Quick Disclaimer: This is not a review of the movie “Joker”, I will save the judgments on the film itself for all the cinematographers and storytellers out there. This instead is a character reflection on the movie Joker’s titular character, the Joker (Arthur Fleck).
The movie Joker made me feel uncomfortable.
The movie Joker is uncomfortable – which is precisely why I believe it is so important.
Traditionally, the character of the Joker is a very comfortable one. You know the Joker I am referring to? Purple suit, chalk white face, green hair, great big painted-on smile, silly in his mannerisms, and frequently up to mischief. Seeing Joker on a page or a screen is incredibly familiar, homey, and even comforting – like snuggling yourself in your cozy wool blanket on a cold winters evening. His character is so well known as he fits the mold for an archetypal chaotic evil character perfectly; he is chaotic, mysterious, unpredictable, witty, and just plain goofy. His actions are absurd and unjustifiable; one moment he will be poisoning Gotham’s water system and the next moment when he finally has the upper hand over Batman, he fires off a tiny flag that says “BANG!” from his pistol at him. There is no rhyme or reason for the things that the Joker does, he just does them. His unpredictability leaves us waiting on the edge of our seat for what absurd thing he does next, this is part of what makes him so exciting to watch. Having no discernible past or reliable origin story, the Joker’s very existence is unjustifiable. In summation of all these things, we are left with the kooky clown we all know and love. We accept the Joker for who he is, and accept his actions for what they are, insane.
Moreover what I think is most notable about the Joker, is that he is completely unrelatable to us. The Joker’s characteristic leave him so far removed from a true human experience that we see no part of ourselves within his character. This allows us to distance ourselves from him, and we start to believe that a character like him could never be a product of our modern society. From a narrative perspective, this distancing allows for a suspension of disbelief, where comic writers and directors can create absurd over-the-top scenarios (which in your typical superhero flick, the more over the top are usually more enjoyable) without needing to rationalize why or how they could come to be, simply saying: the Joker is responsible, is enough to crank the absurdity to 11. After his evil plan does get played out and it comes time to clash with the caped crusader himself, there is never any nuance within the intersection of good and evil. When it comes to Joker and the altruistic Batman, it is clear who we unquestionably root for, the separation of what is good and what is evil is made almost too obvious. When Joker’s plans are eventually foiled and he ends locked back up in Arkham for the 100th time, we can rest assured knowing that Gotham is safe – as if Joker himself is the genesis of evil. The traditional Joker character packs evil into an easy to understand box and seals it with a colourful bow. We never have to think about where the box came from, and when it is put away we never have to think about it. He is an easy villain to pick up and put down because he does not force us at all to reflect on why he is the way he is. Our inability to relate to him is what makes him so comfortable to us.
The Joker in this film, is not the traditional Joker you know and love. There was nothing particularly mysterious about him, before taking on the name Joker he was a pretty simple to understand man by the name Arthur Fleck. He was not chaotic in nature, in fact the majority of his actions were completely predictable. He certainly was not goofy, to laugh at his plights and struggles would be ill-mannered. By the films end, this Joker’s insanity wasn’t all that hard to grasp. Although his actions were abhorrent, they were easy to understand; the film very clearly shows the viewer the reasons why Arthur did what he did. I think it would take the world’s most apathetic person to not feel sad for Arthur, to not wish for him to get out of his hardship, and to completely separate themselves from him as if he was the same traditional Joker mentioned before. This Joker was human and relatable, that’s why unlike the traditional Joker we are used to, it was so uncomfortable to watch.
Arthur Fleck isn’t all that much different from us. Like many of us who live and breath, Arthur Fleck is suffering. He contends with his own demons, most notably his mental health condition which was likely set on by some early childhood traumas, among a host of others. I think where he does primarily differs from many of us, is he doesn’t have a support network to help him. When Arthur seeks help, he is met with superficial checkbox therapy sessions, and is denied meaningful support by a system that is clearly failing people like him. His condition and lack of ability to manage it leads him to becoming ostracized by society; he is labeled a freak, beaten up in the streets, and denied work and services. On top of all this, Arthur struggles to support himself and his ill mother in a ruthless economic time where the disparity between the rich and poor is becoming insurmountable. The state doesn’t care for him, society doesn’t care for him, and his peers don’t seem to care for him much either. Without a support network, Arthur turns to desperate measures to manage his problems. This movie made me reflect on how grateful I am to have such a strong support network to help me contend with my life’s challenges. It also makes me reflect on how I would act if my support network was taken away: what if I didn’t have family and friends to help me when times get rough? what if I didn’t have access public services? what if I became all alone? would I find myself in a position to become like Joker?
It goes without saying that my own individual experience is not representative of the current societal climate as a whole. There are plenty of people experiencing everyday what the character of Arthur Fleck did. Many people suffer in silence, many are rejected from society and told that their experience isn’t valid. These people can relate even closer to Arthur, because like him they don’t have access to a strong support network (if any). Although the vast majority of these suffering people do not resort to violent acts, there is a subset of them who do – and their reasons for their backlash on society is made crystal clear from watching Arthur’s descent into chaos throughout this film. It would take a fool to believe that these disenfranchised people are lashing out on society for no reason.
