What is it about the Joker that endlessly holds our fascination? Is it his carefree, maniacal attitude? His insatiable hunger to be Batman’s foil? Is it the actors we’ve seen portray and define him: Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger?
Or is it that we see him as the embodiment of our fear of snapping and losing control? Do we look at him and tell ourselves, “There, but for my ability to maintain sanity, am I”?
In the highly-anticipated, much-talked about, recently-controversial debut of Todd Phillips’s Joker, I believe that Phillips flips the script on us. We see the Joker as our loss of sanity, and Phillips essentially tells us, “You had a hand in creating this monster.” And, I’d argue, we’d be a lot better off listening to what Phillips is getting across.
Let’s break down why.
Remember The Dark Knight?
Before we fully dive in, let’s get a refresher on what happened in The Dark Knight. At the climax of the film, the Joker takes his chaos-making and tries to turn it over into the hands of Gotham’s citizens. There are two boats rigged to explode: one is carrying innocent people — mothers, children, businessmen, etc. — and the other is carrying prisoners. The Joker has a detonator on each boat meant to blow the other up; it’s up to the people to decide who goes sky-high.
We watch each boat argue it out. “Those are criminals! Their life is already over!” “Those are the people who put us here. Let’s get back at them!”
However, Batman has faith that the people of Gotham are better than that. He hopes that his mission to take out criminals and give them a second chance has inspired all of Gotham to see them as humans first and see their misdeeds second. And, in the end, Batman ends up being right. Neither boat decides to detonate the other, and the Joker is proven wrong.
Does the New Movie Inspire Violence?
As we got closer and closer to Joker‘s release, a lot of journalists and tweeters started to voice a serious concern: Does the movie make us sympathetic to the Joker in a way that will inspire “incels” to commit acts of violence? A lot of painful memories from the Dark Knight Rises shooting arose, especially when family members of the victims pleaded with Warner Bros. not to release the movie. Law enforcement officials were warned. At our local theater here in Georgia, signage popped up telling people they would not be welcome if they were dressed up as a clown.
As is often the case, though, people reacted before seeing.
First of all, I’m not entirely sure how the “incel” concern got started. Maybe from the trailers that looked like Joker as a down-and-outer turning his rage on society? As it turns out, though, a lot of people get represented in the film in a negative way with an equal-opportunity-offender bent.
A watershed moment of the film is when Arthur Fleck — Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliantly performed pre-Joker character — is sitting on a subway train when he sees a young woman being harassed by three inebriated yuppies. Arthur has a host of mental conditions, one of which is a sudden laughter that he is unable to contain. It seemed to me that the laughter broke out in obviously uncomfortable situations, and sure enough, this is what happens.
The yuppies turn their ne’er-do-well antics toward Arthur thinking the guy is a freak, so let’s pick on him. Unluckily for them, Arthur has a gun he received from a work acquaintance earlier in the film (illegally, as weapons used in shootings often are), and he shoots them first out of self-defense that later turns into unbridled rage. And, coincidentally, this strikes the match to blow up the societal fire just waiting to happen.
As the murder of the three young men becomes headline news all over the city, we learn that they were employed at Wayne Enterprises. Thomas Wayne comes out and voices support for the young men, but then goes too far. He blames the shooting on the poor hating the rich, and he calls them a bunch of clowns (playing off the reports that a clown had killed the young men).
The working-class people, understandably, don’t take those comments very well. Riots break out. We see clown masked-people carrying signs with messages like “Kill the Rich” and “Resist” (sound familiar?). They’re pissed off, and their wealthy overlords do absolutely nothing to ease the tension. Soon, it boils over; the city is set on fire, and the Joker becomes the figure they rally around.
As an audience member, you watch this all play out with sheer and utter horror. So, to accuse this movie of inspiring violence, you’d also have to put films like A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, American History X, and many, many more on a ban list (and who likes those???).
We Created this Monster
While the film is as far from glorifying violence as you can get, we still feel tremendous amounts of empathy for the Joker, and that’s part of what makes the film’s message work.
It’s impossible not to feel for Arthur Fleck. We first see him getting mugged by street gangs when all he’s trying to do is make an honest living. He has no friends. His mother is frail and obsessed with receiving a life-line from Thomas Wayne. His only father figure is a late-night TV show host — who ends up publicly roasting him later after he gets a video of Arthur Fleck attempting standup comedy. His government-sanctioned therapy is shutting down, but it’s not like his therapist listened to him in the first place.
Most importantly, he has a mental condition that isolates him, as people generally want to keep someone who is not “normal” at arm’s length.
To me, a vital scene in the movie for us is when Arthur Fleck is on a bus ride back home. He’s sitting there minding his own business, when a child turns around and does that kid thing of staring at total strangers. Arthur does what most good-hearted people do: starts making funny faces to elicit a laugh from the kid. The kid’s mom turns around and rudely tells Arthur to stop bothering her kid (who is laughing).
