular person into Batman…or the Joker.
The second is “On a Beautiful Summer’s Day, He Was” by horror author Robert R. McCammon, a prose short story that appeared in The Further Adventures of the Joker anthology in 1990. There, young Jack Napier (yes, the same name from Tim Burton’s 1989 film) lives in fear of his unstable father who spends his time scrawling awful jokes in notebooks.
The third comes from Batman: The Animated Series where we discover the Joker was a struggling standup comedian who failed to impress three TV judges with his jokes before his chemical bath. He comes back years later to drive them crazy. We wrote more about the Joker episodes of Batman: The Animated Series right here.
Of course, the movie forges its own path without any of these, throughout.
– While there’s no comic book significance to the name Penny Fleck, Arthur’s devotion to his mother does seem to recall Norman Bates ever so slightly at times, as well as the criminal profile of many serial killers’ often tortured relationship with their mothers.
– While Penny did indeed work for the Waynes, it’s a safe bet that her story about Thomas being Arthur’s real dad are unlikely. That being said, if you look closely later in the film, there’s a photograph of a young Penny with the words “love your smile, TW” written on the back. I haven’t had a chance to match the handwriting to the letters she writes to Thomas Wayne to see if she had perhaps written this herself.
– The diner that Arthur takes Sophie to is located on Jerome Avenue. On the Gotham TV series, Jerome Valeska was a kind of proto-Joker, and the twin brother of Jeremiah… who became the Joker himself.
– Arthur’s disturbing “bathroom dance” after the subway shooting evokes, perhaps unintentionally, “The Clown at Midnight” from Batman #663 by Grant Morrison and John Van Fleet. That story established that Joker constantly reinvents himself both psychologically and criminally, and that the process is an almost physical transformation. Arthur’s weird, insectoid dancing here feels like something emerging from a cocoon. The lighting of the scene evokes the muted blues and greys of that comic book story. Again, likely a coincidence, but still cool.
– Joker’s on-air confession feels like classic serial killer behavior, notably the Zodiac Killer making the “I’m the one who did it” phone call, and even the fake Zodiac who called in to the Jim Dunbar Show to talk to Melvin Belli in 1969. Both events are immortalized in David Fincher’s flawless Zodiac.
– Joker appearing on Murray’s show as a guest does feel like a moment from The Dark Knight Returns, where the Clown Prince of Crime appeared on “The David Endochrine Show” before committing an atrocity. Not coincidentally, in that book, Joker also plants a kiss on a fellow guest. Sex advice guest Dr. Sally is a nod to Dr. Ruth Weisenheimer from Dark Knight Returns, who was in turn a play on real life sex advice therapist and ‘80s icon Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
– While Arthur’s Joker suit isn’t quite purple (what would you call that color anyway?), is it my imagination or does it show up as purple on the studio monitors and TV sets?
BATMAN EASTER EGGS
– Opening with those radio broadcasts feels, ever so slightly, like a sideways nod to The Dark Knight Returns, which used TV news broadcasts for exposition and worldbuilding.
– Arthur getting beaten up in an alley as part of his “origin story” feels like a funhouse mirror version of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, which so traumatized their young son that he had to become a masked vigilante. The movie offers its own slightly different look at the Wayne murder later in the film, and we explore that in detail down below.
– Arthur’s social worker at the start of the film is named Debra Kane. Bob Kane was the “co-creator” of both Batman and the Joker, although we all know that Bill Finger did most of the heavy lifting, especially on Joker.
– Murray Franklin’s monologue about the garbage strike and the concern about “super rats” that will need to be fought by “super cats” feels like a nod to the “escalation” themes of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. But also, what is a “super rat” if not a rat that can fly? And what is a rat that can fly? A bat.
– The finance bros that Arthur kills on the subway are like the entitled assholes that Bruce Wayne could have grown up to be had his life taken a drastically different path. This might be just how Joker sees all people like the Waynes. The lead bro serenades Arthur with Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns,” albeit this clown probably knows it from the awful Judy Collins version that was a hit in 1977, roughly four years before this movie takes place. His little “pole dance” routine would seem to echo Bruce Wayne’s preferred method of accessing the Batcave, too.
