Went to see The Joker last night and yes, the critics were right. The movie is an absolute masterpiece! The acting gave me shivers throughout and I nearly started crying when he got kicked about by those teenagers at the start of the movie.
It’s a very powerful story about a man’s love for his mother, a slow descent into depression and a desire to be recognised and seen.
Finally, DC brought a masterpiece out to contend with the likes of Logan. Sure, Wonder Woman was good, Shazam was an unexpected pleasure and even Aquaman didn’t suck (that badly)
Joker is more then “just” a comic book character, though. He’s arguably the greatest comic book villain of all time, so much so that people love him more than the hero he’s constantly at odds with. That adoration and love to hate relationship with the Clown Prince of Crime is exactly why having his own origin movie is destined to disappoint audiences once it’s released in October. In fact, we’d even go so far as to say that it’s sure to add yet another blemish for DC fans worldwide.
Since his initial comic book appearance in Batman Issue # 1 in 1940, the Joker made an immediate impact in pop culture. Originally planned to be killed off at the end of the first storyline, he quickly became Batman’s archenemy. Due to his homicidal nature, he’s always been the hero’s number one priority during his nights of vigilantism. Chronicling through all of Joker’s comic book history would take far too long, but all that you need to know is that comic book readers have never tired of his appearances, and calling him a fan favorite would be a considerable understatement. His silver screen appearances don’t disappoint, either, and every new incarnation of the character has caused excitement.
I was absolutely thrilled to find out that The Joker is getting a back story. He has a name – Arthur Fleck – which does not appear anywhere in the comic books! We get to see him meet young Bruce Wayne, and we get to see (yet another) crime in the back-streets as the Wayne parents get shot down in front of their young son.
But the movie is not about the villain’s acts, it’s a “becoming” story.
Arthur is a man on the verge of instability, being pushed down by society, a social outcast who cares for his sick mother and works a dead end job. He snaps but the snapping is not sudden, it’s gradual, and you’re stuck there wondering – will Phoenix get an Oscar for his performance?
So as I sat there admiring the impeccable acting, I started wondering:
- What were the causes of the Joker’s mental issues?
- Is this a commentary about the state of the American Healthcare system?
- Is this a true depiction of how hard people with mental disorders have it when trying to get a job or hold on to one?
- Is his desire to be a comedian based on the deep rooted idea that he needs to put on a happy face for others? Even when he’s not happy himself?
- What other mental illnesses does he have? It’s not just depression.
Fair to say, I got most of my questions answered.
Arthur Fleck is clinically depressed living in 1980’s Gotham City. He’s a struggling stand-up comedian who lives with his ailing bipolar mother (happy to see Frances Conroy from American Horror Story and 6 Feet Under). They are very cute together and he takes really good care of her, watching evening TV in her bed as she has her dinner.
There is nothing funny about the soon-to-be Joker’s life.
He is an socially awkward introvert with a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when nervous. He breaks down into unvoluntary laughter whenever something stressful happens. On a bus. During a crappy stand-up routine. During a fight.
He is so alone and depressed that when his cute neighbour (Zazie Beetz), a single mom, does one gesture in the elevator that connects them in a minute of understanding, he develops a crush and starts stalking her across the city. She treats him well out of pity, which he misconstructs as genuine affection. (No spoilers)
When his terrible stand-up act is recorded and made fun of at a famous late night talk show hosted by Robert De Niro, he realises that the one thing he though he was good at was one thing he knew nothing about. His scribbled notes and off-beat laughters during someone else’s stand up routine show that he is lacking the basis of what makes a good stand-up comedian : humour.
Arthur’s mother was once Thomas Wayne (Batman’s dad) secretary and Arthur finds a letter she wrote to him during one of her maniac episodes explaining that Arthur is Thomas’ son.
The catalyst is now in full explosive mode. By confronting his mother and then Thomas Wayne himself, Arthur finds out that his mother is/was crazy, suffering from delusions and bi-polar episodes and was at one point committed to Arkham after an especially severe case of neglect of her only son made it up into the public. The newspaper clippings tell a different story of Arthur’s life. When young (around 4), he was beaten, severly abused by his mother’s boyfriends and tied to a radiator and left to starve.
The childhood trauma is what left Arthur Fleck in his mentally disabled state. He is suffering from maniacal laughter, delusional states, thoughts of grandeur where his true value is recognised by his betters, as a constant need for stimulation, lack of empathy and remorse, impulsive and irresponsible behaviour, indicating a Antisocial/Dissocial Personality Disorder
He is capable of murder and we get to witness a few brutal ones in the last half hour of the movie. There were some scenes which prompted me to laugh, one involving a little person (no spoilers)
After the talk show ends, Joker is arrested and while taken into custody, he gets to see what his social implications of his previous murders were. The society was only waiting for a new anti-hero to appear. Someone who would take a stand against the rich who live behind their gated mansions and have no idea about the poverty and quality of living on the streets. There is a riot outside and he manages to temporarily escape again.
The movie closes with Joker being committed to Arkham, so out of reality he “hears” the soundtrack (“That’s Life” by Frank Sinatra) and dances to it as the credits roll (red blood on his sneakers).
Arthur does a lot of dancing in the movie. He dances with his mom, dances after killing the Wall Street guys, dances as he becomes the Joker, dances on the talk show, etc.
As he writes in a notepad during the film:
‘The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.’
For anyone who has any form of mental illness, feeling like you have to hide any facets of it (be it anxiety, depression, bipolar, something else, all of the above…) in order to be ‘accepted’ or ‘fit in’ with those around you, because society is largely unwilling to accept mental illness, is a daily struggle.
While Phoenix himself wanted viewers to know his violent acts were inexcusable, he was still able to look at Fleck’s issues with compassion. Which is sometimes all people with mental illness want – compassion and understanding.
‘When I first read it, a lot of his behaviour and actions I felt were despicable,’ he told IndieWire. ‘I saw that in certain moments he was in fight or flight. I recognised these signs that allowed me to think about him differently. It’s hard not to have sympathy for somebody who experienced that level of childhood trauma: an overstimulated medulla looks for and perceives danger everywhere.
‘For someone in that state, does it mean his actions make sense or are justified?
Obviously not. There’s a point where he crosses the line where I am no longer able to stick by his side. But it allowed me to approach him with less judgement and more compassion than what I had when I first read the script.’ If you strip away the negative reviews about Joker and whether or not the film had the ‘Taxi Driver-level of context’ in which to explore mental health properly, it’s at least started the discussion around mental illness and how the mentally ill are viewed.