No movie has made a bigger splash this spooky season than Joker.
Set in the infamous Gotham City, Joker tells the origin story of DC’s most famous villain. Viewers learn who Joker was before Batman: an impoverished loner comedian named Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix). The opening scene of the film shows Arthur working as a sign-spinning clown, only to have his sign stolen by a gang, who he then follows into an alley and is eventually beaten up by.
Things hardly get better for Arthur as the film goes on. He lives with and takes care of his physically and mentally ill mother, he struggles to maintain employment, his stand-up comedy career isn’t taking off, and he has a condition in which he laughs uncontrollably, no matter how inappropriate the situation may be.
Since Arthur’s life is darker and more depressing than most, regarding both what happens to him and what he does, what follows in the remainder of the film has not gone without controversy. [SPOILERS] On the subway ride home after being fired for bringing a gun to a children’s hospital, Arthur is berated by three Wallstreet-type businessmen, all of whom he brutally murders. What follows in the film includes more murder and chaos throughout the city.
Because of the violence that Arthur triggers throughout Gotham, and because Joker explores the effects of mental illness in our society, some have worried that the film’s titular character is uncomfortably similar to those who commit mass shootings. Some audiences have shown concern that the “sympathetic” portrayal of Arthur, in spite of what he does, may validate the behavior he exhibits in real-life situations, specifically with young male members of online incel communities.
After watching the film, while it is overall well-done, with a knockout performance by Joaquin Phoenix, I can see where these opinions are coming from. Arthur commits several heinous murders throughout the film and is enthralled by the violence that ensues. His thirst for destruction paired with his mental illness and loner lifestyle seem to check many of the boxes to which critics are referencing. Turning a villain into a main character audiences can become invested in is difficult. Yet, despite the hurdles and issues with the film, perhaps Joker is an example of art imitating life. Hopefully, the film can act as a tool to alert audiences to the problems that people like Arthur are facing all around us… even if they feel that they’re invisible.