“This is the most depressing movie I’ve seen in a long time.” This was the sighed lament coming about two-thirds of the way through Joker from someone sitting behind Kalie and I when we saw it a second time a few nights ago. There are many interesting things playing out in this film…but they weren’t wrong. This is a sad, dark story bordering on absolute hopelessness. We saw the film opening night and it left many thoughts running through my head. However I wasn’t really sure what I thought about it, offering an, “……eh, it’s complicated” whenever anyone asked. Now, with a second viewing under my belt, I see the film with a little more clarity. That, coupled with the blessing of all my end-of-term grading being behind me, means I’m ready to write about it too. Huzzah!
Oh, there won’t be any major plot spoilers here. I mean, there’s not a lot to spoil, as we all know it’s a “Joker origin story” so we all know he’s turning into the Joker. BUT I’ll only be speaking about the plot loosely throughout.
Part of why it took me so long to sort my feelings on this film is I realized I have two very different, very opposing reactions to it. On the one hand, I think it is a hauntingly powerful story of a man failed . At one point in the film the Joker offers up a joke that serves as the film’s thesis, “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that ignores him and treats him like garbage?” I’m not revealing the punchline because, again, spoilers. But essentially the whole film serves as an answer to this question. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man wrestling with serious mental illness in a Gotham City that’s crumbling with no support system there to help him. His social services-appointed therapist barely listens to him, only offering the most superficial advice and administering the prescriptions his doctor writes. Then, as the film progresses, we see the city cut funding to these programs and Arthur is left without even this. He has no therapist, no access to his medication, no safety net of any kind.
He lives alone with his ailing mother (Francis Conroy), balancing on the edge of crushing poverty, with no real relationships of any kind. He has a bit of a crush on the neighbor down the hall (Zazie Beetz) and there’s one guy at his rent-a-clown job that treats Arthur like a human being (Leigh Gill). Outside of this, Arthur is isolated and forgotten in a city going to hell.
As Gotham teeters on a brink of collapse, we see clear tension growing between the rich and the poor. This rising tension in a city about to erupt in some sort of class warfare provides the backdrop to Arthur’s personal misery. Just as he is ignored, so too is anyone struggling to make ends meet in Gotham City. The One Percent see the rest of the city as a dangerous, underappreciative powder keg that won’t help themselves and as a result the wealthy are dismissive of them (at best) and openly antagonistic towards them (at worst).
Trapped within this web of poverty, mental illness, and isolation, Arthur quite literally has no one to help him in any way, shape, or form. We are social creatures by nature. We need to live in community. We can’t survive outside of relationships. It’s wired into our very biology. This is all the more essential for someone struggling with serious mental illness as Arthur is (it’s worth taking a parenthetical aside to note Joaquin Phoenix was absolutely captivating in this roll and everything you’ve heard about his performance is probably true). As a culture, we’re not great with discussing, owning, or accepting mental illness. We’re quick to hyper-medicate children for anything and everything but when it comes to adults and our mental health it often becomes more uncomfortable for us to address, if we address it at all. We’re getting better in how we approach mental illness than we used to be but we have a long way to go to true destigmatization and inclusion.
This exclusion and stigmatization is a prime example of systemic sin/societal injustice in our culture and one with far reaching ramifications. The film does an unsettling impressive job of illustrating this systemic sin and its effects. The more we struggle, the more we need a natural support system. And when we don’t have that…it’s nothing but pain and suffering. Joker uses this framework, a man battling mental illness in a city where he has no place – no one – to turn to as the genesis for the birth of Batman’s most iconic villain, the Joker. As we watch Arthur Fleck’s descent into suffering we know it will yield the rise of the Joker and my heart couldn’t help but ache for this poor man.
