How Joker Portrays Mental Health

Before DC’s Joker was even released, it had gathered a huge amount of media attention. Director Todd Philip’s take on the film promised a dark character study and with Heath Ledger’s epic depiction of the Joker in The Dark Knight engrained in fans' minds, people were curious as to how Joaquin Phoenix would make the villain his own and for the most part he didn’t disappoint.  

When the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival, it received the Golden Lion award and much praise from the audience. A number of critics have praised Joker for its realistic representation and there is already talks of Phoenix landing an Oscar for his role. However, a common criticism of the film is that its gritty atmosphere has created a too dark and depressing representation of mental health. 

The film follows Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian, as he navigates through the difficulties of living in a chaotic Gotham City. Isolated and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness and self-destruction as he transforms into the Joker. Fleck suffers from a rare mental illness that means he uncontrollably laughs at extremely inappropriate times, which gives birth to his stage name Joker. Although not stated, it’s likely he suffers from the neurological condition pseudobulbar affect, perhaps an aftermath of the turmoil he suffered during his childhood.  

Fleck shows symptoms of depression and other vague mental illnesses making the character more relatable for people suffering from any psychiatric illness. However, with the vagueness surrounding Fleck’s diagnosis, whether intentionally or not, he comes across as a stereotypical ‘mad’ man, a murderous clown laughing alone on a bus. 

With films playing a key role in shaping the public’s attitude towards mental health, Joker has attracted negative attention with many believing that Phoenix’s troubled super villain amplifies damaging stereotypes.   

Recently, talk surrounding more common mental illnesses such as depression has increased and we are able to openly have discussion without shame. However severe mental health conditions, such as Fleck’s borderline psychotic illness, remain confined to the stigma and are often misunderstood. In a way, Joker subscribes to the toxic idea that serious mental illnesses are linked with extreme violence as implied by Fleck’s character, who murders multiple people.  

In general, studies actually show that people who suffer from mental illnesses, like Fleck, are more prone to violence from others than the general population.  

The most relatable part, some may argue the only relatable part of the movie comes when Fleck writes, ‘The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t’.  

Fleck’s descent into violence and destruction is triggered by his mental deterioration. His loss of grip on reality is shown through psychotic symptoms such as his delusional ideas of being an undiscovered comedic genius and his hallucinations of his neighbour.  

The movie as a whole focuses mainly on Fleck's violent outbursts and attributes these to the neglect he has suffered as a result of his mental illness. It diverts attention from other issues which have contributed to Fleck’s downfall such as his lack of a childhood and wealth inequality and its responsibility for societal collapse.  

On the other hand, Joker was always going to be a toxic interpretation of the classic comic book character and naturally, a story about a monster requires a certain degree of insensitivity and violence of which the importance can’t be underestimated.  

If you were to make a film about serial killers John Wayne Gacy or Ed Gein, you would expect a large degree of violence and scenes depicting early childhood trauma, abuse, torture and rape. The point isn’t to make you feel bad for or to glamorise the villain, as no sane person could after seeing the crimes committed. It’s to portray a realistic version of the protagonist. 

If you imagine these serial killers as fictional characters, as one of the most popular villains in cinematic history who has previously been portrayed as a cool, funny, successful person, just like Joker, you would think it’s wrong. If you saw a depiction of him in which he’s weak, creepy, dishonest, stalking and cruel then it would make sense.  

The Joker has continuously been glamorised throughout his many appearances, but finally Todd and Phoenix have created a character that lives up to the reality of the Joker’s persona. We have finally been given a villain in the superhero era that we are finding it hard to identify with and it’s unnerving. This movie is about a specific type of violent lunatic destroying society for his own amusement, but most audience members would expect no less.  

Films have the power to feed stigma and fear, which is why the misrepresentation of mental illness in Joker should not be taken lightly. However, it’s imperative to remember this movie is based on a fictional character, in a fictional world. Joker’s psychotic tendency is what makes him the embodiment of anarchy and chaos and a great villain. 

‘The Clown Prince of Crime’ has never been so insensitively portrayed and it is important that we appreciate what ultimately was a great performance by both Todd and Phoenix. A movie that was so highly anticipated before it was even released, was bound to get a mixed reaction. It has started a much-needed debate surrounding mental illness, be it people criticising the movie for its crude and violent portrayal of mental health or comic book fanatics praising the dark depiction of the beloved villain. 

Debates about Joker will undoubtedly rage on for the foreseeable future. It has ignited discussion about society, the mentally ill and is a unique comic book film that is likely to stay in the minds of viewers for a long time.