Joker was released on October 4, 2019. Within weeks, it climbed the box office charts to not only become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, but also the most profitable comic book film (based on its budget-to-profit ratio). The film is a homage to character study films, particularly those of Martin Scorsese—Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The King of Comedy. It also has nods to films stylistically similar such as The French Connection, Serpico, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Written by Todd Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy, War Dogs) and Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter), the script is based on the character—created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson—who first appeared in the comic book, Batman, issue number one, spring 1940.
However, that’s where the similarity ends. Through the years, the Joker has been portrayed as a homicidal maniac, trickster, and terrorist. Since the Joker is a character who lives by his own rules and who creates his own reality, his origin story and even his real name have never been set in stone. Phillips and Silver were inspired, in part, by the graphic novel The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, as a more humanized approach to the Joker’s origin story.
Joaquin Phoenix takes up the role as the eponymous character, and he turns in a layered and nuanced performance that is not only Oscar®-worthy but one of the best screen performances of all time. The equally Oscar®-worthy score for Joker, written by Hildur Guðnadóttir (Chernobyl), adds to the layers of subtly and menace.
The genre of this film falls under the Save the Cat! genre of Superhero, which means that there’s a power (a mission to do good), nemesis (an opposite of equal or greater force), and curse (what the hero surmounts or succumbs to). These elements will be broken down in the beat sheet.
When I write these beat sheets, I usually do it alone after seeing the film multiple times (in the case of Joker, four), but I want to thank Master Cat Naomi Beatty for comparing notes with me and talking beats on this one. She saved this cat! Now, joking aside, let’s get to the punchline of Joker.
Screenplay by: Scott Silver & Todd Philips
Directed by: Todd Philips
Genre: Superhero (comic book)
Cinematic Cousins: Avengers: Infinity War, The Crow, Batman, Hellboy, Catwoman, Blade, Persepolis, Akira, Ghost World, Kick-Ass, Tank Girl
Opening Image: It’s 1981. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) works at Ha-Has, a seedy agency that hires out party clowns for events. Arthur’s painting his face in a vanity mirror getting ready for the day as a clown-for-hire. He peers at his dour face. Jamming his index fingers into his mouth, Arthur forces a smile onto his face. A tear runs down his cheek. His disillusionment and misery are captured in this single moment.
Set-Up: Working his gig as Carnival the Clown, Arthur dances, holding up a yellow going-out-of-business sign, at a closing music store. A gang of teens insult Arthur and then steal his sign. When Arthur gives chase down an alley, the group jumps him, smashing the sign over his head, and then pummeling the clown with a volley of kicks and punches. A typical day in Gotham City, it seems, especially for someone like Arthur.
Riding on the bus, Arthur, now out of clown make-up, attempts to bring a smile to a child’s lips by making goofy faces. The mother is annoyed and tells Arthur to stop bothering her child. Arthur laughs, uncontrollably. Angered, the mother asks him if this is funny to him. Arthur, chocking and to the point of tears, hands her a card. It reveals that he has a condition, Pseudobulbar affect, which is characterized by inappropriate, uncontrollable laughter.
Arthur sees his social worker (Sharon Washington). He’s spent time previously in a mental hospital and is taking medication for his condition. She has encouraged her client to keep a journal. When Arthur reveals his ratty notebook, he says it’s more for writing down jokes. She reads a line within the pages of pornographic clip-outs and scribblings: “I hope my death makes more cents than my life.”
Theme Stated: The film is about becoming visible. It’s also about man against the system. It’s also about parental figures failing that person. But, ultimately, it’s about becoming visible. Arthur wants to be seen. He’s tired of being invisible in Gotham City. Just another face.
Set-Up (cont’d): On his home turf, Arthur climbs a long set of stairs. (He will use “the Joker stairs” three times—twice, climbing up in despair and a third as Joker, dancing. They’re a visual motif of the social climb he’ll have to make throughout the story.)
Arthur arrives home to the dingy apartment he shares with his mother in a run-down tenement. His mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), is obsessed with Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). She keeps writing letters to the billionaire, whom she once was employed by. The ubiquitous man of wealth never responds to her frequent mailings. Arthur takes care of his mother, feeding and bathing her.
