"Joker" Is a Beautiful Character Study, and a Necessary Reminder
Author: Karuna Savoie
Joaquin Phoenix is a favorite to win Best Actor at the Oscars for his raw performance in Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” the standalone DC Comics film that challenges audiences to question the line between good and bad, right and wrong, light and dark. Phillips himself is up for Best Director, and the film is a nominee for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Cinematography and Original Score. It’s tailed closely by “The Irishman,” “Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood” and “1917.”
Before all the award buzz, however, was fear; some worried that the movie could incite violence from those who identify with Phoenix’s character. A mass shooting took place in a theater in Aurora, CO during 2012 showing of “The Dark Knight Rises,” which also includes the Joker. That Aurora theater refused to show “Joker,” concerned about another tragedy.
The controversy over the film’s potential to incite violence proves that “Joker” has a crucial message to tell: violence can be justified, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right.
Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a struggling clown and aspiring comedian in Gotham City, which is plagued by rampant violence, widespread poverty and extreme class stratification. Afflicted with a medical condition causing spontaneous uncontrollable laughter, Fleck is denied the help he needs in caring for himself and his ailing mother.
His distress explodes one night as he is harassed by three rich young men, his socioeconomic opposites. Fleck shoots them in self-defense, and the city plunges into chaos as crowds storm the street in clown masks, rioting at the government response to the first of the “cruel jokes” he plays on a society that treats him like one. Thus, he adopts the name and identity Joker.
The audience might very well be rooting for Fleck on the subway. Even if his action is morally wrong, it feels right in this context because it is shown through Fleck’s perspective—he acted out in retaliation, not to attack.
“This system that knows so much, you decide what’s right, or wrong, the same way that you decide what’s funny, or not,” says Fleck as a guest on Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) talkshow, explaining how each person’s experience is relative, and how someone estranged from society could gain the support of an audience, even if their actions oppose society’s conventions of right and wrong.
In these instances, Fleck is giving those who have mistreated him a taste of their own medicine. When he reacts with violence, his victims have provoked him. Seeing through his eyes, one cannot outright ignore the “other” side that manifests in those mistreated by society, or shy away from addressing the conditions that spur them to commit horrific attacks. Ignoring the problem only worsens it, like ignoring a disease in the body. “Joker” demands that its audience face it's difficult themes in order to understand and address them.
“Joker” also achieves an artistic grace unlike other superhero films. Light, as a medium, is used to engross and enchant. Fleck’s world appears gray except for when his Joker persona surfaces, allowing him to literally show his “true colors.” The fluorescent lights flashing in the subway car as it races through the dark tunnels are intense as Fleck, in his clown costume, shoots at the three men. The light of an ambulance casts a red glow on Fleck’s bloodied face as he rises to his feet atop a police car for a clown-masked crowd as if on the top of the world. It makes for an apocalyptic scene.
Within the context of the Aurora shooting, the controversy over this film is unsurprising. But the Joker in “Joker” is not so much the DC villain as he is a representation of those on the margins of society.
The monster theory explains Joker’s presence as a warning. While he is no Frankenstein or Dracula, Joker is still a monster, not because his makeup can scare people, but because he is the manifestation of the ills of society, which scares people.
“It really started as an experiment,” said Phillips in an interview with NPR. “Maybe you could get one of those deep-dive character study movies done nowadays in the studio system if you disguise it as a comic book film.”
The Joker’s origin story is a platform to expose a message to audiences that might not otherwise see a movie advertising a mentally ill man on the brink. Political messages about socioeconomic inequality do not feel overpowering between the spectral music, dancing and lighting that really made the film into a piece of art.
Joker is by no means a traditional superhero movie, but that is the beauty of it.