This Joker makes us reflect in ways that the traditional Joker never could. It makes us reflect on our own capacity to do evil in this world. It makes us wonder if part of the Joker lives inside ourselves; what if we were put in a similar position as he, would we lash out in a similar manner?
This movie took a heavily romanticized character and made him unromantic. It took a villain who is unreasonable in his ways, and gave him reason. It takes the outcome actions of our traditional Joker which we deemed unreasonable and adds reason to them. For the first time we had to witness the magnitude of a persons misery that would be enough to justify said reasons. It makes us have to come to terms with the fact that actions we believed were inhumane, are plausible with enough despair. It makes us realize that our society could very well breed Jokers. It makes us realize that their is a capacity for evil within us all, and a capacity to become Joker.
As a society I feel it important that we learn from this film, and other pieces of media bringing awareness with a similar message. There is a part of our society that is suffering. There are many people whose voices have been taken away. There are many people who are losing their ability to perceive for themselves a purposeful life. I believe purpose is so intricately tied to our own humanity; when purpose is taken away, so is that humanity. Without purpose in their life, people start adopting nihilistic behaviors and some go as far to commit horrendous acts upon others. Make no mistake that this movie is a direct reflection of the times we are currently living in; Gotham is New York (the citadel of the rich and powerful who most of us serve), Wall Street is Wall Street, Thomas Wayne is Trump, the suffering people are no different then those who suffer in the real world, the clown rioters are groups like antifa (those who resort to violence against the establishment or those they disagree), and Joker is a mass shooter. This movie allows a valuable learning opportunity for us to see how the current system functions, to observe it where it is failing, and to see the outcomes of those failures. The Joker isn’t just a movie, it’s a TED talk.
I have to admit that the backlash and outrage this film is receiving irks me slightly. Quite frankly I think it is irresponsible for some to give such simplistic judgments of this film in an attempt to shelter themselves from the discomfort this film causes. I cannot get behind the idea that this movie should be banned or censored – to do so would be an injustice to society and an injustice to those who are indisposed by the system who are finally being acknowledged by this film. I cannot get behind the idea that this movie is a manifesto or that it romanticizes incel culture, inciting mass shootings. I cannot get behind the idea that it glamorizes violence. I cannot get behind the idea that it is a story of white male entitlement. I cannot get behind the idea of this movie being dangerous to society. To accept any of those overly simplistic ideas to be true would be knowingly and willingly remove all nuance from the complex problems Joker addresses.
This film makes us take notice of the indisposed and realize they are human, and they are suffering under a system that is failing them. I actually think it was quite clever for the director to use the Joker intellectual property to communicate this message. From a narrative perspective, it wasn’t necessary at all for this movie to use any of the DC intellectual property, it didn’t have to star the Joker – though had it just been called “Arthur”, featuring a middle aged white man suffering from mental illness, it would likely have gone unnoticed (just like those indisposed of the real world who this story relates to). However rolling out this movie among the mania that is the wave of superhero movies was exactly what this story needed to garner the attention of society. Once the title JOKER is adopted, the story was brought to the spotlight for all to pay attention to – because it is a story worth paying attention to. Using the character of Joker allowed the director to show a story to an otherwise unsuspecting audience who likely already had preconceived notions of what they were about to watch. We all went in expecting comfortable – unquestionable good hero beats the unjustifiable evil villain – and we instead left with a very real and uncomfortable message.
Without this film, we would all still be comfortable. We would all still be using our traditional unrelatable Jokers, blaming them for all of our problems as if they are the epitome of all the evils in the world. We would still be believing that as long as those Jokers aren’t around, then evil does not exist. We would all still be believing that the actions of Joker “could never happen in my town” or that Joker “could never be my friend or child”. We would all still be believing that the Jokers who commit horrendous acts on society (such as mass shootings) do so without reason. We would all still believing that these Jokers do not cultivate from our own society, as if they were to arrive on earth by spacecraft from some other hate-breeding cosmic body. The indisposed do not exist in a vacuum, they exist within and are created by our society – this movie does a good job to show us that. So I ask that instead of trying to ban this movie, we chose to learn from it and take action. Let us tackle the systemic problems in our society that foster an environment for Jokers to be created. Let us find the failures in the system and fix them. Let us chose to get uncomfortable.
The Joker makes us uncomfortable.
My take away from this movie is to do more to listen. To pay attention to the people in society who may be getting left behind, and to identify the societal structures that may be failing them. I will do better to challenge these structures where I can. Most of all, I will do more be compassionate and to spread love to all of those around me: friends, strangers, and those I disagree alike. People are starving for more love in their life. The world needs more love. The world possesses much evil, and the only force strong enough to defeat it is love – and that is no laughing matter.