[Full Spoilers for Joker] Joker is more like a work of art than a traditional comic book movie. It’s designed to make its audience think, and whether or not they like or respond to it is subjective, and in a way intentional. That said, as different as it is there are still plenty of references to the source material and previous adaptations of Batman and the Joker’s world, just like any comic book movie should have. Read on to see our picks for Joker’s Best Easter Eggs, References, and Cameos.
The Killing Joke
Joker is intentionally ambiguous throughout, and even makes a point of showing us that many of the things we’ve seen aren’t real, making the Joker himself into the perfect ‘unreliable narrator’. But in its ambiguity, it references one of the biggest elements of The Killing Joke, the 1988 comic book created by Alan Moore and Brian Bollard, which is often looked at as the definitive book on the Joker’s origin. As, like Joker, the comic is intentionally vague and potentially unreliable, with Joker referring to his back story as a failed stand up comedian (another element the movie takes from the comic), but then also pointing out that he remembers his origin differently each time, and that if he has to have one – he prefers it to be “multiple choice”.
Ultimately this is the best way to play the Joker, as he is a character that can’t (and arguably shouldn’t) be explained, and so keeping any version of an origin or just anything he says vague and doubtable is in fitting with who the Joker is.
The DeNiro Connections
Robert DeNiro’s role in Joker is small but key, appearing throughout the film as the talk show host Murray Franklin, who Arthur is a big fan of. DeNiro’s scenes lead up to Arthur’s appearance on Murray’s show, which facilitates his full evolution into the Joker. Joker is of course based on the works of Martin Scorsese and DeNiro, with two of their most famous films having some obvious connections.
Taxi Driver shows Robert DeNiro’s character Travis Bickle, as a man who slowly loses his mind and is pushed to the edge by society, ending in a violent shootout for which he is praised as a hero. Linking Taxi Driver and Joker even more is the theory that the very end of Taxi Driver, where Bickle is celebrated, thanked for freeing Jodie Foster’s Iris, and has a brief but amicable meeting with Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy (the woman he was infatuated with), is, in fact, a dream and that he dies thanks to his injuries in the shootout.
Similarly linked to Joker is the King of Comedy, again directed by Scorsese and starring DeNiro as Robert Pupkin, a hopeful stand up comedian with mental problems who is obsessed with a tv talk show host, and eventually takes him hostage. Both of these films have a clear influence, with the ideas and stores, they tell directly informing Joker.
Another connection is that DeNiro and Marlon Brando are the only two actors to receive an Oscar for playing the same character, Vito Corleone in The Godfather (Part I and II). If Joaquin Phoenix is nominated for an Academy Award as the rumours are to suggest, and then wins, he and Heath Ledger will join those ranks, based on another movie DeNiro starred in.
Thomas Wayne’s Views on People in Masks
Joker delivers a more sinister version of Thomas Wayne than most fans are used to. Rather than being a positive force who wants to help Gotham from the ground up, this iteration seems more like an entitled part of the one percent, who looks down on those beneath him as people who simply haven’t tried enough. Once Arthur murders the Wayne employees and reports surface that the killer was dressed as a clown, the city starts to turn against its upper class, with a number of people starting to wear clown masks in support of the crime. Wayne, who is publicly running for Mayor at this point, states that people who hide behind a mask are cowards, trying to hide behind something. This is an interesting foreshadowing for how this version of Thomas Wayne would feel about his son becoming Batman.
Joaquin Phoenix Characters vs Their Parents
Amongst Arthur Fleck’s many problems is an unhealthy attachment to his mother, who depends on him for almost everything. As the movie progresses and Penny Fleck’s health begins to fail even more of her own mental instability and possible delusions are revealed (which may or may not be in part thanks to manipulations by Thomas Wayne). Arthur discovers his mother was put into Arkham State Hospital for endangering him and allowing him to be abused as a child, which in turn likely led to many of his own problems. Eventually, Arthur suffocates his mother in her hospital bed, starting on his path of true self discovery, and becoming the Joker.
But this isn’t the first time a Joaquin Phoenix character has suffocated their parent in order to take control and become their true selves, with Commodus doing the same in 2000’s Gladiator. Similarly in Gladiator, Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus felt betrayed by his father and killed him to take his place.
Batman: The Animated Series Font
With Batman’s long legacy both on and off-screen, on of his most acclaimed interpretations is Batman: The Animated Series, which saw the likes Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker make their debut. As an ode to the series the font used for ‘Live With Murray Franklin’s logo, is the same as that used for batman the Animated Series.
Bruce Wayne, as played by Dante Pereira-Olson, only appears in a few brief scenes, but each of them is an important pillar of the movie. The first time we really see him is when Arthur Fleck goes to Wayne Manor after learning that Thomas could be his father.
But to get there, Bruce, who is playing in the gardens of Wayne Manor (conveniently close to the gate in what must be thousands of acres of land), we then see Bruce slide down a pole from his outdoor play area. This is, of course, a reference to the infamous Batpole seen in the 60s tv show starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin respectively.