B Story: They are watching their favorite television program together, Live With Murray Franklin. Arthur has a fantasy about Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Franklin “wishes” he had a son like Arthur. (Arthur wants a father figure like Murray or Thomas Wayne. It’s part of what would make him visible. But, in the end, these men end up hurting Arthur, emotionally and even physically. The system run by these men of wealth and privilege will fail Arthur, so he will go, eventually, against the system. And these men will succumb to violence.) Arthur wants someone like Murray Franklin to make him visible to the people of Gotham.
Catalyst: At the 15-minute mark, Randall (Glenn Fleshler), a fellow Ha-Has employee, gives Arthur a .38-caliber pistol for protection against future assaults. Randall tells Arthur, “You’re my boy” in an almost fatherly way. (Randall will be another father figure who disappoints Arthur and will pay with deadly violence against him.)
Debate: Arthur tells his mom he wants to be a comedian. He’s dreaming of a future where he can become visible to the world. His mother, who has nicknamed him “Happy,” has always told him to “put on a happy face.” In the Superhero genre, the first element is power. Though Arthur has no physical strength, his power is his mission to do good (working within the system). His mother only responds: “Don’t you have to be funny?” Arthur plays with the .38 pistol he got from Randall, fascinated with it. He accidentally shoots a hole in the apartment wall. He doesn’t understand the reality of such a deadly weapon. Yet.
During a ride on the tenement elevator, Arthur meets Sophie (Zazie Beetz). This single mother will become Arthur’s “love interest” of sorts.
Working his charms as Carnival the Clown at a children’s hospital, Arthur drops the .38 pistol when he’s dancing around. When he lies about the gun to his boss, he loses his job at Ha-Has.
Break Into Two: At the 30-minute mark (this beat comes about five minutes later than a typical Break), Arthur rides home on the subway. Three drunken Wayne Enterprises employees hassle a woman trying to read a book. When Arthur can’t stop laughing, they hassle him—with fatal results. He whips out the gun, and in a Bernard Goetz-style slaying, he shoots and kills them all.
Fun and Games: After killing the three businessmen, Arthur does a hypnotic dance in his Joker make-up in a grungy public bathroom (which has now become an iconic moment). He’s evolving after he’s had his first victory. He dances when he feels empowered, swaying to a strain of music that only he can hear. He immediately returns to his building, walks up to Sophie’s apartment, knocks on the door, and then kisses her.
Watching TV with his mother, Arthur sees Thomas Wayne criticize the “coward behind the mask” who shot the upstanding citizens of Gotham on the train (an on-the-nose Batman reference considering who Wayne’s son will grow to be as an adult). Arthur takes it personally. It’s the moment where Thomas Wayne becomes a kind of nemesis, which is the second element of the Superhero genre. He’s the “leader” of the system who doesn’t give a damn about destitute people like Arthur. First, it was Wayne’s employees bullying him, and now Wayne himself on the television.
Arthur, as he learns, has his final meeting with his social worker. The program is being shut down—funding has been cut. What’s he to do? How will he get his meds? He says that for a long time, he never feels like he existed and that she never listens to him (about visibility). But things are changing.
With his confidence in bloom, Arthur does his stand-up comedy at a club call Pogo’s. Sophie, his romantic interest, is there. Arthur bombs on stage with his nervousness and laughter, but he’s thrilled he has someone to share his newfound happiness.
The subway shooting has hit a nerve in Gotham City. The upper crust is outraged that the killer clown wasn’t caught. The masses in the streets are starting to wear clown masks that look like Arthur’s make-up. He’s involuntarily started a movement for those tired of being shoved around by those who run the system. Violent revolution is in the chilly, dark air of Gotham.
After Arthur puts his mother to bed, he reads one of her letters to Thomas Wayne. It says that Arthur is Thomas Wayne’s illegitimate son. Arthur is furious with his mother for not telling him the truth.
Arthur rides the train out to Wayne Manor to talk to Thomas Wayne. Instead, he meets a dour-looking Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson). Arthur tries to entertain the boy with clown tricks, even forcing a smile on his face with his fingers (echoes of the Opening Image). Alfred Pennyworth (Douglas Hodge), the Wayne family butler, turns Arthur away and says that Penny Fleck was crazy. A and B stories cross.