On the other hand, I don’t think this was the right movie to do any of those things. Arthur Fleck was a deeply sympathetic character. As far as I’m concerned, even when he finally dons his “official” Joker garb, I still couldn’t help but feel for the guy. My heart was still aching for him. And I don’t think the Joker is the sort of character we should EVER feel ANY sympathy for. So while I believe the film did a good job making the viewer wrestle with some very challenging truths about mental health and the need for community and relationship and how often our society turns a blind eye to those needs…I still didn’t really like it. Or rather, more accurately, I liked it as a movie but I didn’t like it at all as far as a movie about the Joker. I’d’ve preferred Arthur Fleck’s story be completely disconnected from the Joker and the world of Batman/DC comics. I think it would’ve worked much better that way.
Before I go any further, I want to clearly state my biases. First, I’ve never been a fan of any “origin stories” for the Joker. I think any sort of definitive take ruins one of the most important parts of the character for me. Instead of serving as an allegorical warning for the darkness that may be unleashed within any of us, an origin takes away any real sense of warning. Rather “this guy” is just “ a really bad guy.” While I grant Joker had enough scenes blurring reality to allow the audience to wonder at how much of it was “real,” it was still obviously intended as a Joker origin. Second, my favorite take on the Joker has always been, and remains, Heath Ledger’s turn in The Dark Knight. So while I was obviously impressed with Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant take on the Joker, his performance still doesn’t hold a candle to Health Ledger’s for me.
So, back to this issue of sympathy. If you want to tell a story of how we fail those with mental illness in our culture while exploring the dangerous ramifications of those failings, if you want to explore the damage systemic sin inflicts on people through the experiences of an ailing protagonist who the viewer can sympathize with, you shouldn’t do that with the Joker. It either undercuts your message (by pairing it with such a brutal villain) or it waters down the character of the Joker to the point where he’s unrecognizable (by making him so sympathetic).
I’m of the mind that, of all the comic book villains out there, the Joker is the most malevolent, the most overtly evil. In many comic stories (and certainly in Heath Ledger’s portrayal in The Dark Knight) it’s more accurate to view the Joker as a sort of incarnation of evil than someone suffering with a mental illness. Society calls him “mentally ill” because we struggle to understand the face of evil when we’re staring into that abyss. To make evil sympathetic, as I said above, either undercuts the valid societal indictments of the film or transforms “evil” into something else altogether.
Let’s look briefly at but a few lines on the Joker’s résumé. In The Killing Joke, considered by most fans and critics alike to be the defining Joker story, the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon through the spin. After paralyzing her from the waist down, he sexually assaults her and then hangs giant pictures of her naked, broken body through a fun house to taunt her father Commissioner Jim Gordon. In A Death in the Family, the Joker relentlessly beats Robin (Tim Drake) with a crowbar until he’s on the brink of death and leaves him to die in an explosion. In Batman: Cacophony, the Joker casually blows up a school filled with children to show he was displeased with people using his Joker Toxin to manufacture drugs. On a similar note, the Joker handed out free poisoned cotton candy killing over a dozen cub scouts in The Dark Knight Returns. In Batman Confidential, the Joker blew up a blimp over Gotham filled with broken glass, tainted with his Joker Toxin, so the glass rained down transforming and killing people all throughout the city. Lastly, in Death of the Family, the Joker returns to steal his face which he skinned from himself a year earlier from the police station, killing nearly twenty police officers along the way. The story builds to a climax where the Joker – with flies constantly swarming the decaying flesh he’s stapled back on his face – kidnaps the entire Bat Family and makes them all believe he’s skinned their faces from their heads to feed to them as a soup.
The Joker is a monster. A lot of evil things play out in comic books – across all mediums of fiction – but the Joker is in a class by himself. Why would this be the character you’d pick to tell a sympathetic story of how we fail people who are dealing with mental illness in our culture? Why would we tie people who are really struggling with mental illness to this character at all?? And how is this the character you’d try to make redeemable in any way, for any purpose? It just doesn’t fit.
Honestly, I get the sense that the director Todd Phillips wanted to make a Martin Scorsese-esque film and just used the Joker as the character to do it. He just half-heartedly modified a Joker story and a Scorsese story and mashed them together even though there’s no authentic, organic way for them to fit. A bit of googling confirmed this suspicion. In an interview with The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman, Phillips said, “I literally described to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film’. It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it fucking Joker’. That’s what it was.”
