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‘Joker’ ending explained: Director Todd Phillips on fan theories and open questions

By JOSH ROTTENBERG • Updated Oct 9, 2019 at 10:10 AM

When the words “The End” appear onscreen at the conclusion of “Joker,” that really is the end.

Unlike virtually every other modern comic-book movie, the film — which rides into theaters today on a wave of sharply divided reviews, concerns over potential violence and endless think pieces about what it all means — has no post-credits sequence. If you stick around hoping to see a tease of the soon-to-be-rebooted Batman franchise or any other upcoming installment in the DC cinematic universe, you will be sorely disappointed. In every sense, this “Joker” stands alone.

But that’s not to say that everything is neatly wrapped up with a bow by the time the credits roll. As they leave the theater, audiences may be mulling over more than the film’s provocative portrait of an alienated loner pushed toward monstrous violence by an uncaring society on the brink of chaos. On a more fundamental level, they may be asking some basic questions about the film’s story — and whether there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Both Todd Phillips, who directed and co-wrote “Joker,” and Joaquin Phoenix, who stars as the disaffected rent-a-clown and would-be stand-up comic Arthur Fleck, say that was very much their intention.

“This movie requires a certain amount of participation from the audience,” Phoenix told The Times recently. “It’s up to you how you want to interpret it and experience it. It’s less you being kind of presented with the facts than you being presented with these possibilities.”

In August, not long before the film won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, Phillips shared his thoughts about a few of those possibilities.

Warning: Major spoilers about “Joker” ahead. Seriously, we’re not joking.

The inspirations

From the start, Phillips was drawn to the Joker in large part because, for all of the character’s countless iterations over the decades, there has never been a single definitive version of the backstory of Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime. Hit man turned criminal genius? Former hypnotist and master of disguise? Mobster whose face was disfigured after falling in a vat of acid? Immortal evil being? At varying points throughout the Batman canon, the Joker has been all of these and more.

Phillips appreciated both the freedom and the opportunity for creative mischief that offered. “I loved that we could take this fictional character and do what we wanted with it,” he said. “It was one of the most fun scripts to write because you were only breaking rules.”

As the Joker says of his own history in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland‘s 1988 graphic novel “The Killing Joke” — a key inspiration for the “Joker” screenplay that depicted the character as a failed comedian — “I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice.”

Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver layered that ambiguity into “Joker” from the start, with Fleck a fundamentally unreliable narrator of his own turbulent story.

Early in “Joker,” we learn that Fleck spent time at some point in Arkham State Hospital, a notorious asylum for the criminally insane in the Batman universe, for an unspecified mental issue and that he feels the medication that has helped him manage it isn’t working anymore. From there onward, “Joker” at times blurs the line between gritty realism and fantasy, with certain moments and even entire story lines, such as Fleck’s budding romance with an empathetic neighbor (Zazie Beetz), revealed to be apparent delusions sprung from his increasingly disturbed mind.

In the film’s final scene, Fleck, having inspired a violent citywide insurrection after committing a string of brutal murders, has landed in handcuffs back in Arkham Asylum, where he is being questioned about the events that led him there. When he laughs to himself – intercut with a shot of Bruce Wayne standing over the bodies of his murdered parents – his interlocutor, apparently a psychiatrist or social worker, asks him what’s so funny. He says he was thinking of a joke but that she wouldn’t get it.

As the film ends, we see Fleck running down the halls of the asylum to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life” (“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king”), trailing bloody footprints, having clearly claimed another victim.

What’s real anyway?

“Joker” offers a new take on the Batman villain, with Joaquin Phoenix in title role.

Given the movie’s slippery relationship with certain basic facts, it’s fair to wonder, as some fans have, if Fleck was actually in Arkham Asylum the entire time and merely imagined the whole narrative as a kind of pathological mental confabulation or demented form of wish fulfillment.

