Joker is a 2019 American psychological thriller film directed and produced by Todd Phillips, who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver. The film, based on DC Comics characters, stars Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. Joker provides a possible origin story for the character; set in 1981, it follows Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian in Gotham City who becomes the Joker after a series of unfortunate events. Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Bill Camp, Shea Whigham, and Marc Maron appear in supporting roles. Joker was produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Films, and Joint Effort, in association with Bron Creative and Village Roadshow Pictures, and distributed by Warner Bros.
Phillips conceived Joker in 2016 and wrote the script with Silver throughout 2017. The two were inspired by 1970s character studies and the films of Martin Scorsese (particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy), who was initially attached to the project as a producer. The graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) was the basis for the premise, but Phillips and Silver otherwise did not look to specific comics for inspiration. Phoenix became attached in February 2018 and was cast that July, while the majority of the cast signed on by August. Principal photography took place in New York City, Jersey City, and Newark, from September to December 2018. Joker is the first live-action theatrical Batman film to receive an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, due to its violent content.
Joker premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival on August 31, 2019, where it won the Golden Lion, and was released in the United States on October 4, 2019. The film polarized critics; while Phoenix’s performance was praised, the dark tone, portrayal of mental illness, and handling of violence divided responses. Joker also generated concerns of inspiring real-world violence; the movie theater where the 2012 Aurora, Colorado mass shooting occurred during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, refused to show it. Despite this, the film became a major box office success, setting records for an October release. With a worldwide gross of over $995 million, it became the seventh-highest-grossing film of 2019, as well as the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Against a production budget of $55–70 million, it also became the most profitable comic book film.
In 1981, party clown and aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck lives with his mother, Penny, in Gotham City. Gotham is rife with crime and unemployment, leaving segments of the population disenfranchised and impoverished. Arthur suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, and depends on social services for medication. After a gang attacks him in an alley, Arthur’s co-worker, Randall, gives him a gun. Arthur invites his neighbor, single mother Sophie, to his stand-up comedy show, and they begin dating.
While entertaining at a children’s hospital, Arthur’s gun falls out of his pocket. Randall lies that Arthur bought the gun himself and Arthur is fired. On the subway, still in his clown makeup, Arthur is beaten by three drunken Wayne Enterprises businessmen; he shoots two in self-defense and executes the third. The murders are condemned by billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, who labels those envious of more successful people as “clowns”. Demonstrations against Gotham’s rich begin, with protesters donning clown masks in Arthur’s image. Funding cuts shutter the social service program, leaving Arthur without medication.
Arthur’s comedy show goes poorly; he laughs uncontrollably and has difficulty delivering his jokes. Talk show host Murray Franklin mocks Arthur by showing clips from the routine on his show. Arthur intercepts a letter written by Penny to Thomas, alleging that he is Thomas’s illegitimate son, and berates his mother for hiding the truth. At Wayne Manor, Arthur talks to Thomas’s young son, Bruce, but flees after a scuffle with butler Alfred Pennyworth. Following a visit from two Gotham City Police Department detectives investigating Arthur’s involvement in the train murders, Penny suffers a stroke and is hospitalized.
At a public event, Arthur confronts Thomas, who tells him that Penny is delusional and not his biological mother. In denial, Arthur visits Arkham State Hospital and steals Penny’s case file; the file says Penny adopted Arthur as a baby and allowed her abusive boyfriend to harm them both. Penny alleged that Thomas used his influence to fabricate the adoption and commit her to the asylum to hide their affair. Distraught, Arthur goes to the hospital and kills Penny. He returns home and enters Sophie’s apartment unannounced. Frightened, Sophie tells him to leave; their previous encounters were Arthur’s delusions.
Arthur is invited to appear on Murray’s show due to the unexpected popularity of his comedy routine’s clips. As he prepares, Arthur is visited by Randall and fellow ex-colleague Gary. Arthur murders Randall but leaves Gary unharmed for treating him well in the past. En route to the studio, Arthur is pursued by the two detectives onto a train filled with clown protesters. One detective accidentally shoots a protester and incites a riot, allowing Arthur to escape.
Before the show goes live, Arthur requests that Murray introduce him as Joker, a reference to Murray’s previous mockery. Arthur walks out to applause, but tells morbid jokes, admits he killed the men on the train, and rants about how society abandons the disenfranchised. Arthur fatally shoots Murray and is arrested as riots break out across Gotham. One rioter corners the Wayne family in an alley and murders Thomas and his wife Martha, sparing Bruce.[a] Rioters in an ambulance crash into the police car carrying Arthur and free him. He dances to the cheers of the crowd.
At Arkham, Arthur laughs to himself and tells his psychiatrist she would not understand the joke. He runs from orderlies, leaving a trail of bloodied footprints.