It’s been about a month since the release of Todd Philips’s JOKER. The response to the movie is a lot to unpack. There is talk about it going to the Oscars, its controversial topics, the overall progression of comic book films in the past two decades, etc. But, one thing that is clear about the result of this movie’s release is the amount of conversation it is sparking — particularly on subjects that have been generally difficult to discuss in entertainment. JOKER is meant to be a detailed take on how one of comic book lore’s most popular villains came to be — the crazed violence and mental instability of it all. Some critics have applauded this change of pace to comic book films, while others question the film’s existence and relevance entirely. And, in their reviews, they question its existence like it is dangerous. Yet, ironically, within this division of opinion lies the true joke behind our titular character’s origin story. There are going to be SPOILERS in this article, so if you haven’t seen Joaquin Phoenix don the clown makeup for the full 2 hours and 2 minutes, doing so might make you appreciate more what I’m about to say. You’ve been warned.
First, if Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for this film, I won’t watch the Oscars this year. His performance was incredible. Regardless of what you think about comic book films, you cannot dispute that he made audiences feel sorry for him while also creeping them out more and more as the film went on. As a matter of fact, I think the best word for it is empathy. People actually empathized with a devilish clown. This, I believe, was the first point of division in the film’s response — the point where audiences started feeling discomfort and wanted to leave. Phoenix makes his downfall feel so real that you might forget this is a movie about Batman’s greatest villain. The major reason behind Phoenix’s authenticity might be the fact that he studied mental illnesses in preparation for the role. The laughing disorder he has throughout the film is a proven legitimate issue — pathological laughter. There are people today who go through that or at least something similar.
Mental illness has been gaining traction recently — especially since the dawn of social media. This is not me saying social media should be banned. What I am saying, though, is that it should be used in moderation — like sugar or alcohol. The use of it has been carved so deep into our culture to a point where alienation seems like the default state for any user. If one person disagrees with you, you feel the need to validate yourself. If it seems your voice is not heard, you want to shout about it. This makes sense for a one-time outburst. But, now imagine doing that repeatedly across a few years. Now, imagine millions upon millions of people doing that in one room. It has become a dog-eat-dog world, where people’s image is their currency. Now, in the midst of all of this, picture someone who doesn’t have the most attractive image, has been bullied about it, and just wants someone to talk to — a shoulder to cry on. Yet, that person can only take so many unnecessary hits before they give up. And, the worst part is that they have seen others before them break down, and the system they were brought into simply focuses on why this world is “perfect” — ignoring their problems. The person gives up on oneself, because the system unconsciously gave up on them.
Now, by this point, some of you are thinking, “this was a movie that took place during the 1980s. Social media wasn’t a thing then.” And, you’re right. It wasn’t. But One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest came out in 1975. That film shed a spotlight on the mistreatment of mental health patients, and it managed to become one of the best films in the history of cinema. A year after that, we had Taxi Driver. A film that was clearly an inspiration for Todd Phillips’s film, it told the story of a Vietnam War veteran descending into violence to save a 12-year-old girl from the world of child prostitution. Suffice it to say, I don’t think a film like that with all its themes would pass any current major film executive’s desk today. And yet, it is still considered one of the greatest films ever made, and Martin Scorsese is still hailed as a genius by many people — including myself. So, the truth about how we have treated mental health is that we have had the same mindset to it since the 1970s — maybe even before that, if you have ever listened to a George Carlin special. If you google “George Carlin soft language”, you will find a bit he did back in 1990 as part of his special Parental Advisory. It is not only funny but incredibly insightful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o25I2fzFGoY
Anyway, the two previously mentioned films involve the protagonist realizing the system wasn’t going to solve the problem they were seeing and deciding to rebel against it. Yet, at every turn, they face opposition from the system. This goes back to a point that JOKER references multiple times. When they cut funding to the social service office Arthur Fleck goes to, it is a sign that the people running the system are used to pretending their flaws do not exist. They like to conceal them, because having a perfect public image makes the most profit. Sound familiar? Look at Thomas Wayne — Gotham’s superstar billionaire businessman running for mayor — the father of Batman. When he is on television, he talks about helping Gotham’s least privileged. People believe him. They eat it up. His presence proves the power of television. Yet, when faced with Arthur in a public restroom, you get to see his true colors. If he really wanted to help people, he would’ve helped Arthur and his mother with their conditions and get them help — not ignore her past as a former employee and give him a bloody nose. Except, he does do all of that and he demands Arthur to stay away from him and his family. Ironically, in a film about a supervillain, the supposed good guy comes across as the jerk. That bloody nose was Thomas Wayne’s response to Arthur’s uncontrollable laughing condition taking its course. The way the scene transpires is believable, but it’s a shame that it is.
Another piece of evidence that goes against Thomas Wayne’s pitch is something that he says earlier in the movie. In a TV interview, he says that any person jealous of those in a higher class than themselves is a clown. Here’s the thing though. I believe almost any person who has lived can agree that jealousy is an integral part of the human condition. Suppressing it to make those around you feel more comfortable is not only selfish of them to request, but it is psychologically detrimental to your own personal well-being. You can use jealousy to improve your own self, but not every person has somebody to say that to them. Arthur definitely doesn’t. His mother was never a good support system. She abused him when he was young. He was impacted by things he had no control over, and there was nobody to nurture him out of that madness. And, a higher-up saying that person is too far gone and deserves nothing but more suppression is the final straw for them to do something drastic.