But the way that murder is framed feels disturbingly like the case of Bernie Goetz, who, in 1984 shot three panhandlers on a New York City subway who were allegedly threatening him. Goetz became something of a cause in New York media, as some saw him as a man taking back NYC streets for regular folks. You can see the parallels with how Arthur’s crime is taken up by the “Kill the Rich” movement in Gotham.
– When we meet Alfred Pennyworth and young Bruce Wayne, the future Dark Knight slides down a pole to exit his treehouse, again echoing iconic Batman imagery, especially from the 1960s Batman TV series.
– Arthur’s dressing room on the Murray Franklin show is #404. Batman #404 was the first chapter of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s famed Batman: Year One story, which, alongside The Dark Knight Returns and Killing Joke stands as one of the most influential Batman tales of all time. While Joker doesn’t appear (and is only mentioned once, on the final page of the story), its ground level approach to telling its story about a Gotham City that strongly resembles early 1980s New York City still resonates to this day, even within this film.
– Speaking of Murray Franklin, the Live With Murray Franklin lettering is the same font used in Batman: The Animated Series titles.
– Just as using radio broadcasts to set the scene faintly echoes The Dark Knight Returns, so does the ending where TV news broadcasts start explaining the impact of the Joker’s arrival.
– The Gotham Savings Bank where Sophie Dumond works is on 20 William St. Could this be a nod to Batman and Joker co-creator Bill Finger? Later in the movie, we see that the 9th Avenue Subway stop is “Robinson Park” a nod to early Batman artist Jerry Robinson (and also a location mentioned in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One).
THE WAYNE MURDER AT THE MOVIE THEATER
– The fact that the Waynes are murdered as a direct result of the Joker inspiring a random thug to follow them down the alley feels intentionally evocative of the Joker directly murdering the Waynes in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989).
– During the movie’s big finale, when we see the Waynes making their fateful exit from the movie theater, you can spot a bunch of movie posters in addition to what’s being heralded on the marquee. Some key names are the film the Waynes were seeing, Zorro the Gay Blade (more on that in a moment), and the posters on and around the theater which include Wolfen, Arthur, and Excalibur. All four of these films were released in 1981, so we can safely place the events of Joker in that year. There’s added significance to these movies, though…
– The fact that the Waynes were seeing Zorro the Gay Blade is a nod to how in most established DC Comics mythology of the last 30 years or so, the Waynes had been out to see a screening of 1940’s The Mark of Zorro, the brilliant swashbuckler that starred Tyrone Power as Zorro and his rich alter ego, Don Diego Vega. There are exceptions, of course, notably Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, where the Waynes were seeing Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele. To the best of my knowledge, the first time it was revealed that the Waynes were seeing The Mark of Zorro came in Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynne Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns.
– Arthur trudging dejectedly up the stairs in his tan jacket recalls the poster for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. That’s far from the only Travis Bickle parallel with Arthur, who is also fond of journaling. The apartment Arthur shares with his mother could belong to Travis and it also bears a slight resemblance to Jake LaMotta’s in another Scorsese masterpiece from the era, Raging Bull.
– The steep outdoor concrete steps also evoke William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, which famously used similar stairs in Georgetown to horrifying effect. This is likely intentional, as that movie is also part of the gritty 1970s aesthetic that influenced Joker, including its depiction of a rundown and dangerous Lower Manhattan.
– Arthur’s relationship with his mother feels again very inspired by the implied one between Norman Bates and his mother in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The unseen motherly Bates also treated Norman close to being her lover until she found a real one and Norman then killed them both. Arthur also becomes his true self after murdering mama.
– The King of Comedy vibes are strong on Live With Murray Franklin. This begins with the fact that Murray Franklin is played by Robert De Niro, who played the star of The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin. In that film, De Niro’s character also dreams of being on a late night talk show hosted by an old school legend, there played by Jerry Lewis. While he doesn’t kill Jerry “Langford” like the Joker, he does kidnap him so he can guest host the show for one night.
Arthur’s awful plaid blazer that he wears as a clown in the opening scene recalls Rupert Pupkin’s fondness for similar wear when he would appear on The Jerry Langford Show in The King of Comedy.
Arthur fantasizing about Murray Franklin taking him under his wing on TV like a father is an homage to Rupert Pupkin’s fantasies about Jerry Langford, including one where he imagines Jerry offering him the opportunity to host his late night talk show for six weeks because they’re good friends… in Rupert’s mind.
