Why So Serious?

Does Joker portray a mentally ill loner as a danger to society?


Does Joker glorify violence and murder committed by a mentally ill person?


Am I okay with that?

That was the question I had going in to watch Joker. There was no debate in my mind over whether Joaquin Phoenix would deliver (he does). Nor did I question whether it would be a memorable interpretation of the Joker (it sits alongside Heath Ledger’s and Mark Hamill’s as inspired).

But am I okay with it?

I’m sensitive to mental health issues. I care about and talk about mental health. I want to help remove stigmas and, as part of that, I guess, call out negative portrayals and stereotypes. While I haven’t read any of the backlash/criticism of Joker for how it handles mental health illness, I am aware it exists. It is part of the discussion right now in the wake of the film’s release.

Arthur reaches out to society in his own way. Society turns its back on him in its own way.

Now, this isn’t intended to be a point-by-point analysis of the film or the mental health criticisms against the film. Yet, as I write this on the bus home from the cinema, I feel myself swayed by nameless others to take care to position myself, cognisant of the wider debate. (In the sense that these 1s and 0s that comprise this article is part of the web. I won’t be engaging in any actual debate online. Good god, I don’t talk to people online anymore who I don’t know in real life. It’s a cleaner, simpler way to live. If anyone reading holds a different view then that’s cool, let’s talk about it sometime. I’m confident enough to state a wrong position and be convinced otherwise).

You know what? This isn’t even going to be a well-considered and researched piece of writing. As you’ve no doubt gleaned from what I write on this site now, I’m motivated by the occasional creative spark and right now the sparks are coming off my own internal debate. My opinion may well change.

No one can debate though that Joker is a masterpiece. It is an outstanding piece of film-making built around, centred upon, and elevated by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance.

Let’s pick apart these questions a little more.

In a novel twist, the trademark laugh of the Joker is an uncontrollable, neurological tic that further isolates Arthur from society. He often laughs when overwhelmed by other feelings.

Does Joker portray a mentally ill loner as a danger to society?

For Arthur Fleck, the man who becomes Joker, yes it does. Unequivocally in fact, by the character’s own description he is a mentally ill loner.

He is mentally ill, which is different from crazy. We’re all used to the crazy Clown Prince of Crime with his mad schemes and loony acts of evil. But mentally ill? That’s a new tone for me. Perhaps in the comics, there’s been a grounded incarnation, but Joker now beats out Unbreakable as being the most grounded comic book film. Joker is not a superhero movie like any of the Marvel or DC offerings to date. Joker is an intimate and explosive character study. The film is largely a series of extreme close-ups of Phoenix’s face crumpling under the weight of his world. The performance, though, is rock solid and brings credibility to Arthur’s mental struggles. I was gripped and scared of what would happen next. It’s uncomfortable and I enjoyed the discomfort.

The film opens with Arthur in full clown garb spinning an “Everything Must Go!” sign and, sadly, that’s what happens to him. Arthur is in social care, but like many things in his life, it’s seemingly detached and ineffective or soon to be taken away entirely. The film makes clear that had Arthur been able to get access to more meaningful treatment, or had he a proper support group to rely on, he may have survived.

Ultimately though, the fact that this is an origin story for the Joker character places this film so far into the land of fiction that I’m okay being unsettled by Arthur’s decline in mental health. I don’t see it being problematic in the big picture of mental health acceptance. This isn’t like when Hollywood films whitewash history.

But mental health illness is not the only factor at play in the downfall of Arthur and his rise as Joker.

Arthur is caretaker to his mother, Penny, who has issues of her own.

Arthur’s transformation is both one of nature and nurture. His nature, Gotham City, is pretty abysmal and clearly damaging to anyone who survives there. It’s a rich, textured painting of the worst city in the world: fetid and diseased with an atmosphere that suffocates. Painted with broad strokes, sure, but effective nonetheless. The city is largely populated by grotesque characters and the good are few and far between. Set in the 1980s, Bruce Wayne is but a child, the police are useless and there’s no hope, certainly none of the crime-fighting and costumed variety. The city is on the cusp of collapse largely separate to Arthur’s journey to the Joker. It’s merely Arthur’s baptism in violence that finally pushes the city over the edge. Or it’s the city exerting an equal and opposite push on Arthur.

Nurture, is a bit shakier. Arthur’s childhood and upbringing play a huge part in his path to darkness. Here, in his childhood, I would agree with criticisms (if they exist) that it’s reliant on bad stereotypes. I won’t go into specifics, because his origins motivate the film’s plot and I loved watching them unfold, but I will say that not all cycles continue.

His origins are so good in fact, that I could see the comics taking elements of this as part of Official Canon similar to how the Hulk’s presentation in the first Avengers film gave a real injection of fresh blood to the character in the comics. Though, the Joker character has never been in short supply of new blood and interpretations.

Arthur works as a clown for hire and as an aspiring stand-up comedian. But as his mother says: “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?”

Does Joker glorify violence and murder committed by a mentally ill person?

Yes. Both in the world of the film (Arthur is idolised for his acts) and on the screen (where the cinematography often films Arthur like a professional dancer). Arthur considers himself a dancer and the image I won’t be able to shake is of Arthur dancing. Perhaps here he is expressing himself to the world, or it’s symbolic of his internal struggles, or it’s him letting himself follow his impulses. Either way, it’s striking and chilling to watch.

I’m already past my quota on adjectives, but I’ll throw in some more to describe how good this film looks: bold and beautiful. Okay, last two adjectives now to describe the violence: shocking and unflinching. Again, I don’t want to spoil the film by laying out the violent acts though I will say they are each meaningful to Arthur’s arc. While more people die in certain episodes of Game of Thrones, the dread of anticipation and the lingering aftermath of Joker‘s violence will hurt some viewers. The couple sat next to me in the cinema were taking turns burying their heads into each other’s shoulders.

My one-sentence review (sorry it’s so late in the article) is that Joker is more Taxi Driver than Taxi Driver. It’s Travis Bickle in big, blocky clown makeup. Fitting it is then that Robert De Niro plays a prominent role in both films. It’s a slow drive to the inevitable.

When it comes to the glorified violence, if this wasn’t an origin story for the Joker, if this glorified a random person killing, then yes I would probably not be ok with it. I would perhaps be offended in the same way I’m offended by the constant release of true crime documentaries romantically dissecting the acts and words of Ted Bundy or Charles Manson or some other real-life murderers. I wasn’t cool with Travis Bickle either, for that matter.

I was captivated by the Joker’s emergence and kept guessing, and fearing, what was going to happen next.

Am I okay with that?

So as it stands, I’m okay with Joker. With respect to how thoroughly entertained I was, I’m more than okay. The film is brilliant. I’ve enjoyed it enough to jot down notes on the bus home and then, now, to sit for another few hours and write out this article. It’s been a long time since a film has had that effect on me. Today, I’m okay with it. I’ll see how I feel in the future. Joker is unforgettable and I suspect it will stay with me for a while yet.