“Joker” Review: Send in the (Problematic) Clowns

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Directed by Todd Philips

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beets, Frances Conroy

“Joker,” on paper at least, has a message most us can all agree on.

Over the last five or six years, mental health has been a subject of increasing importance for a variety of reasons from millennial burnout, substance abuse, increases in suicide and the stigma is slowly dying away. People are more concerned than ever about it and, generally speaking, everyone wants the system to do better at addressing it in society.

(”Office Space” continues to be more and more relatable every year…)

Throughout its two-hour runtime “Joker” makes the case for better mental healthcare and a society that’s more empathetic to the mentally ill. For some viewers this is a much-needed discussion on a complicated topic through the medium of pop culture’s most famous psychopath. 

For others (me), the problem is it goes about this in an extremely problematic way that grossly mischaracterizes the problem, the people afflicted by it and namely who the victims really are, making some of the pre-film controversy unfortunately not all too inaccurate.

“Joker” takes place in early 1980s where a man named Arthur Fleck cares for his disabled mother in an increasingly hostile Gotham battling the unfair social structures of society. Arthur struggles with his mental health, seeing a social worker each week, taking multiple psychoactive drugs to keep his mind intact, and failing to keep down a Tourette like laugh that estranges those around him. As the world gets increasingly more difficult to live in around him Arthur begins to see himself in a new way and wonder’s what the point of participating any longer in it, thus beginning a series of events that will change his life and the city forever.

One of the core appeals of Gotham’s most sadistic psychopath, The Joker, has always been that the motives behind his violence have rarely had a clear reason behind them.

Other than to piss off Batman, The Joker just kind of does things because he can and kills for the exact same reasons. There’s no reasoning behind it, he just doesn’t believe in much of anything. It’s just chaos and he loves it. There’s some twisted nihilistic appeal to that in a cruel world that relentlessly reminds us many times of it and it’s what made the Clown Prince of Gotham such an iconic villain across all forms of media.

Because we all kind of want to stop caring, even just a little.


But what happens when you try to give a character like this a reason behind his twisted psyche? Does it take away or enhance the character? Many writers have toyed with this concept but never concretely answered it whether it was Alan Moore alluding to him having a “bad day” in “Killing Joke,” or the intentionally vague and confusing backstory Christopher Nolan gave the character in “The Dark Knight.”

The question behind who The Joker is, and why he is, is never truly answered in any case. They still tend to keep it mysterious because well, giving a concrete reason to this character’s particular madness kind of takes away from what makes him interesting. To quote Ledger’s Joker he’s an “Agent of Chaos” and nothing more. The Joker doesn’t care so why should we?

(Let’s really not care about this version though. Like seriously. In fact, throw it in the trash and shoot it into the sun…)

But director Todd Philips decided to give the character his first real motive behind his psychosis in “Joker” and while it can be admirable that he attempted something no other writer or director has done, and in some small way has a positive message to it, the results is at best a boring slog of a movie and at worst a problematic depiction of the mentally ill.

“Joker” certainly get’s A-pluses in plenty of areas of course; Joaquin Phoenix probably deserves an Oscar for his twisted depiction of a pre-clown prince Joker as he fully takes on the character’s twisted, emaciated skin and Philips certainly creates a believable pre-Batman Gotham city with some effective Scorsese-esque shot creation and sets. The movie though is extremely predictable as nothing all that surprising happens from beginning to end. It’s just one shitty moment for Arthur after another, culminating with (SPOILER) Arthur’s encounter with a young Bruce Wayne that leads to the final moments of the film.

(Did we really need to put Bruce through this again onscreen? The MCU gave Uncle Ben a reprieve at least…)

I wish I could get into the more superficial reasons this movie doesn’t work, such as its overly self-serious dialogue, Philips making some perhaps unintentionally humorous moments in the movie but the problem is truly it’s muddled script that appears to not really understand what mental health issues look like and who the real victims are.

“Joker” appears to make the case that society has largely ignored and left behind those with this stigma, that we are responsible for not engaging with the problem actively and not caring about the problem. Throughout the film, Gotham and its inhabitants are relentlessly cruel to Arthur, sometimes to the point where it can be over the top, showing that this is what we do to people like Arthur in the real world. They are beaten both physically and mentally and we refuse to understand or acknowledge their existence and their problems.

In this way the film almost endorses Arthur’s eventual turn to violence as the price paid for ignoring people like this.

(I’m amazed how literal some of these memes ended up being after watching this movie…)

Again, the problem with this film isn’t that this isn’t a tremendous issue in society because it is; suicide rates are climbing, despite progress in mental health awareness many country’s still stigmatize it as a “you problem,” and healthcare in this country, well you know the drill. The problem is the film seems to make the claim that these folks who are left behind by these broken systems are in danger of becoming violent monsters and it’s fucking gross.

I cannot stress this enough when I say this but there is NO CONNECTION between mental health problems and an increase in violence. In fact, they are far more likely, ten times more likely in fact, to be the victims of the kind of monster The Joker is in this movie.