– In one scene, Arthur is seen watching Fred Astaire singing “Slap That Bass” in Shall We Dance (1937), not the greatest of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers pictures. But it was a smashing hit for RKO during the Great Depression and evokes the kind of fantasy life that Arthur wishes he had, as well as what he thinks is cool. Astaire’s effortless physicality in a suit is a clear influence on Joker’s movements, too.
While watching Shall We Dance, Arthur references a creepier movie moment when he plays around with a gun, trying to act tough and intimidate an imaginary tough guy, like Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
– Referring to a difference between “rats” and “super-rats” feels like a reference to how Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly described arrogant, rich New York men like the Wall Street bros Arthur kills on the subway.
This might be coincidental, but as Holly was immortalized on film by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Joker later intentionally evokes one of her most famous roles in My Fair Lady (1964) where Eliza Doolittle walks down a flight of stairs before going to the ball that acts as her new identity’s coming out party, I suspect both are intentional.
– “Send in the Clowns” is a Stephen Sondheim song from the stage show A Little Night Music, which was adapted into a terrible movie in 1977. It’s notable in this section because the actual lyrics of the song end on “Quick send in the clowns, don’t bother they’re here.” It is accepting we’ve made our lives a joke, and sure enough the clown is here to kill the finance bros singing it. Also worth mentioning again because Sondheim wrote one of the most famous musicals of all time based on the legend of a serial killer in Sweeney Todd. It features a protagonist coming to the epiphany, “We all deserve to die.”
– Wayne Hall is showing Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), which was a critique of living conditions during the Great Depression and certainly echoes the financial difficulties Gotham appears to be having. Chaplin’s “the Tramp” persona is also a visible influence on how Arthur’s Joker moves through life at the end of the movie.
– Chaplin isn’t the only great screen comedian subtly referenced by Arthur. His bellboy disguise from the moments before he confronts Thomas Wayne feels like a nod to Jerry Lewis in The Bellboy (1960).
– Arthur killing Murray Franklin on live television feels like it was lifted straight from Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). In that film, Peter Finch’s Howard Beale becomes an insane demagogue on primetime television (anticipating Fox News by 20 years). But he eventually slips in the ratings, and his own network plans his own murder. After being gunned down, we glimpse a control room of all the other networks reporting on Beale’s death, just like Murray.
Also like Network, disaffected television viewers take insanity they see on TV at face value. Howard Beale only became a primetime star after losing his mind and preaching, “Get up and shout, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Viewers then start repeating it, just as they quote Joker saying, “You get what you deserve” before doing Murray. Ironically, cable news talking heads and the dimmest politicians in the real world still quote Howard Beale without a sense of irony… like the film’s depiction of a rudderless public.
– The mob being inspired by Joker’s anarchy feels also evocative of another Lumet masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon (1975). In that film, Al Pacino’s Sonny incites a mob to near violence when his bank robber shouts in front of the crowds “Attica!”
Excalibur, in addition to being a terrific and bizarre piece of John Boorman fantasy, offers a DCEU connection, as it was also on the marquee during the Batman origin sequence in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (you’ll note that the Waynes were seeing The Mark of Zorro in that movie, not The Gay Blade as seen here).
– The significance of Dudley Moore’s Arthur, beyond its release year, is obvious in that it shares a name with this film’s main character. But also, its depiction of the rich as cartoonishly spoiled drunken nitwits may shed some light on how Arthur Fleck is remembering events and how he sees the wealthy of Gotham City.
– As Joker is being driven off in the police cruiser, the shot recalls a moment in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The police cruiser’s number is 9189. Tim Burton’s Batman movie, which starred Jack Nicholson in an intensely memorable Joker performance, was released in 1989. Close enough!
The Joker reveling in the chaos created by his murdering of Murray Franklin feels intentionally reminiscent of how Travis Bickle views locals in Taxi Driver. He even muses to himself, “Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” Seeing poor people rise up and attack rich strangers (or just really anyone) makes Joker happy, and likely is what Travis was imagining in his journal.
