Columnist discusses the heavy societal issues presented in Joker.

by Ben Rigney-Carroll, ’21

Released Oct. 4, 2019’s Joker quickly became under fire by critics for its potential to encourage real-world violence. Though it’s possible that Joker, troubled turned violent Arthur Fleck, could be a beacon to those who seek to perpetrate real-life violence, the film’s message intended to create an entirely different response from viewers. Much worry originates from the Aurora, Colorado shooting at a screening of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, which killed 12 and wounded 70. Since the announcement of Joker, the FBI has put out statements to local law enforcement across the country, alerting them of multiple online threats encouraging mass shootings at the movie’s release prompting increased police security at theaters across the county, as well as theaters opting not to show the film.

Serving more as a character study and societal commentary than an action or superhero movie, Joker tackles a number of real world issues such as mental illness, classism, the failure of social services and the moral question of vigilante justice. The whole movie is seemingly coated with a thick layer of grime, emphasizing the cracked paint, dim flickering lights and pungent garbage of a city that appears to be sick with the sins of its classist divides. Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, begins the film in a clear display of urban suffering. Nearly starving himself to feed his mentally ill mother and working a low paying job as a clown for hire, Fleck cannot escape the misery that is his incessant negative thoughts. Suffering from what appears to be pseudobulbar affect (PBA), a condition characterized by sudden uncontrollable and often inappropriate laughter, as well as some form of depression, Fleck is developed in a sympathetic manner.

In Phoenix’s portrayal of the character, Fleck is a victim abused by society and the social service system only allows for the escalation of his unstable tendencies. He is beaten by strangers for his health condition on a subway. Teenagers mock and beat him an an alleyway. His idol mocks him on live television. Though Fleck eventually becomes an empowered killer, the absence of a hero in the movie creates the sense that he is not the villain that Batman made—he is the villain that society made. Similar to how Heath Ledger’s adaptation made Batman confront his character flaws, Phoenix’s take on the Joker forces both viewers and characters in the film to realize the repercussions of a society that allows for the wrongful treatment of the defenseless, poor, struggling and mentally-ill. 

In a stark departure from the multitude of other portrayals of the iconic character, this version of the clown prince of crime is far from an ordinary villain. In the five different films, every actor takes on Joker in a different way. Cesar Romero chose eccentric and gaudy, Jack Nicholson’s Joker portrayed a gangster and criminal, Heath Ledger showed insanity, and Jared Leto brought punk tattoos and masochism to the classic take. With 2019’s Joker, Phoenix takes an even further departure from 1950s comic book character, who earned his name from resemblance to a playing card.

The largest difference brought to the table by Phoenix is that this Joker is truly a victim. By choosing to spend half of the film showing Fleck suffering before his shift to violence, Philips forces viewers to consider whether or not the actions the newly forged Joker are justified. Though the way Joker’s brutal murders are displayed neither glorifies or condones a victims use of violence, it does make viewers question who the true villains of the film are. As Arthur Fleck attempts to smile through pain, his struggle becomes a trickling descent into madness. In a city plagued with sin, society is forced to consider whether the real villain is Fleck, the rich who reject him or the disadvantaged who abused him. In choosing the lesser of many evils to call a hero, the audience is forced to consider the strong parallels to our real world problems, and whether we may be the villain, too.