The much anticipated film Joker from director Todd Phillips (Starsky & Hutch, The Hangover) has been receiving endless praise since its recent release. Reaching over $96,000,000 on opening weekend, the film featuring the infamous character of chaos currently holds an impressive 9.0 out of 10 star rating on IMDb. However, not everyone has such admiration for the film.
Unexpectedly portraying a much different side of the maniacal DC villain than we’ve ever seen before, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, tells an origin story of The Clown Prince of Crime. Making ends meet as a party clown for hire in the deteriorating city of Gotham, Arthur takes care of his mother while he dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. However, the weight of life’s troubles and his responsibilities become even heavier as he struggles to exist in society with a mental illness and a condition that is easily misunderstood. Experiencing hardship after hardship, the abused and ridiculed aspiring comedian’s bleak world becomes darker as he falls closer to the edge of sanity and the alter-ego known as “The Joker.”
Though many people were likely expecting a standard live action comic book-esque adaptation, this is far from what unfolds in Phillips’ latest feature. Joker depicts an incredibly layered story of complexity that, at face value, almost reverses the roles of good and evil. At first glance, the Waynes seem to be demonized. And, with an incredible award-worthy performance by Phoenix, one cannot help but feel sympathy for the man who ultimately becomes Batman’s archenemy. As if pity for The Joker and vilifying the Waynes is not enough, the cold, lonely world in which this story exists is full of despair as social tensions rise in a very realistic fashion.
Many who have seen the film will agree that the world shown is close enough to reality to be unsettling. For all these reasons and more, Joker has received some controversial critical responses in the wake of its praise. It has been reported that some audience members have even walked out on the screening before the end credits, deeming the film too terrifying and violent. Other people have voiced concerns that too much empathy for the film’s troubled character could cause some audiences to connect with the fictional clown of chaos and possibly emulate him. These concerns are not without warrant. According to The Hollywood Reporter, among those concerned are the family members of the victims of the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a theatrical premier of The Dark Knight Rises.
In response to concerns over the film, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros. released a statement acknowledging the family members of the Aurora victims giving their sympathy to those who were effected by this terribly evil act of real-life violence. The studio’s statement goes on to explain their belief that part of storytelling is to “provoke difficult conversations around complex issues.” To conclude their statement, Warner Bros. stated that “neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”
Viewed in a particular way, some may believe the film does paint The Joker as a hero and a champion to a broken, damaged and angry society due to the empathy evoked for the character’s emotional pain and torment. However, I believe one must take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Only then can we begin to pick apart this cinematic piece to reach an analytic conclusion.
Throughout the film, it is made known that the city of Gotham is suffering politically and economically. People are stressed, anxious and so busy worrying about their own affairs to notice others. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there,” says a mentally ill Arthur as he speaks with his social worker appointed to him after being released from a psychiatric hospital that he was committed to for unknown reasons. Though it is the emotional after effect of a physical beating the character previously took, it can be seen as a nod to the way our real-life society is becoming. This, among several other elements throughout the film, could be an attempt to illuminate some of the negative ways in which our world is changing.
Another crucial element to Joker is Arthur’s mental illness. This topic is one that is incredibly difficult to discuss. Despite awareness days for mental health, society seems to shy away from such conversation. However, this film has the guts to meet the subject matter head-on as we see life troubles taking an immense toll on Arthur as he deteriorates along with the fractured, damaged communities within Gotham City. Driven by Phoenix’s phenomenal performance, the film addresses mental illness in a world that is already going mad. What is captured is the loneliness, heartache and isolation of such disorders in a world that already can feel lonely, anxious and angry to so many people.
While mental illness and a crazed society leads Arthur down a dark path of violence, it is no excuse for his actions, nor do I think this was the artistic intention. As the film unfolds, no finger of blame is pointed in one direction. Because Joker is adapted from a comic book character, audiences expect to see clearly defined heroes and villains to fit the good-versus-evil narrative so often depicted. For this reason, some people may choose to identify who they deem to be the protagonist and who they believe is meant to be the antagonist. Personally, I do not see this as a story of heroes and villains. With chaos that steadily unravels within Arthur’s mind and in Gotham City, there are no winning champions in this story. To me, it is a dark, dramatic telling of one man’s descent into insanity and the surrounding tragic circumstances that lead him down such a horribly wrong path.
In some ways, Joker can be perceived as a mirror held up to today’s society. Some people, understandably so, do not like the gritty, frightening reflection staring back at them with so much despair. Other audiences seem to revel in the madness portrayed on screen … which I do not think is quite right, either. To a degree, this film is disturbing and it certainly is not for everyone. However, if there is a takeaway message, I believe it to be that we should treat one another with more kindness. We should regain some of the humanity we’ve seemingly lost over time. We need to learn to listen and sympathize with each other because you never know what cards life has dealt to a coworker or stranger passing on the street. This response shouldn’t be out of fear of accidentally creating a mentally deranged, homicidal clown. It’s a response that should be made because we are all human, and that we’re in this thing called life together.