That the end of the movie shows Arthur in a psychiatric ward, causing the viewer to question of the murder and mayhem Joker saw in the back of the police cruiser, and his subsequent escape, is even real. Part of it must have been given what happened to the Waynes, but the ambiguity of it intentionally echoes whether Travis Bickle really saw Cybill Shepherd in his backseat or just imagined it, and if Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy really became a late night comedian star or, if like Arthur, he’s wasting away in a padded room. It also echoes Joker’s own thoughts about his actual origin story from The Killing Joke: “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
Murray signs off with Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life,” a song that not only echoes Murray’s own seeming pragmatism but that also kind of speaks to how the Joker has constantly reinvented himself throughout history (and it may also hold the key to how he views his own past as “multiple choice”).
“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate
A poet, a pawn and a king…”
The Main Ingredient’s “Everybody Plays the Fool” is playing when Arthur gets the gun from his coworker. A brilliant tune with lyrics that, out of context, read somewhat significantly…
“How can you help it when the music starts to play
And your ability to reason is swept away
Oh-oh-oh, heaven on earth is all you see
You’re out of touch with reality
And now you cry but when you do
Next time around someone cries for you”
– While ultimately Arthur isn’t responsible for the murder of the Waynes, there does seem to be a faint air of how John Lennon was stalked by Mark David Chapman in the leadup to his murder, right down to how he approached Lennon first as a fan asking for an autograph before he returned later to shoot him.
– Arthur’s stage name at Ha-Has is “Carnival the Clown” and he refers to hearing a song with the lyrics “my name is Carnival.” The song in question is almost certainly “My Name is Carnival” by Jackson C. Frank, a folk musician whose sole album was produced by none other than Paul Simon. Frank, it later turned out, suffered from schizophrenia and depression. The lyrics of that song, again, sound like they could come from the Joker’s diary.
“Here there is no law but the arcade’s penny claw, hanging empty
The painted laughing smile and the turning of the style do not envy
And the small can steal the ball, to touch the face of Carnival
The fat woman frowns at screaming frightened clowns that move enchanted
And the shadow lie and waits outside your iron gates with one wish granted
Colors fall, throw the ball, play the game of Carnival”
– Jimmy Durante’s “Smile” was used in the film’s first trailer and is used in the film during Arthur’s (hallucinatory and delusional) date with Sophie. The lyrics, of course, are self explanatory.
“If you smile
Through your fear and sorrow
Smile, and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shinin’ through”
– It’s unclear why the filmmakers chose Gary Glitter’s “Rock n’ Roll Part Two” to showcase Joker’s bizarre dance routine on the steps. While a stompin’ tune, Glitter is a repeat sex offender, and the song, once ubiquitous at sporting events, has all but disappeared in the wake of two convictions against the glam rocker. Maybe the filmmakers were unaware of this, or perhaps they wanted to make a statement about reprehensible subjects still having entertainment value, or perhaps using it as Joker’s anthem helps speak to the questionable morality of the movie’s own central character. Or maybe they just like to court controversy.
– Some of the guests on the Murray Franklin show include Skip Byron, Ethan Chase, and Sandra Winger, names which, like Murray, seem to have no DC Comics significance.
– While Detective Garrity doesn’t have a DC Comics parallel, and we never learn Detective Burke’s first name, there was a Detective Tommy Burke who kicked around the Gotham City Police department for a few years in the pages of Detective Comics and Gotham Central.
– Dr. Benjamin Stoner did Penny Fleck’s diagnosis. This is an unexpected DC Comics reference. Dr. Stoner was indeed in residence at Arkham Asylum in the 1980s, although he showed up as a villain in a 1987 Doctor Fate comic.
– It’s worth noting that Todd Phillips has denied that the stern, taciturn Thomas Wayne with political ambitions we meet in this movie is an intentional Donald Trump parallel. And it’s true, while distant and occasionally abrasive, Wayne is also thoughtful and articulate when he needs to be, qualities our current Commander-in-Chief certainly lacks. It’s almost refreshing to see Bruce’s father not portrayed as a virtual saint, as he often is in the comics and films. Wayne’s crack about “someone who hides behind a mask” is, of course, ironically self-explanatory given his son’s future career, but it’s also a reference to the “Kill the Rich” movement of the film and the recent popularity of Antifa in the real world.
– The curtains on Live With Murray Franklin look almost exactly like the curtains from The Tonight Show during its Johnny Carson heyday.
– During the riots at the end, you can spot a porno theater called “Ace in the Hole.” As opposed to “Joker’s Wild?”
Spot something we missed? Let us know in the comments or hit us up on Twitter! If it checks out, we’ll update this article!