And, that is exactly the turning point we see in this film. When Arthur is faced with three jock-like Wall Street brokers in a train who get entertainment from punching and kicking him, he finally decides to take power into his hands by shooting them dead. Why? Because it’s the only way he knows how to. Nobody was there to keep him from doing so. And, after watching him get beaten down at every turn, you can follow the row of dominoes collapsing and leading up to that homicidal moment. For the cherry on top, after running away from what he did and hiding in a restroom, you see him dancing — gracefully conducting himself with more confidence than he ever had. The humanity in him has been ripped away. And, the score playing in the background doesn’t side with him. In fact, Hildur Guðnadóttir’s cello melodies make you feel sorry that he has gone down this horrifying path.
The score is another thing I want to mention. Hildur Guðnadóttir has had quite a year in 2019, not only making the score for the most talked about film of the year but also making the score for Chernobyl — the most talked about TV event of the year and arguably the best mini-series to come out of HBO. Much like her music in Chernobyl, the score in JOKER never shies away from the sorrow and horror behind the events. She doesn’t change key or add multiple variations to the melody like other composers would. Even though there are intense moments, the tension in the music simply lies in the textures she creates with her cellos. But the approach her score takes is delicate, tame and simple. You are not meant to side with Arthur as much as you are meant to witness why he devolved the way he did. And, the score stays on that point till the very end. She should also get an Oscar nomination, by the way.
JOKER is a movie about a man who devolves due to a system designed to ignore him. Audiences, if they paid attention, would understand that is the message of the movie. And, yet, audiences still want to distance themselves from what this movie is saying. In their eyes, that message is but a farce to them. The funny thing is that they don’t realize that they are proving Todd Philips’s point. At the first sight of something awful and absurd, people feel the need to downplay it. In my experience, this has been done in any of three ways. One, they ignore it. Two, they publicly chastise and punish the person who brought it up. Or three, they make jokes about it — or, in today’s world, memes. We see approach #3 happen in the movie, when talk-show host Murray Franklin makes fun of Arthur’s stand-up gig. Instead of trying to find the humanity in Arthur, he treats him like a street jester who has fallen. Now, in the real world, we have seen videos of people failing or embarrassing themselves on camera. Our immediate instinct is to laugh. Why? Because, it is usually part of a “Try Not to Laugh” challenge on YouTube. In many cases, it is not too bad. In other cases, though, we do have the urge to ask if the person in the video is okay. But that’s when we see physical pain. We don’t think twice about mental or emotional pain. That is not the most important thing to us — at least not as important as how much laughter we and our friends get when you show them that video. Now, imagine this notion being amplified when it is something involving homicide and/or horrific abuse. It is more difficult to laugh. In fact, more people rightfully feel the need to take approach #2 — publicly chastise the person who caused that mayhem. However, curiously, the cycle of response ends there.
Now, I have to confess. Whenever I see a news broadcast or update talking about abuse or homicide, I do immediately feel disgust. However, minutes after that, I start thinking about what were all the events that led to that moment. What could have led a person to severely hurt or kill someone else? I mean, none of us were born homicidal maniacs. We were all born with the same curiosity of the world. Yet, we are defined by the environments we were brought up in — the people who raised us. And, to be clear, these are environments we have absolutely no control over as babies. And, goodness forbid, if our environment ever inspired any one of us to think that any horrific act was okay (be it homicide, suicide, domestic abuse, etc.), we would be the ones facing punishment from everybody else. I mean, yeah, there would be talks and discussion about why we came to that point. However, it would happen afterwards. And, because of how disturbing the events could be, we don’t spend a lot of time on it. And, after a while, people just go about their lives again, maintaining the status quo. At the end of it all, we are not much smarter about how to deal with and/or prevent such atrocities than we were before. And, in recent years, even though crime has gone down, we have had more mass shootings in the past eighteen years than we have had in the previous eighteen years. Matthew Patrick, aka MatPat, does an awesome breakdown of this in a video on the YouTube channel, The Game Theorists. You should definitely check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkVIqB8tw2A
Now, to be clear, I am not saying that every person doesn’t have a certain amount of responsibility to be a decent human being and treat others properly. What I am saying, though, is that responsibility needs to be instilled by those who raised them before we judge them for not having it. The government shouldn’t be making opinions about what causes people to crack. Everyone should follow the facts and scientific research that prove it is something more coherent and scientifically sound than simply virtual violence in video games and movies. There is no data to prove a causal link between that and actual violence. Also, everyone should be broadening their understanding of how mentally unstable people operate — AND WHY. We cannot just simply filter out what we want to hear and ignore the rest. That works when reading a tabloid but not with real life. The beauty behind the character of the Joker is that he understands this disconnect better than anyone else in the DC Comics Universe. Because he is a product of people refusing to care about his dire situation. And, the minute Arthur realized he was not the only one, he put himself in front of the mob. He made himself the face of everything that was wrong in Gotham, giving him a power and control over his life that he never had before.
Much like the Joker is Gotham’s reflection, Todd Phillip’s movie is our reflection. And, people are afraid to admit it — just like Thomas Wayne. We have been hiding from our flaws and the consequences of our ignorance. And, for the first time in a while, it has come back to bite us. Todd Phillips proves there can be honest non-PC discussion in entertainment. Also, on a side note, he should reconsider doing the same thing for comedy. Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle are proof that “woke” culture is not as strong as you think. And, “woke” culture shouldn’t prevent you from recognizing the message behind JOKER. The joke may not be as funny as The Hangover, but it is very telling of what is wrong with us as well as what could happen if we keep on ignoring what is wrong with us. And, if you were in the theater and you witnessed people cheering when Arthur gave himself a bloody smile at the end, it was not because they sided with him. It was because one of the most twisted and most popular villains in the history of comics finally got the recognition he deserved.