Movie Monday: Joker

It’s been an interesting year for superhero movies. We’ve seen a bit of everything: huge, big-budget ensemble cast blockbusters; horror movie retellings; and even the first MCU movie with a sole female protagonist! Joker stands out as a movie within a superhero universe that makes the archetypal supervillain its protagonist on one hand, but on the other, it follows a dramatic format that is more akin to 2017’s critically acclaimed Logan. A recipe for success? Possibly.

At first, I was a bit worried about how a new Joker within a more dramatic setting would fare, but now, I don’t think I have much to fear other than society itself. Be warned, there will be some spoilers ahead. 

Todd Phillips’ Joker reimagines the tale of a classic supervillain into one of a mentally ill victim who completely unhinges in an unabashed revenge spree. Phillips presents a deeply disturbing and compelling film that helps us rethink the way we interact with people who have mental illnesses or are victims of trauma. We're never led to believe that Fleck’s actions are justifiable, necessary, or appropriate, but we're given a chance to put ourselves in his shoes and understand his emotional response. In this sense, the protagonist is extremely polarizing, as some will want to humanize his faults and others will outright declare that there’s no room for understanding his behavior. I consider that the depth and detail that was placed into creating this character permits the viewer to condemn the character’s actions and feel for them if so they choose. This movie is an entirely gray area. 

From the very beginning, the audience is thrust into Arthur Fleck’s mind. The abuse that the protagonist suffers, which is expressed in daily microaggressions and later revealed as a lifelong curse, creates a deeply traumatized and flawed individual. It seems that the Joker’s mental health teeters regardless of his efforts to not become a nuisance towards others. Most people within the story’s narrative have decided to misunderstand him. They don’t validate his mental illness or struggles. To make matters worse, he loses access to his medication due to city budget cuts, which deteriorate his mental condition even further. The underlying theme of social class gaps makes Arthur’s story seem more realistic with every moment that passes, making the character of Joker eerily relevant.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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As the narrative progresses, Fleck dances his pain away while fluttering from hallucinations to unveiling his traumas. The shots are gorgeously composed, making sure to capture the gray solitude and divisiveness of Gotham City. The atmosphere reeks of decadence and darkness, always illustrated by the constant cloud of smoke that surrounds the protagonist in almost every scene. Very few, if any character is grounded to reality, which gives the movie a certain dream-like feeling.

At times, we’re thrust into Fleck’s coping mechanisms straight up, which makes his at times edgy behavior seem morally superior to others, but there are hints scattered throughout the movie that indicate how Arthur’s detached perception of reality ends up harming others more than his moral compass. The tangible consequences of what was apparently psychosis led the character to insane acts. Yet, protesters in the narrative sympathized with him, as he represented a symbol of questioning authority and vengeance, a common theme among DC stories. 

On another note, Arthur’s memories are presented unreliably, which adds to the confusing psychological ambiance. The movie seems to project a cloud onto the viewer, often managing to erase the idea that this is a movie about a DC supervillain.

Sound plays a great part in this movie as well. The eerie string section adorned score manages to unnerve while building up the somberness of the main character’s arc. The few quiet moments in the movie serve to disturb the viewer even farther. 

As for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, I can only say that I am mesmerized. Capturing such complex human behavior and switching in and out of faking involuntary responses is not easy. It’s incredible how he managed to make such a lonely and difficult character to be somewhat sympathetic at times. It made me sad to see the character descend into a spiral of madness because although it was deeply unnerving, I felt that deep down, there was once the hope of redemption and healing. The detachment from reality that the character obtains by the end of the movie was, although cathartic in one sense, deeply distressing and disturbing in another. This is the type of thing that you could only really enjoy in fiction. 

To make matters more frustrating, the farther gone his character was, the more coherently he began to express himself. In a sense, Arthur finally felt like he had control over his life and that he knew who he was, albeit far too late to have healed or ever reintegrate himself into society. Had this empowerment occurred earlier in his life, and had he actually received the help he needed, it’s very much possible that he could have recovered. It is discouraging to think that some individuals find the solace and self-esteem they need in unhealthy and damaging coping mechanisms.  

The moral of this story is that there are individuals who genuinely are left out of reach and, if society doesn’t make itself accountable for these individuals, the consequences could affect far too many people, and a person’s mental illness does not make them any less human. That being said, we are all responsible for our actions at the end of the day and are subject to be held accountable for them. 

If anything, this film is artfully crafted and very finely tuned. Contrary to the discourse that the media was pushing, the movie’s merits speak for themselves and are far more worth discussing than the possibility of violent-media inspired shootings. If we truly want to contribute to the discussion in a constructive way, we should begin by implementing healthier discussions and discourses about the way we treat people who live with mental illnesses, advocating for legislation that helps these individuals receive treatment and equal respect, and finally, focusing on projects that can help push gun legislation laws to the forefront.

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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People must be held accountable for their actions, and all group dynamics that promote systemic violence and discrimination must be seriously addressed, but within our interpersonal relationships and close circles, we must have tact and consideration towards others to ensure that we can avoid that these situations occur. It’s impossible to be completely aware of the mental state of others, so the least we can do is carry patience within ourselves and spread it in our day to day life. 

Overall, Joker proves and reassures that superhero-adjacent movies don’t need to be filled with jokes or tread lightly on serious topics to be marketable. Joker has already broken some records, and from what it seems, I wouldn’t be surprised if it got a positive reception from the Academy. At the end of the day, if we can’t appreciate or sympathize with the protagonist of the narrative, we can recognize the effort and artistic virtue that this movie was crafted with. Some may say that it’s a better movie than a story. I’d be fine with that, but that’s just me.