Warning: SPOILERS for Joker.
Joker doesn’t explicitly state which year it’s set in, but contextual clues reveal that this intense character study takes place in 1981. Director Todd Phillips has delivered a controversial origin for the Clown Prince of Crime that stands apart from the other DCEU films and Phillips achieved this, in part, by making Joker a period piece set in late 1970s/early 1980s Gotham City. To further hammer home that Joker is a prequel to Batman, but not connected to either Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Matt Reeves’ The Batman, the grisly psychological drama introduces young Bruce Wayne (Dante Pereira-Olson), who has a creepy encounter with the future Joker, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix).
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In Joker, Gotham is a collapsing metropolis on the brink of chaos. Unemployment is spiking, crime runs rampant, and financial ruin is assured, as evidenced by the city suddenly yanking away desperately needed social services – like the medication and therapy that Arthur desperately needs. Meanwhile, billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) grandstands as a candidate for Mayor who promises that he, alone, can save the city from disaster. But while Wayne has the capital to exist above the city’s squalor, the poor citizens of Gotham who trudge in filthy streets where it seems like there’s a porno theater on every corner, are frightened, angry, and disenfranchised – which sparks violent riots after Arthur commits a series of murders that turns him into the “Clown Vigilante”. Fleck becomes a symbol of Gotham rising up against the upper class in their ivory towers and the sentiment of “Kill the Rich” sweeps through Gotham, culminating with the tragic consequences for the Wayne family that will someday turn Bruce Wayne into Batman.
So when in the past, exactly, is Joker set? The film is a bit skewed, especially as Joker’s delusions occasionally bend the reality of what the audience is seeing, but the easiest way to decipher the exact year in which Joker takes place is to go by what movies are playing at the movie theater the Waynes exit at the climax of the film. While Joker is proving himself to be a nightmare guest on The Murray Franklin Show, clown-inspired riots take place on the streets of Gotham – just as Thomas, Martha, and Bruce Wayne are leaving a movie theater. On the theater’s marquee are the films Blow Out and Zorro the Gay Blade and, as the Waynes turn a corner and enter the alley where Bruce’s parents are murdered, they pass a poster for Excalibur. All of those movies were released in the same year, which means Joker takes place in 1981.
Blow Up is a political thriller directed by Brian De Palma starring John Travolta and Zorro the Gay Blade is a comedic twist on the classic crimefighter where George Hamilton plays Zorro and his flamboyantly gay twin brother, who takes over as Zorro after the original is injured. Meanwhile, Excalibur, director John Boorman’s sword and sorcery epic, is arguably the best King Arthur film ever made.
Todd Phillips referencing all three films in Joker is no coincidence, and they go a long way to locking down exactly when Arthur Fleck’s descent into murder and madness takes place. Now, why Thomas and Martha decided to take Bruce, a pre-teen, to see any of those movies is certainly questionable, although, surprisingly, Zorro the Gay Blade was rated PG. Still, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark would have been more appropriate for Bruce, but maybe the original Indiana Jones movie just wasn’t playing at any of Gotham’s theaters at that moment and, regardless, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the murders after the movie.
Joker is also unmistakenly inspired by the films of Martin Scorsese, specifically 1976’s Taxi Driver and 1983’s The King of Comedy. Both classics star Robert De Niro, who plays talk show host Murray Franklin in Joker, and both take place in New York City, which was in the grip of urban decay during that era. The King of Comedy is also set in 1981, establishing a further thematic link to Joker. All of these nods were intentional by Phillips, who successfully sought to upend the traditional comic book movie. With Joker, Phillips created a disturbing character study about Arthur Fleck becoming the Joker that homages Scorsese’s 1970s/1980s work, which are the kind of films that are rarely made in today’s Hollywood.
Next: Joker Doesn’t Connect To Other DC Films (But There Are Batman Movie References)
Key Release Dates
- Joker (2019) release date: Oct 04, 2019
- Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020) release date: Feb 07, 2020
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020
- The Batman (2021) release date: Jun 25, 2021
- The Suicide Squad (2021) release date: Aug 06, 2021
- DC Super Pets (2022) release date: May 20, 2022
- Aquaman 2 (2022) release date: Dec 16, 2022
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