As Joker streams in the UK, Sean Alexander considers his Jewish origins.
DC Comics, like its rival Marvel, has long been acknowledged for its rich Jewish heritage in terms of the creation of its most iconic characters. While Batman himself was the co-creation of Jews Bob Kane and Bill Finger, it was another Jew – Jerry Robinson – who first introduced the Caped Crusader’s most arch nemesis, the Joker.
With Todd Phillips’ origin story of Joker from last year now showing on Sky Cinema and Now TV, it would seem an appropriate time to explore in greater depth the enhanced Jewish aspects this latest film adaptation has yielded.
Director Phillips is himself Jewish, born Todd Bunzl, as is Joaquin Phoenix who portrays the title role. One of the clown colleagues of protagonist Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), Randall is played by the Jewish actor Glenn Fleshler.
Arthur Fleck lives in Gotham City, ‘aka New York, circa 1981‘, and hence is basically Jewish. He resides, with his mother, in, what J. Hoberman called, ‘a slum tenement on a grim street that’s recognizably the Bronx. (Given his family name, he and his mother might be the last remnants of a once-Jewish neighborhood.)‘
Fleck’s surname itself has origins in the Ashkenazi word for ‘spot’ or ‘patch’. Note how the German phrase ‘gelber fleck’ was the street slang for the yellow Star of David that the Nazis forced Jews to wear. Fleck is a suitable surname given how Arthur spends much of his time feeling like a stain on society, largely ignored until he begins to develop his Joker persona. His chain-smoking would-be stand-up comedian (following in the strong Jewish tradition of the likes of Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen) also has yellow nicotine stained fingers, as if his Jewishness was marked on his body like circumcision or a concentration camp tattoo.
Arthur is a typically Jewish nebbish or schlemiel, living with his mother and possessing little ability to either interact with or woo women (not unlike Norman Bates as Nathan Abrams points out). His only significant relationship in the film bar the one with his mother is an imagined one with Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), the single mum from down the hall, being little more than a piece of romantic wish-fulfilment on Arthur’s part. Arthur cares for his mother by day whilst trying to become a stand-up by night. She both infantilises him (they share a bed whilst watching nightly treat ‘The Murray Franklin Show’) and demeans him when she asks, ‘Don’t you have to funny to be a comedian?’ Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy) represents the overbearing Jewish mother to Arthur’s queered Jew.
Arthur’s early scenes establish his mental health issues and his appointments with social services, with whom he shares a thought journal and joke diary. He is repeatedly jumped, beaten by kids and stock-broker jocks and thumped by rejecting ‘father’, Thomas Wayne. In a neurotic sense, Arthur is coded as Jewish – the classic ‘neurotic nebbish’ – and recalls such past Jewish male archetypes as played by Woody Allen in any number of films, from Play it Again, Sam to Annie Hall. At one of the stand-up evenings where Arthur takes notes in preparation for his own debut, the comedian makes a joke about ‘not using his real Jewish name.’ Even the fact that Arthur asks Murray to introduce him as ‘Joker’ on the fateful night he appears on Franklin’s show is consistent with Jewish performers going by invented identities to help shroud their heritage.
Interestingly, the casting of de Niro as the chat-show host recalls his earlier role in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, where Jerry Lewis is the host and de Niro the deluded wannabe crypto-Jewish stand-up Rupert Pupkin. A scene where Arthur roleplays his appearance on Murray’s show is clearly a homage to the earlier film.
In terms of failed Abraham figures in Arthur’s life, Randall, Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro) and Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) all fulfil the role. Randall even calls Arthur ‘my boy’ at one point, providing him with the gun that ultimately ends Arthur’s clown career and leads to his murderous rampage. In the case of Murray, Arthur fantasises about being called out of the studio audience of Murray’s nightly show, made a star for the night and receiving a fatherly hug. Classic absent father wish-fulfilment.
In the case of Wayne, the correlation is more complex. Arthur’s mother Penny claims (wrongly it seems) that Arthur is Thomas’ illegitimate son from her time spent working as the Waynes’ housekeeper. When Arthur attempts to find a connection with his ‘father’, Thomas reveals that Penny is little more than a delusional ‘crazy’ lady, who allowed her adopted son Arthur to be physically abused before being admitted to Gotham’s Arkham Asylum.
The penalty that faces all of Arthur’s failed father figures is death: Randall is stabbed and bludgeoned by Arthur, Murray is gunned down when Arthur is invited onto the show in order to be humiliated (the tape of Arthur’s disastrous stand-up debut having been sent to the Murray Franklin show), whilst Thomas Wayne is murdered by one of the rioting ‘clowns’ who, come film’s end, have adopted Arthur’s murderous ‘Joker’ as the figurehead for their own political uprising against a rich overclass.
Come the film’s end, Arthur has transcended his Jewish underdog status and sense of invisibility from society. He is both the notorious murderer of popular talk-show host Murray Franklin and the symbol of anti-capitalism revolt that he has unwittingly fallen into. Yet the film’s coda reveals Arthur to be an inmate at a mental asylum, incarcerated and locked up like so many Jews castigated for their difference and ‘alien-ness’. But with the orphaned Bruce Wayne destined to become the Dark Knight following the murder of his parents, Arthur too is destined to become both crime lord and embezzling nemesis – facets which only embellish the antisemitic stereotyping of Jews as criminals and usurers.
Perhaps this time the last laugh will in fact be a Jewish one after all…?