So I’d question a) Phillips understanding of the character of the Joker, b) his stewardship of that character, c) why he seems to think the “sympathetic comic book villain” is new ground, and d) why he thinks comic book movies aren’t “real.” However, I do think it’s worth noting, despite my issues with how they used the Joker in this film, I do believe it has been unfairly targeted for glorifying or endorsing gun violence. I certainly take issues with the Myth of Redemptive Violence in comic books but if you’re going to decry comic book movies’ glorification of gun violence then you need to be boycotting everything Deadpool-related first and foremost. Deadpool glorifies, romanticizes, and even sexualizes gun violence all while making a joke of it. You can’t demonize Joker without hypocrisy if you aren’t standing against Deadpool. But I digress.
I also have some problems with the way the Joker ties into Gotham’s bubbling revolution as well as the presentation of those who would demonstrate against their wealthy oppressors. From Arthur’s first murder (a scene invoking the real life act that turned Bernie Goetz into a sort of folk hero for a short time in the ‘80s until the truth of the event and his personal racism came to light), this “clown vigilante” is decried by the rich and powerful and held up as a symbol for “the resistance.” Given the acts of the Joker I outlined above, it bothers me that he would be presented as being understood as a hero of any sort, especially the hero of the oppressed. It also bothers me that everyone seen at various demonstrations against the corruption of the rich and powerful – crowds filled with racial minorities as well as those who are of a lower socioeconomic standing – are presented as violent, dangerous anarchists ready and willing to kill in an instant.
Soooooooo, this film makes the Joker the symbol of all those seeking freedom and equality in a horribly corrupt city and then makes all the terrible things the rich say to dismiss the criticisms true? Really? Really?? C’mon.
When everyone who is living on the margins and/or is standing with those living on the margins are depicted as violent, blood-thirsty maniacs – and there are no people who hold this perspective depicted in any other way – it, by default, makes the oppressors right. “These people are ungrateful of what’s given them and unwilling to work to pull themselves out of poverty. And they are dangerous, deluded. We can see this as they are all taking to the streets killing people.” Joker makes the Joker the anarchic hero of the marginalized which is a serious problem, tying those living on the margins with a maniac like the Joker. Joker also validates every criticism the oppressors level at the oppressed in the film by not showing a single person who resists without gleefully inciting carnage. I’m not sure which is worse.
As a final tangential note, it was definitely weird to have a “superhero movie” without a superhero (although clearly Todd Phillips wanted it to be “superhero” in name only). I found myself waiting for the Joker to “suit up,” as it were, like I found myself waiting for Tony to become Iron Man or Thor to lift Mjölnir in their first films. It was odd to have that sort of anticipation for the arrival of the villain when I knew no hero was coming to balance him. I also felt this created an unbalanced narrative, to just have the spotlight on the superhero’s villain without the superhero. So with my first viewing much of the narrative felt like a uniquely foreign experience and that also left me struggling with exactly what I thought about it.
But now, after some time has passed and I’ve seen it twice, I know what I think. I think Joker, while not without some serious problems in how the oppressed are presented, tries to tell a story with a very important message…it just picked the worst possible character to use to get that message across.
If you’d like to read my thoughts on the other cinematic Jokers we’ve had, you’re in luck! Go ahead and take your pick.
 Sharon Waxman, “‘Joker’ Director Todd Phillips Rebuffs Criticism of Dark Tone: ‘We Didn’t Make the Movie to Push Buttons’ (Exclusive),” The Wrap, September 25, 2019. Accessed November 28, 2019. https://www.thewrap.com/joker-director-todd-phillips-rebuffs-criticism-of-dark-tone-we-didnt-make-the-movie-to-push-buttons-exclusive/
 Katie Shepherd, “‘Outrage is a commodity’: Director Todd Phillips bashes ‘far left’ criticism of ‘Joker,’” The Washington Post, September 26, 2019. Accessed November 27, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2019/09/26/todd-phillips-joker-outrage-culture-gun-violence-critics/