Joker has been called everything from disgusting, pernicious garbage, to a boring film with nothing to say, to a stupdenous masterpiece. It has also been called irresponsible. I won’t repeat these arguments as they are readily available anywhere online, but let’s just say that you have probably heard the word “incel” used more than a few times over the last couple weeks, and that extra security has been on site at some theaters. The question I had perusing critic reviews of this movie before and after I saw it myself was: is Joker actually an irresponsible film, and if so, are filmmakers under any obligation to make movies responsible?
On paper, villains from most comic book movies do the same things that Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the Joker does — commit heinous crimes, hurt and kill innocent people. So why didn’t those movies receive the same level of concern about violence, and the incitement of violence? Well, a few reasons: Joker is an origin story— although the Waynes are featured, there is no superhero present to create balance and save the day. It is believed that because we see his backstory, we are meant to sympathize with Arthur Fleck despite his evil actions (which we see in full). And the film leaves much up to debate, letting us ultimately decide its meaning. For many, the lack of direct confirmation as to how we were supposed to feel about Arthur Fleck meant the film was hellbent on nihilism. We see it through his eyes, and that’s a dark place to be.
Joker doesn’t create a comfortable distance between Arthur and the audience. He isn’t a cartoon, or a devil-may-care character just funny and likable enough to keep the mood light, the usual villain we love to hate.
This is different because it feels real, and it perhaps hits a little too close to home. Arthur is like us in many ways. How many of us haven’t had failed dreams or aspirations? How many of us haven’t had a shitty day, gotten fired, hurt by bullies at work or at school, felt like we just couldn’t catch a break, like the world was out to get us? Whether we admit it or not, it is likely that we’ve all had those feelings (even if this was simply our perception and not the reality). Arthur imagines a relationship with his neighbor Sophie, and eventually perceives himself as rejected by her despite the fact that he has no relationship to her at all. This leads us to wonder if the attacks he experiences were real or imagined — the takeaway, I suppose, is that he felt persecuted and bullied by those around him, which drives his anguish and later rampage.
I think a lot of people could also relate to Arthur’s struggles with mental illness. As someone who suffers from anxiety attacks, I could physically feel Arthur’s discomfort when he knew he was about to have a laughing fit (a real neurological condition called the Pseudobulbar affect) and couldn’t control it, the feeling that everyone would bear witness and misunderstand his intent. But it makes us uncomfortable (and understandably so) to be able to identify even a little bit with a character who becomes so demented that he concocts a fantasy relationship with a woman he stalks, who is so full of rage that he murders innocent people brutally and without remorse. Actually, he takes pride and joy in it, believing it to be his true purpose.
We do not want to take a closer look at him because by doing so, we are taking a closer look at the darkness in ourselves, individually and as a society, what we are capable of and whether or not we have a role to play in making our own monsters— and for some, that will be impossible to do. Unthinkable, even. Joker is not a film for everyone.
However, this does not mean the film is not important. I disagree that it lacks value, or has nothing to say. For me, this was a true-to-life story about the cycle of trauma and abuse. When one person suffers to the degree that they feel like they have no way out and nothing to lose, that they are unheard, we all lose collectively — that pain multiplies and reaches down through generations, and in Arthur’s case it destroys the people around him who he takes his revenge on. There is always the matter of choice, though, and Arthur made abysmal ones that led him down a spiraling path of bloodlust. He is not what I would call a redeemable character, and I do not sympathize with or attempt to justify his actions — nor do I think the film asks us to. However, it did show his actions without sparing detail, without apology. If anything, I think we are meant to empathize rather than sympathize, to try and understand how one person’s struggles (and the way they internalize those struggles without a support system) can evolve and have disastrous, terrifying consequences.
I think it could be said that Joker is deceiving for those who expected a typical Batman film, entertainment and no more. Outside of Joaquin Phoenix’s stellar acting, there isn’t a lot of fun to be had in witnessing Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness. The violence is unsettling and disturbing as it is filtered through the lens of reality, and the filmmakers made a bold, risky choice when they decided to leave much up to interpretation. In most comic book films, the villain loses and the hero wins. In films like The Dark Knight, the Joker has a similarly bleak view of society yet is proven wrong by the end. Here, a hero (and a solution) does not yet exist and we must decide for ourselves if anyone wins.
But the hard truth is the filmmakers of Joker are not as socially responsible as we are. This movie, which we feel is a reflection of the mass shooters in our nation, is a product of where we are now. The film and its context would not exist without that real life violence, and that violence would not exist without the societal problems that in part made it so. The filmmakers behind Joker created a divisive whirlwind of a film, and sure, the decisions they made contribute to that, but just like with any film how we react to it is beyond their control. The movie makes us uncomfortable because it asks us a lot of questions without providing the answers we want. It asks us about white masculinity in our country, the way mental illness is swept under the rug socially and politically, and the power capitalism wields. In some ways it asks us what we could be doing better, even if it means just being more compassionate to people we don’t know, lending a hand when possible, and trying our best to do no harm. Gun laws are equally important, but the tug-of-war between both parties tends to make us forget about the humanity lying underneath. What would make someone feel so powerless that killing would ever feel like the right option, the only thing that could provide acknowledgement, recognition and self-worth? This is an American problem, and we as Americans are therefore obligated to at least look at it and face the truth — that this is happening, and the comic book fiction is only mirroring a much harsher reality.