The Joker: Not Your Average Comic Book Film

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The Joker: Not Your Average Comic Book Film

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Few movies this year have gotten as much buzz as Warner Bros.’ and D.C.’s “Joker.” The film, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, follows the unknown backstory of the well-known comic book villain, the Joker. The movie is undeniably dark and graphic, showing multiple gory murders, dangerous and deadly protests and, most disturbingly, a sympathetic yet sinister man’s descent into the gnarled hands of mental illness.

   Many controversial articles have been written about the possible danger that the film could generate. Refinery 29’s Kathleen Newman-Bremang asks, “Did we really need a brutal movie about a white terrorist figure who uses gun violence to enact revenge on the society that rejects him? And did we need it now?” And in an article for The Globe and Mail, Sarah Hagi commented that the Joker “…only finds himself free when he begins killing those who’ve wronged him.” 

   When I walked into the theater to view the film, it was made very clear that it was going to be intense. Near the ticket kiosks were signs that warned viewers of the dark nature of the film, noting that it was not a typical comic book film and was intended for mature audiences. The woman who took our tickets was checking IDs to ensure that no one under 17 entered the movie without a guardian. 

   From the opening scenes of the movie, I was captivated, drawn into the dismal disarray of Gotham City—an eerie mirror image of New York City. Roaming the sullen streets seemed to be an endless number of antagonists to our protagonist, the deranged and rejected Arthur Fleck, who immediately demands the viewer’s commiseration. We follow Fleck through his attempts to make it through a life riddled with misfortune and watch his mental health degenerate before our eyes as society continues to stomp him down. Eventually, he snaps, finding liberation in his personification of the Joker and finding power in the chaos he causes. A man who spends most of his life in the shadows finally comes into the light—and he does so through spurring a political movement characterized by violence. 

   I can see the danger in this film. I can see why so many journalists, viewers and critics had their doubts about copycat crimes. “Joker” makes us feel for the villain and implies that harming others is a valid way of getting attention. After shooting three men on a subway, Fleck says, “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.” 

   Yet, I don’t think the danger outweighs the benefit.       

   Here’s why. 

   It is clear throughout the entire movie that Fleck struggles with mental illness. He sees a social worker. He takes seven different medications. It is later hinted that he suffers some sort of PTSD from abuse in his childhood, which is perhaps the cause of his maniacal, uncontrollable laughter. The viewers are constantly, sometimes painfully aware of this. 

   The film is not justifying his actions because of his mental illness—it’s acknowledging the impact of his mental illness on his actions. This is something that U.S. and Canadian courts do, declaring defendants unfit to stand trial due to mental illnesses that would prevent them from understanding the consequences of their crimes. What “Joker” does is no different. It clearly lays out mental health as a determining factor in Fleck’s descent into madness. This is not glorification; this man is clearly miserable throughout the entire film, only finding some semblance of joy when he’s reverted into a state of total dissociation and potential psychosis. 

   Today’s media has created a polarizing narrative surrounding gun violence, claiming that either guns are not the problem and mental illness is (conservative) or that mental illness is not the problem and guns are (liberal). I would argue that both are the problem, and this is something that “Joker” vocalizes very well. Yes, other countries have mental illness and not mass shooters—but rarely in this country do we see a mass shooter who doesn’t struggle with some sort of mental health complications. Fleck is given a gun early on in the film, and it is this convenient access that aids in his killing sprees. Yet, it is the combination of mental illnesses which have not received proper, attentive treatment which leads him to pull the trigger. It is not necessary to say that one or the other is the cause of the problem, when both are causing the problem, playing off of each other to enrapture American society in violence. 

   I didn’t leave the movie feeling sorry for Fleck’s “victims” on the subway. They harassed a woman and Fleck before getting killed, and while no action justifies murder, their case certainly wasn’t helped by their blatant disregard for other humans and their willingness to make others’ lives difficult or uncomfortable for their own amusement. I did, however, leave feeling sorry for Fleck/Joker. I was sorry that the mental health system failed him by cutting funding. I was sorry that he was abused, both in his past and his present. I was sorry that he was so clearly so sick. And I think that these are perfectly sane, healthy things to feel. I think, in fact, that they reveal to us the message of the film.

   Instead of saying that we’re “justifying” crimes by sympathizing with criminals, let’s take a deeper look at the societal implications of this purposefully generated sympathy. Fleck goes from poverty to being handcuffed in a mental hospital. He doesn’t become a hero. His life does not improve because of his actions; arguably, his freedom is retracted, making it worse. It isn’t wrong to think that some crimes are preventable, or that there’s a trail of injustices that leads up to them. 

  Do I think the Joker’s choice (or anyone’s choice) to take another’s life is valid? Absolutely not. But, because of this film, do I think that we should view all criminals as humans and fight for the rights of all before it is too late? Absolutely.