“Joker” by Todd Phillips is a work of art and deserves tremendous respect and praise.
With that being said, film is subjective and this film, in particular, has been under fire for its representation of mental illness and violence.
Today, I want to discuss this wave of controversy, share my thoughts on the matter and why I believe “Joker” does a lot more good than bad.
Brief History Lesson
In 2012, during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora Colorado, James Holmes set off tear gas grenades and fired his gun at the audience. Twelve people died and 70 were injured.
The Joker wasn’t featured in that film, but it was coming off the heels of 2008’s “The Dark Knight,” where Heath Ledger plays the Joker.
Ledger died due to a drug overdose before “The Dark Knight” was released in theaters.
His performance was so impactful that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2009.
It is still devastating to think that Ledger never got to see how loved and adored his portrayal of Batman’s most famous antagonist was and still is to this day.
Fast forward to 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” where Jared Leto took his turn as The Clown Prince of Crime.
I personally didn’t hate his performance as much as many people and even found myself wishing he was in the movie more.
With that being said, Leto’s Joker isn’t even near the same league as Ledger’s and now Phoenix’s.
The Real Dark Phoenix
Now before I open that can of worms, no, I am not going to debate whether Ledger or Phoenix had the better Joker (maybe another time).
But the fact that Phoenix has a real case for having a better performance than Ledger’s now-iconic portrayal is significant in its own right.
There were moments while watching “Joker” where I thought to myself, “This is the best acting I’ve ever seen” by the great Joaquin Phoenix.
Now upon further reflection and seeing the movie again, I can confidently say Phoenix should be nominated for Best Lead Actor at the Academy Awards.
I don’t want to say he should win without seeing the other performances that will be nominated, but I honestly doubt anyone will be as good this year.
Phoenix put his mind, soul and body into this performance and it’s so apparent on screen.
Firstly and most obviously, he lost 52 pounds for the role and in a recent interview on The Jimmy Kimmel show Phoenix said, “It is difficult at times, but then there is something very empowering about it as well.”
This, in a sense, perfectly describes his acting in this film.
Phoenix is able to get into the bruised and battered head of his character Arthur Fleck with what feels like such ease.
Alright, enough beating around the bush—full “Joker” spoilers time.
Leave now and come back after you’ve seen the film or stay and enjoy the sweat.
Phoenix reportedly studied people who suffered from pseudobulbar affect, or PBA.
PBA causes those that suffer from it to have sudden outbursts of uncontrollable laughing, crying or both.
While doing research for this article, I watched a few videos of real-life people who suffer from PBA and it is stunning how well Phoenix was able to mimic this condition.
Whereas when someone normally laughs it comes from a place of joy, this is the exact opposite; it is normally triggered by an uncomfortable situation and can lead to embarrassment, social isolation, distress and depression.
Those are all emotions and conditions Arthur is depicted as suffering from in “Joker.”
It is never explicitly said what exact conditions Arthur has in the movie, but we do learn that he uses seven different medications and suffered significant head trauma as a child.
Arthur even has a card he carries with him that says, “It’s a medical condition causing sudden, frequent, uncontrollable laughter that doesn’t match how you feel. It can happen in people with a brain injury or certain neurological conditions.”
Abuse, isolation, neglect and early loss of a parent are all linked to real-world cases of mental illness and Arthur suffers through all of these in this film.
Phillips does a great job of using laughter as a tool, not just a character flaw.
We see Arthur painfully laugh at the worst moments; a few scenes particularly stuck out for me.
In one of these scenes, Arthur is trying to make a young boy laugh by making funny faces and playing peekaboo.
The boy’s mother tells Arthur to stop bothering her kid, and after the rude interruption of Arthur’s innocent act, he breaks into laughter.
A loud, pained, uncontrollable laugh leads to our first look at his aforementioned card that explains his condition.
This is our first time as the audience seeing the laugh in public at full strength, and it is terribly uncomfortable but makes us feel great sympathy for Arthur.
The next pivotal laughing scene is the turning point of the movie.
After being fired from his job, Arthur is on the subway heading home and three seemingly drunk men are bothering a woman on the subway.
Arthur takes notice of this and between the mixture of his despair from his job and the awkwardness of the situation, he busts out in his troubled laugh.