Arthur’s mother suffers a stroke after the Gotham City Police Department interrogates her regarding Arthur. The GCPD question Arthur too. The noose is tightening around him; stakes are raising.
Midpoint: Arthur, with Sophie, waits at the hospital. When Sophie leaves to get a coffee, Murray Franklin’s show comes on. Murray plays the clip from Pogo’s and calls Arthur “joker.” At first, Arthur is ecstatic he’s on TV (gone public) with Murray acknowledging him and making him visible (false victory), but then he’s angered when he’s made fun of. Arthur’s father figures are failing him, as A and B stories cross. Murray, who was a figure of admiration, has been checked off by Arthur, at least mentally, as a nemesis for humiliating him on TV.
Bad Guys Close In: Protestors in clown masks and make-up are rising up; they hate Thomas Wayne and what he said about them being “clowns” on TV. It’s all caused by Arthur’s subway shooting. People like Arthur, the depraved denizens of society, are starting to be seen. The stakes raise as the proverbial dam is about to burst, starting the ticking clock.
At Wayne Hall, Arthur sneaks into a private showing of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. The Tramp character resembles Arthur, and the film is about a little man struggling to survive in a modern, industrialized city. The parallels between art (the film) and life (Arthur) are visually evident.
Arthur follows Thomas Wayne into the restroom. He tells the Gotham tycoon that he’s Penny Fleck’s son and that Wayne is his father. Wayne tells Arthur that Penny is delusional and not his biological mother. When Arthur starts laughing uncontrollably, Wayne punches Arthur in the face. So much for paternal love.
All Is Lost: After his fateful meeting with Wayne, Arthur climbs into the refrigerator back at the apartment as a kind of “suicide”—a whiff of death as it seems to be practice for an actual one. He’s been insulted on television by Murray Franklin, his mother is in the hospital with a stroke, and Thomas Wayne gave him a bloody nose. Things are at their worst for Arthur. He has no place to go.
Dark Night of the Soul: Arthur gets a call from Murray Franklin’s people. They want him on the show. Wow! Things might just be looking up. Arthur’s earlier fantasy of being on the show will now become a reality.
Arthur ventures to Arkham State Hospital. He wants to find out the truth of who he is. When an Arkham clerk (Brian Tyree Henry) won’t let him see Penny Fleck’s file, Arthur steals it and runs.
Hiding in an Arkham stairwell, Arthur learns the truth. He was an abandoned child and was adopted. His mother let her boyfriend abuse him and her, and young Arthur sustained a head injury. Penny Fleck was diagnosed with “delusional psychosis” and “narcissistic personality disorder.” It all makes sense now. Arthur’s entire life, everything his mother has told him, has been a lie. This is his moment of clarity.
Arthur goes to Sophie’s apartment. It scares her. In flashback scenes, it’s revealed that she was never there—just an idea in his head based on a random meeting during an elevator ride. His “love interest” character was all in his head, a fantasy from a flawed narrator.
Arthur returns to the hospital. He was never “Happy,” as his mother has always called him. He’s been miserable—she’s lied to him, deceived him. His mother is the system, too. “I used to think that my life was a tragedy,” he tells her, “but now I realize, it’s a fucking comedy.”
In the Superhero genre, the third element is a curse. In this case, it was Arthur’s trying to go along with what his mother has told him his entire life. In the moment of revelation, he turns his curse into a gift (of course, this is the opposite of a Superhero, a Supervillain, and so everything is inverse). Overcoming his curse with this newfound knowledge, he smothers Penny Fleck to death with a pillow. Arthur is now alone, but free.
Arthur practices going on the Murray Franklin show watching clips. During his “interview,” he tells Murray a knock-knock joke, then the punchline is him pulling out the revolver and shooting himself. Is he going to commit suicide on Gotham City television? It seems so.
Arthur “celebrates” his mother’s death, and prepares for the Murray Franklin show by coloring his hair green. He sees a photograph with a romantic sentiment from Thomas Wayne written on the back. Apparently, the truth about his mother and him was real (at least their romantic fling).