The idea that simply better healthcare will make those with mental health issues less likely to commit violence isn’t a new one. The NRA and other small-brained politicians (left and right) have been scapegoating them since the days of Columbine and our doofus of a “president” isn’t far behind in licking those boots

In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, as protesters did walkouts to decry gun violence, the mental health “advocates” made a counter protest called “walk-up” encouraging students to talk to each other more and engage with the outcasts in their schools.

While I certainly can agree that we should all try to be nicer to each other instead of not at all, it grossly ignores the fact that the shooter, Nicholas Cruz, was reportedly abusive, sexist and racist to his fellow classmates. Tell me, in what world would it be smart or safe, especially for a female student, to engage with a guy like this? Cruz didn’t kill people because he had “mental health problems,” he killed people because he was evil asshole.

(Yup, these people definitely look just some misunderstood social outcasts who were just in need of a few more hugs and some happy pills. Yup….)

Again, I can’t stress this enough lack of mental healthcare doesn’t make super villains; it’s pure fiction like this movie. Throughout the film Arthur is bombarded with slight after slight after slight be it from the institutions that leave him in the dust or the people around him. The movie kind of wants to state that the intuitions need more help but weirdly at the same time shouldn’t be trusted as Arthur is openly hostile with them throughout the movie. It’s almost comical at times as after a while and some viewers might find themselves after a while going “ok, we get it. The world is really mean to this guy, when does he become The Joker?”

The point is though, the motives behind great acts of violence have rarely, if ever, been about not being able to get access to some guy’s prescription drugs. In fact, the truly mentally ill are far more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others (as stated in a few of these articles linked already).

But for argument’s sake let’s pretend that this is not meant to be a literal depiction of how mental healthcare in society has failed people. Let’s say its metaphorical instead, that those with mental health issues become monsters within their own minds, hell the movie kind of alludes to a bent reality that may or may not have happened within Arthur Fleck’s mind.

(It’s actually one of the few narrative choices I liked about this movie, so A for effort, Mr. Philips.)

The problem with that is that again it depicts the mentally ill as monsters instead of the victims of those kinds of people. The movie does make a point of depicting the system as monstrous but again a person like The Joker as a product of that is misleading of what is actually going on.

Depicting the mentally ill as monsters, be it metaphorical or literal, will do more harm than good to those who are afflicted by these issues.

While I do not subscribe to the idea, necessarily, that movies create shooters these films definitely don’t exist in a vacuum either. Afterall there are still d-bags who think Tyler Durden is the real hero of “Fight Club,” and idolize maniacs like Al Pacino’s “Scarface” because they’re “badass’s.” I went into this movie thinking the pre-trailer controversy was likely overblown but I came out of it thinking some incel asshole could absolutely find something to relate to in this particular version of The Joker.

This movie has proven to me that the Joker’s origins are simply best left mysterious. He is just best used as a stand-in for chaos and anarchy with no specific goals or ideologies. Though his psychosis has certainly been the stuff of speculation behind his motives for decades by the fans its never been about him being crazy so much as it is about him being the antithesis to Batman’s ridgid sense of law and order.

(Probably the best cinematic depiction of that clash of ideologies.)

The Joker is a fascinating character and there’s a reason fans have gravitated to him for so long and inspired plenty of writers, directors and actors to try their hand with him. But any amount of understanding regarding what’s going on with mental health in society will take you out of this movie almost instantly for most people.

I think fans of this movie have perhaps latched on to the right messages of the movie, namely that we do need to do better with mental health and the mentally ill in this country, and I definitely don’t disagree with that, but the conclusions this movie appears to come to just aren’t right and it makes the movie damn near unwatchable for myself at least.

I’ll close with this though, “Joker” is inspiring in one way and one way only for me and that’s that it may cause a change in the way Hollywood see’s this genre of movies. I’ve written extensively myself about how, at times, the MCU has too rigidly adhered to the blockbuster formula and created almost a factory-line style of movies for the general populace to devour but a film like this, that is enjoying quite a bit of success right now, could change the way major studios approach these characters.

(The blockbuster formula can be great though sometimes if done right. Exhibit A ^)

Superheroes are modern Greek myths these days and have tons of source material and nuance to mine for directors and writers. Restricting them just to simple heavily CGI, action blockbusters is a disservice to their extensive catalog of stories and the comic book writers that made them famous.

While “Joker” is definitely not my favorite comic book movie of all-time I can respect that it took the risk of doing something different and going against the grain of most of the rest of the genre. If it inspires Hollywood to greenlight newer and more unique depictions of these characters I’m all for it.

In the end though, “Joker” is a mess of a movie that sends some right messages but ultimately the wrong one. If you enjoyed it great, I won’t stop you but I do ask  you to think about how this movie could be twisted in the wrong ways as well.

After all, we live in a society…


2 out of 5

Can we all agree at least this is still the best version of The Clown Prince of Gotham?

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