The three guys now direct their attention to Arthur, get uncomfortably close and then begin to fight.
Arthur is overpowered and is repeatedly kicked while laying on the ground (a callback to one of the first scenes in the movie).
This time Arthur fights back, pulls out his gun and proceeds to shoot and kill all three men that night.
We see Arthur’s first real Joker moment, a sudden lethal outburst that he embraces.
Nearing the end of the film, Arthur gives the chilling line, “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy.”
From that point on you see him embrace the laugh and finally have a little bit of control over it for the first time.
You even see Arthur become more comfortable in his own skin as he falls further into darkness.
The most comfortable you ever see Arthur is when he’s on the Murray Franklin Show with full Joker makeup on and in a very familiar purple suit.
Laughing is no longer his enemy.
Is Joker a Hero?
The murder of three Wayne Enterprise employees by “a guy in a clown mask” is what triggers the street dwellers of Gotham to fight the wealthy and also raises an interesting question I wanted to discuss.
On one of the newspapers that wrote about the shooting, they question if the masked killer was a vigilante.
As a nerd, this was a cool Easter egg as Batman is often times marked a vigilante by the police and media.
In one of Arthur’s fake memories (more on these later) of a date with Sophie (Zazie Beetz), she says that she thinks the person who killed those guys is a hero.
I interpret this as Arthur solidifying to himself that his actions had good ramifications.
This is one of the examples that show the audience how unreliable Arthur is as a narrator.
The other key example is when Arthur imagines himself on the Murray Franklin show while watching with his mother.
Nevertheless, no matter Arthur’s unreliability, he performs terrible acts throughout this film.
So the short answer is no, he’s not a hero, even though we sympathize with him.
Arthur is a tortured character who even says he’s never had a truly happy moment in his life.
Despite repeatedly being thrown in the trash and gut-punched (literally and figuratively) by society, there is no excuse for Arthur’s actions.
We see him kill six people in the movie and Sophie’s fate wasn’t confirmed, so the kill count could be even higher.
Despite his condition and set of circumstances, there is no excuse for his actions and because of this, of course, he’s not a hero.
The Big Controversy
Now the big talk heading into the film’s release date was that it glorifies both mental illness and violence, with the fear being that this movie may inspire violent acts, much like Arthur/Joker does by the end.
In a time where mass shootings have become a regularity, I understand why people may feel like there’s no place for this movie right now.
I personally have a different opinion on its message.
I think if anything, this movie shows us how we need to treat mental illness and how serious it really is.
Any mental illness should not be ignored, laughed at or overlooked. “Joker” shows us an extreme case that leads to mass violence, but I think it is trying to tell us this is a feasible thing that could happen, and maybe already is happening. One of the best parts of this movie is just how real it feels.
We only ever seen Gotham from a street-level view.
Every punch, kick, gunshot, death, laughing attack all feel completely real; no “movie magic” here.
I could understand someone having a different opinion than me on the subject, but I think that’s another part of this movie that’s so great: It is extremely fun to talk about and it’s impossible to not have an opinion after watching it.
This movie is not a horror film—it is a horrific film.
Its intent is not to scare you, it just wants to show what could happen to someone with severe mental illness when society rejects them despite their best efforts.
I can’t imagine anyone in this role instead of Phoenix, and if he’s not at least nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, I will write a 3000- word Nerd News column on how the system is completely corrupt.
While I want to say the same for whether “Joker” is nominated for Best Picture, I wouldn’t be surprised if it is snubbed because of how divisive it is amongst critics and fans.
Despite the mixed reactions, I believe Phillips completely shook off the idea that he can only direct comedy after directing “The Hangover” trilogy.
He creates the most grounded Gotham City in the history of cinema and tells a great character driven story that makes the audience sympathize with one of the most famous comic book villains of all time.
I almost feel guilty about how much I enjoyed this movie. It is two hours of seat shifting, shock, heartbreak and one of the most chilling scores to a movie I have ever heard.
I absolutely loved it and can’t wait to see it a third and fourth time in theaters.
So did you make it all the way through? Be honest, I know you skipped some of my over analysis of his laugh, but c’mon, the laugh is one of the driving forces behind the movie! A freaking laugh!