While Phillips welcomes that debate, he doesn’t want to tip his hand one way or the other. He will say, though, that, throughout the conception and making of the film, he deliberately avoided defining Fleck as psychotic or schizophrenic or suffering from any other clearly established disorder.

“Me and Scott and Joaquin, we never talked about what he has — I never wanted to say, ‘He’s a narcissist and this and that,’” Phillips said. “I didn’t want Joaquin as an actor to start researching that kind of thing. We just said, ‘He’s off.’ I don’t even know that he’s mentally ill. He’s just left-footed with the world.”

That said, given Fleck’s increasingly fractured state of mind, Phillips can certainly understand why viewers might speculate that much, if not all, of the story may not have really played out the way we see it.

“There’s a lot of ways you could look at this movie,” Phillips said. “You could look at it and go, ‘This is just one of his multiple-choice stories. None of it happened.’ I don’t want to say what it is. But a lot of people I’ve shown it to have said, ‘Oh, I get it — he’s just made up a story. The whole movie is the joke. It’s this thing this guy in Arkham Asylum concocted. He might not even be the Joker.’ ”

More than one ‘Joker’?

That raises another intriguing possibility. Even if everything in the film did happen pretty much as we see it and Fleck did unwittingly spark Gotham’s descent into mayhem and violence, is he the actual Joker that we have come to know? Or, as some fans have theorized, could one of his followers – perhaps the clown-mask-wearing thug who kills Bruce Wayne’s parents – or another disturbed, angry loner who comes along in his wake be the one who eventually becomes Batman’s ultimate nemesis?

“Maybe Joaquin’s character inspired the Joker,” Phillips said. “You don’t really know. His last line in the movie is, ‘You wouldn’t get it.’ There’s a lot going on in there that’s interesting.”

That explanation could account for the significant age gap between the middle-aged Fleck and Bruce Wayne, who is seen in “Joker” as a child. In earlier portrayals of the Joker-Batman relationship, including Tim Burton’s “Batman” and Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” the characters are much closer in age.

Here, too, Phillips is leaving it up to audiences to decide what they think. But he does offer that, while he has no plans to make a follow-up to “Joker,” were he ever to reunite with Phoenix for a follow-up, we shouldn’t expect to see Fleck’s Joker square off against a grown-up Batman. “We would never do that,” he said. “No, no. We’d just want to see where he goes from there.”

The last laugh

There is one thing — call it a clue or just an interesting tidbit — that Phillips will say unequivocally about the ending of “Joker.”

Throughout the film, Fleck laughs uncontrollably and often inappropriately as the result of a real-life involuntary condition called pseudobulbar affect that Phillips and Silver researched when writing the screenplay. But, Phillips says, the laugh the character lets out in the film’s final moments is different from the rest.

“That laugh in that scene is really the only time he laughs genuinely,” Phillips said. “There are different laughs in the movie. There is the laugh from Arthur’s affliction and then there is his fake laugh when he’s trying to be ‘one of the people,’ which is my favorite laugh. But at the end, when he’s in the room at Arkham State Hospital, that’s his only genuine laugh in the movie.”

What does that mean exactly? Well, again, that’s up to you to decide.

In a way, the open-ended nature of “Joker” is in keeping with some of the earlier gritty, nuanced cinematic character studies that deeply influenced Phillips — in particular, 1976’s “Taxi Driver” and 1982’s “The King of Comedy,” both of which were directed by Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro, who has a supporting role in “Joker” as late-night host Murray Franklin.

Over the years, many viewers have puzzled over the conclusions of both those movies, wondering if the strangely upbeat ending of “Taxi Driver” represents the dreams or dying thoughts of the unhinged vigilante Travis Bickle and if the final scene of “King of Comedy,” in which failed comic Rupert Pupkin achieves fame and glory, is pure fantasy.

Such deliberately unresolved ambiguities may leave you feeling either tantalized or frustrated. But as the person who brought this new take on the Joker to the screen, Phillips seems as entitled as anyone to have the last laugh.

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