A newscaster describes a growing trend of violence, crime, the piling of garbage and polarization between the rich and poor in the streets of a continuously suffering Gotham City over the radio, while Arthur Fleck paints his face white in front of a locker room mirror. He pauses, forcing a frown and then a smile on his face by tugging on the corners of his mouth as a tear rolls down his cheek, smudging the blue diamonds over his eyes and the rouge red paint on his lips. This begins director Todd Phillips’ 2019 box office smasher, “Joker.”
In “Joker,” Phillips chose Joaquin Phoenix as his muse to portray the agent of chaos many of us know so well. Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto and Heath Ledger among others have attempted to tackle the role, all with different makeup, voices, laughs and origin stories to back them up.
Even with so many different origin stories and depictions, the Joker can arguably be considered one of the most iconic characters of all time, making him one of the more interesting ones to explore in film. Unlike the comics and films that came before it, “Joker” attempts to portray a more realistic backstory for Batman’s greatest nemesis—one that attracts viewer sympathy, confusion and disgust all at the same time.
Arthur Fleck is an aspiring stand-up comedian working as a clown for the entertainment company “Ha-Ha’s” who still lives with his single mother and has been unsuccessful in nearly every facet of his life. With an unusual condition that causes him to laugh erratically, amongst many other mental issues, Arthur has a more-than-difficult time connecting with society.
His unhealthy amount of self-pity, lack of attention from his peers, traumatic history of parental neglect and overall inability to form friendships or relationships contribute to his downward spiral into becoming the Joker. In the end, Arthur explicitly blames the societal neglect he faced for turning him into the supervillain, and this is something our society can unfortunately sympathize with.
In fact, it seems “Joker” purposely attempted to reflect these problems we have in reality and wanted us to sympathize with Arthur. We witness Arthur face both physical and mental neglect throughout the movie, making his turn [decision] to murder and violence at least a little more understandable. This thematic choice caused quite the media storm after the release of the movie.
In a world where mass shootings and other terrorist activities have become a regularity, sympathizing with those who organize such attacks is highly problematic, and that’s the root of the controversy surrounding this movie.
After it is revealed in the movie that Arthur had no real intention or any sought symbolic meaning when he committed murder, there is a reactive shift from sympathy to disgust, and we can once again turn to Batman’s side of the fight. Perhaps “Joker” asks that we choose to forgive struggles with mental health without forgiving the horrendous acts that happen as a result.
Even without the reality of a violent world, “Joker” remains unsettling all on its own. For much of the movie, Arthur is on his own, physically isolated from the rest of society. With the amount of violence and potentially triggering conversations and actions in the movie, a trigger warning would have been beneficial for audience members.
Overall, “Joker” provided no easy answers. It prompts us to think about how we as a society treat mental health and mass violence amongst other problematic situations that arise as a result of those things.
While it may be an unsettling visit to the movies to see “Joker,” it raised questions that we may benefit from thinking about, and it reimagined an iconic character in a way that’s never been seen before.