As one of the most anticipated movies of 2019, Joker does not disappoint. The film is idiosyncratic and compelling because of the pathologizing that the movie interposes. We meet Arthur Fleck in an emotional state at the beginning of the movie, as he is putting on his makeup for his act. Minutes later, Arthur is then attacked by a group of young boys, and this is how we are introduced to the murderous maniac that we would see in the latter half of the movie.
We then follow him through his daily life, and every turn is as miserable as the last. He is ridiculed and harassed on the subway for merely making a baby laugh, and later in the movie, we see him attacked again because of his medical condition, which makes him laugh in high anxiety situations. He lives with his mother, who not only has blind faith in Thomas Wayne but also criticizes her son, adding to his thoughts of inadequacy. He also has a therapist who he seems to dislike and does not listen to; he is taking seven medications and asks for more. His workplace is full of deplorables and the one guy who seems nice to him and ends up screwing Arthur over.
Throughout the movie, Arthur’s depression and his worldview begin to darken as he is exposed to violence, ridicule, and most painfully the truth. The problem with this framing is whether Arthur’s experiences are illusionary or his real experiences. We are aware that Arthur has mental impairments. He frequently laughs at uncomfortable moments, has anxiety that leaves him feeling inhumane, and suffers from delusions. His mental impairments, combined with his shifting ideology, leads us to foster a sense of distrust that makes his story questionable. Scene after scene, we are familiarized with what it means to be Arthur Fleck, which is to be miserable-but that all changes after one key event.
He murders someone.
This is where the pathologizing starts. Although the beginning gives us an accurate view on how society and individuals in society respond to mental illness, this is not what Arthur Fleck’s story is about, because Arthur Fleck does not exist, at least not anymore. Arthur Fleck is the alter ego of the Joker, and the Joker uses Arthur Fleck’s story to pathologize the reasoning behind his violent ideologies. When Arthur delves into his madness and delusion, this is where we see that character study and where we begin to learn exactly what made the Joker the Joker. Arthur Fleck was never a reliable narrator, he lied, and he deceived the audience on multiple occasions. He misleads the viewer in believing that he and Sophie are romantically involved, he misleads the audience into believing that his stand-up comedy was a hit at the comedy club, he even misleads the audience in thinking that he is not nihilistic but instead optimistic. It is in his deceit where we finally begin to see precisely why we are watching this movie.
Todd Phillips’s commentary on this film is as ingenious as it is oblivious. There are two things that Todd Phillips is providing an analysis of the media and violent ideologies. At the heart of the film, Phillips wants the audience to understand how dangerous media perceptions can be because of the fear-mongering that the media produces. Throughout the film, there are instances of political and social fearmongering that is not only exacerbated by the local and mainstream media but is also created by them as well.
While one can view the conclusion of the movie as solely based on the Joker’s own actions, the outcome of the movie could not have happened if the media did not play a massive role in the chaos. This is true in real life as well; the media frequently covers stories that do nothing but add to the ever-growing amount of social and political anxiety that we feel every day. It is through the media where people who have committed atrocities are given free publicity, where people whose rhetoric and ideologies should never be broadcasted are given a platform, where the media would instead focus on the ensuing chaos rather than the hopeful alternatives. The commentary is not wrong, and I think Phillips does this masterfully, but, in the end, I feel that his attempt was misguided.
In an attempt to expose the media for its contribution to the world’s chaos, Phillips irresponsibly empathizes with the very people it pathologizes. Although the film itself is not a political or social machine for depraved and violent behaviour, the film does not explicitly denounce this behaviour either. The movie is told through Joker’s point of view, and he uses this to his advantage, allowing us to feel some sympathy for the Joker. There are multiple points in the movie, where an objective viewer can even call some of the violent scenes just desserts.
This is not necessarily the reason why the movie is problematic; the film is problematic because it does not offer any opposition to Joker’s ideology. Besides Murray trying to reason with Joker in the last ten minutes of the movie, no character directly challenges Joker’s actions or motives. The film relies on the general audiences’ understanding of how dangerous; violent ideologies are as a detergent for this mind frame.
Another issue with the movie is the baiting nature of how they chose to criticize the media in the movie. In the weeks following the first reactions of the film, there was a level of social anxiety about how people who are prone to violence and deplorable behaviour would view the movie. As in the movie, the media played a huge part in spreading this moral panic, just like how the media is choosing to frame the movie in real-time. The problem with this is that in attempting to provide criticism of the press, the movie baits the media to do exactly what they are critiquing.
Joker is not your typical comic book movie; this movie is as realistic as any movie that pathologizes a murderer. It is a movie that can stand on its own in our reality living in America. Its politics, its social commentary, its exploitative nature are factors that mirror what we see everyday living in America. It is foolish to think that Todd Phillips did not expect the media to frame the movie in the manner of sympathizing with murderers.
With the widespread panic revolving around the movie, it potentially opens doors for people who share Joker’s motives to see the film and become enticed by the message. This is not to say that the movie is directly responsible for any deplorable behaviour, but what it does mean is that movies that align themselves with violent ideologies cannot separate themselves from how viewers may frame the meaning of the film. Because there is no direct foil to Joker’s intentions, to his worldview, to his violence, the movie is placing a lot of faith on its viewers to make their own opinion about Joker and his actions.
So yeah, the movie has its problematic tendencies. Joker is not a movie for the faint of heart. It is triggering, poignant, and Idiosyncratic enough that the sheer thought of the film is haunting. Joaquin Pheonix’s performance is incredible and objectively Oscar-worthy, and Todd Phillips has changed the conversation of comic book movies forever. If anything, the discussions around the Joker should influence you to see the movie yourself and make your own opinion on it. There is so much to unpack, and this is only the beginning of what I experienced when watching the movie for the first time. However, I believe this is an experience that everyone should have.
By: Deareyes Bryant
Edited: Keshav Kant
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.