This creates one of Arthur’s fits of laughter brought on by an uncomfortable situation. He comes prepared, though, with a card that states that he is sorry if his laughter seems rude, but he has a mental condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably. The woman reads the card and then just kinda huffs and tries to ignore him.
Why? What’s wrong with a simple, “Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t realize?” Any sort of apology would be balm to the situation, but she just angrily tries to ignore the situation. Is it because the mentally ill make her uncomfortable? And the elephant in the room: what would you have done?
But there’s so much more. In addition to the beatdowns at the hand of children and yuppies alike, Arthur is mistreated by his boss who refuses to take Arthur’s side in the case of a missing sign. His therapist has no intention of getting to know him beyond the questions her job requires her to ask. Why is he visiting a government therapist in the first place? Is it because nobody else wants to deal with the mentally ill, so we just sweep them under the rug for disgruntled state employees to babysit? What happens when that safety net gets pulled, as it does in the film?
It was so hard to watch this movie because I felt like I might have been watching myself the whole time. It’s easy to want to live in a safe bubble and let the mentally ill be someone else’s problem, but we see what happens when we leave them to be ignored.
Arthur is abused both mentally and physically, he’s ignored, he’s scorned, he’s yelled at, he’s fired — it’s as if all this pressure is mounting to turn a lump of ignored coal into a twisted and evil diamond.
That’s not to say, though, that Arthur has clean hands. We all ultimately have a choice to respond to circumstances around us. Think of the folktale about Sir Isaac Newton discovering the concept of gravity where an apple falls on his head. He could have raged and demanded that the tree gets cut down, but instead, it inspires him to create a scientific concept we still use today. We’re all responsible for our actions.
But I gleaned from Joker that we can be responsible for the actions of others, too. Is it really that surprising to see Arthur Fleck go off the deep end after all he’s been through? No one wants him around, so he reacts until essentially he finds his tribe.
Okay, So Why Did this Need to be a Comicbook Movie, Then?
This is, I believe, the most fascinating part of the film: it uses a familiar comicbook villain. Rather than detract from the story as some reviewers have argued, I believe it has a lot of powerful elements to it that would have been lacking if this was a standard-fare movie about a mentally disturbed man.
First off, having the story be about the Joker immediately solves any sort of exposition we might need for the story. When Arthur’s mom is insistent that she needs to talk to Thomas Wayne about money, we instantly know why; from our comicbook knowledge, “Wayne” is synonymous with wealth. No need to delve into that more.
Also, when we see the Crime Alley scene, we immediately know the significance of that. Yes, the societal powder keg took out one of their main targets and his wife, and it all happened in front of their young son. We know the tragedy of this, being the decent people that we are. However, with our comicbook knowledge, we know that this awful circumstance is what creates a spark of hope for Gotham. Everything looks awful now, but we know from that scene that we have hit the low point and are on the trajectory toward life in Gotham becoming better thanks to Batman.
And, of course, we know just how vile the Joker becomes.
Second, why not use a comicbook villain to tell this story? Comicbook movies are huge; just look at the kind of money Endgame produced. It’s almost like Todd Phillips found the Trojan Horse that will get this message across.
Are We the Same As We Were in 2008?
Todd Phillips’s Joker basically puts us in a weird time-loop. The movie is an origin story set in a 1970s-ish backdrop, but there’s a lot going on that makes it look like today, and it asks us to look at the past and see where we might have gone astray.
Basically, society sucks.
Maybe mutant rats and street gangs aren’t as prevalent now, but I’m not talking about aesthetics. I’m talking about the underlying tension that is sparked as the film progresses.
When those people on the boats of The Dark Knight had the situation before them, they knew exactly who they were about to kill: prisoners or goody-two-shoes. Ultimately, the qualifiers didn’t matter — those are fellow humans on that boat, so I’m not going to pull the trigger.
Now? What would we be asking? Are the people on that boat rich? Poor? Right-wing nut-jobs? Liberal snowflakes? Gay? Muslim? Christian? If there are enough x-es on the checklist, it seems like a lot of people would be okay with blowing up a boat full of humans they don’t know; they just know what their supposed societal sins are. That, I believe, is what this movie is telling us. We’re so divided and angry at each other that we can’t look past certain qualifiers; the inability to co-exist drives us further into our safe little bubble — and the mentally disturbed who don’t fit in anyone’s categories get the short end of the deal.
We can do better.
There’s a frustrating aspect that I’ve seen in a lot of reviews. It seems most reviewers go into this movie and think, “How can this movie meet or fail my pre-conceived biases informed by my politics?” That is generally a crappy way to go watch movies. Of course art is political, and a lot of times, it has to be. But looking for confirmation is a boring way to live; it’s better to be challenged.
If you go in looking for ways to meet your confirmation bias, you might be disappointed. After all, Joker does what he does for the sheer chaos of it; it’s not a political statement.
So please, when you see this movie — because you really should — try to go in with an open mind that will force you to face parts of yourself that you don’t necessarily like. The old saying goes: “Knowing is half the battle.” Knowing your faults is a good way toward stepping into a redemptive life that sees the dignity of all humans.