The 1981 film Excalibur, which stars Liam Neeson who would later play Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins, was a hugely popular film of the 1980s and so it’s only fitting it is referenced when the Wayne’s leave the movie theatre at the end of the movie. Excalibur was also seen as an upcoming movie in Batman v Superman behind the Wayne’s as they are killed.
But there is perhaps a further reference to the story of Excalibur itself, which of course revolves around King Arthur. Arthur rises to be a King in the movie, and although he dies in the end, he completes his mission and changed Camelot forever – perhaps symbolising some of Arthur Fleck’s own journey, his symbolic if not literal death as he becomes the Joker and his impact on Gotham.
Justin Theroux has had a very diverse career that includes roles like guest appearances on shows like Parks and Rec., starring in movies such as American Psycho and the Girl on the Train, the HBO series The Leftovers, and films like Tropic Thunder and Iron Man 2. And yet he is no stranger to some smaller cameos. He appeared in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi as the codebreaker Finn and Rose were going to meet, only on screen for a few brief shots before they are arrested.
His cameo in Joker is similar, appearing as comedian Ethan Chase, a guest on Murray Franklin’s show that viewers only see on Arthur’s tv screen whilst he rehearses his own entrance and for the show.
One of the film’s more intricate easter eggs is something that links Todd Phillips, Zach Galifianakis, and the role of the Joker. Phillips and Galifianakis famously worked together on 2009’s The Hangover (and it’s sequels), and again in 2010’s Due Date. Galifianakis went on to voice the Joker in 2017’s The Lego Batman Movie, and with Phillips directing a live action origin for the character two years later there is already a cool connection there, but it gets even deeper.
Justin Theroux’s cameo character is called Ethan Chase, which is the real name of Zach Galifianakis’ character, who goes by Ethan Tremblay, in Due Date, thus connecting the role of Joker, Phillips, and Galifianakis even more.
Bryan Tyree Henry
Another cameo, albeit one that is a little more involved than Justin Theroux’s is Bryan Tyree Henry, who appears as a file clerk at Arkham State Hospital. Starring in the likes of Atlanta, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bryan Tyree Henry’s role in Joker sees him struggle with Arthur over the file and chase him down after he steals it when Arthur goes to the hospital to investigate his mother’s sanity.
Bruce Wayne’s butler/father figure/medic/tech support/counsellor Alfred Pennyworth has a number of backstories in the comics, which see him as a James Bond-esque super spy, a soldier or an actor (and sometimes a combination of the three). But by the time of the Waynes’ death he is a seemingly content Butler for the Wayne’s of Gotham City, and as such he makes a brief appearance in Joker.
We see Alfred as he comes running to Bruce, telling Arthur to get away from him during the scene at Wayne Manor. His knowledge of who Arthur is, perhaps gives some credence to Penny’s story about Arthur being Thomas’s son, or perhaps the opposite, and Alfred only knows about Arthur due to Penny’s insanity and instance Arthur is a Wayne – either way his role is small but shows he is looking out for Bruce long before the days of Batman.
Whilst Joker was created as a stand-alone movie, unrelated to either the DCEU which is made up of movies like Batman vs Superman, Wonder Woman and Shazam, or previous iterations like the Dark Knight Trilogy, it was announced whilst Ben Affleck was Batman. Around the same time that it looked as though Affleck would star in and direct the next solo Batman film. And so although Arthur’s name ‘A. Fleck’ seems like an intentional reference to the actor, Director Todd Phillips has however denied the link, but it’s a strange coincidence nonetheless.
The Shooting of the Waynes
Joker once again depicts the shooting of the Waynes, but this time adds a new edge to Thomas Wayne’s role in the shooting and the state of Gotham. A few things that do remain the same is the iconic shot of Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace breaking during the commotion, seeing Bruce Wayne stood between the two bodies of his parents, and them leaving a theatre which was after a screening of Zorro, who is, of course, a clear inspiration for Batman himself.
There are multiple references throughout the film to giant ‘super rats’ throughout the city. With this version of the DC universe being much more grounded and realistic it’s unlikely this is a reference to any actual mutation or superpowers, but it could be a reference to the Batman villain Ratcather, who uses rats as his soldiers and weapons.
It is, however, more likely a symbolic nod to the looming darkness over Gotham and the evolution of those taking control of it. Hitting this idea home, even more, is a large rat scuttling behind Bruce Wayne in the alleyway, after his parents are shot.
Pogo the Clown
The real-world serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who would have been imprisoned on Death Row at the time the Joker movie takes place, was known as ‘the Killer Clown’ and ‘Pogo the Clown’. The link between Gacy and the Joker, pop culture’s most famous fictional killer clown are self-explanatory, and is referenced by the name of the comedy club Arthur performs his stand up, simply named “Pogo’s”.