Randall and Gary (Leigh Gill) show up to check in on Arthur. Arthur kills Randall with a pair of scissors. In a kind of “save the cat” moment, Arthur lets Gary, a dwarf, and “the only person who was nice to him,” leave. This moment parallels the Break into Two when Arthur killed the men. At first, he didn’t know what he was doing, it was random murder, and now he’s good at it. Arthur has a real taste for violence.
Break into Three: At the 90-minute mark, Arthur is Joker. Joker has his now-famous dance on the stairs (it’s the poster image). He’s found who he is. Off his meds, Arthur is no longer part of the system; in fact, Arthur is dead—it’s Joker now. And Joker makes his own rules. He’s on his way to the television studios of Murray Franklin. Arthur-as-Joker will now be visible, and that makes A and B stories cross.
Finale: Gathering the Team – The Gotham City police detectives (Shea Whigham and Bill Camp) chase Joker. He escapes in the subway. There’s a protest of hundreds of clowned-face people. One of the detectives accidentally shoots one of the painted protesters. The other clowns take down the detectives, freeing Joker. He’s empowered and safe from the law, at least for now.
Storming the Castle – Joker waits in the green room for Murray. Again, he pantomimes shooting himself. Is he going to commit suicide on air? Murray and his producer come in. The host is a little surprised about the weird face paint. Is it part of the protest? “I don’t believe in that,” Joker says. “I don’t believe in anything.” He asks Murray to introduce him as Joker. Murray introduces him as Joker. Fantasy becomes a reality, Joker (once Arthur) is on Murray Franklin’s show. But it’s all a joke on Joker. They want to make fun of him.
High Tower Surprise – Joker confesses his shooting crime on the subway and then tells an off-color joke, “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fuckin’ deserve!” The punchline is he shoots Murray Franklin in the head and then in the heart. Chaos. The master of chaos, Joker laughs in his chair and does a little dance. Then he signs off with Murray’s signature line, “That’s life.” This act ties A and B stories together. Arthur couldn’t get the visibility he wanted, but Joker did.
Digging Deep Down – Riding in a police car, Joker enjoys the chaos his actions have created. Angry citizens of Gotham City have taken over the streets, burning cars, rioting. For a madman, it’s a beautiful spectacle. Wham! An ambulance T-bones the police car. It’s out of commission. Masked clowns, like pallbearers, haul the inert Joker out of the totaled cop car and set him on the hood. Leaving the movie theatre, the Wayne family take a back alley to get away from the mob. One clown-masked guy says, “You get what you deserve” (echoing what Joker said before killing Murray Franklin) and then guns down Thomas and Martha Wayne. Young Bruce stands over them. His life is about to change. And so will Gotham. But that’s another story.
Executing the New Plan – Joker awakes from unconsciousness on the hood of the police cruiser, his “rebirth.” Joker fixes his “smile.” Painting it with blood from his mouth, he turns to his legions, raising his arms like a messiah to the disillusioned masses huddled in the burning streets. He’s finally visible. They’re finally visible. They’re not forgotten anymore; the upper crust of Gotham City must take notice. This is the final coffin nail for Arthur Fleck. He’s “dead.” This is a negative character arc, where our hero has turned villainous. But we accept this journey as society has failed the man, Arthur Fleck, and the monstrous Joker is the result—the gruesome punchline to a grim joke. He’s now Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime.
Final Image: In Arkham State Hospital, Joker speaks with an Arkham psychiatrist (April Grace). (Though he doesn’t have his trademark clown make-up on, he’s clearly Joker.) Joker laughs to himself. She asks him what’s funny. He says that “you wouldn’t get the joke.”
Next, Joker is strolling down the hall, blood dripping from his shoes (he apparently killed the psychiatrist). He’s free, at least in the hospital. He does a little dance, his Joker dance. He’s transformed into who he was always meant to be, a deranged version of his mother’s wish for him to “put on a happy face.” The orderlies chase him, and Joker runs. It’s the system again trying to chase him down.
But the Joker, now full of purpose, is faster.