Screenshot taken from Official Trailer
Rating: 5/5 stars
SPOILER ALERT: This article contains mild spoilers.
Joker, directed by Todd Philips and starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, is a film that is polarizing critics and moviegoers around the world. Some are acclaiming the masterful performance of Phoenix in his iteration of Batman’s arch-rival, while others are attacking what they perceive as the film’s glorification of violence and the condoning of the psychopathic murderer.
Upon watching Joker this week, I saw it as a film that is a lot deeper and more complex than what the critics have expressed. This version of the Joker’s story is one that speaks into how divisive our society is, examines the dark hold that depression has on people, as well as pointing to the emptiness and meaninglessness of life that many of us feel. It is a cautionary tale about the villains our society can create when love, empathy for others, and truth are thrown to the wayside.
What Joker Is About
On a basic level, Joker is an origin story for the most famous villain in the DC Comic universe, Arthur Fleck/the Joker. There have been many on-screen versions of the iconic villain, with Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight attracting much attention.
However, this is the first time that the Joker has not shared screen time with Batman, and writers Todd Philips and Scott Silver took the opportunity to create a character study of his life—showing us how a mentally ill person like Arthur can turn into a murderous criminal mastermind like the Joker.
There are three stages that I observed to Arthur’s mad decline into becoming the Joker, with each stage surfacing questions that speak to us today.
1. Are we guilty of creating villains?
One of the key themes of the film is the divisions that have formed in our world and the way that we tend to vilify those whom we do not understand. In Arthur Fleck’s case, the film shows him trying to make ends meet by dressing up as a clown while he works on his dream of being a stand-up comedian. He struggles with mental illness, most likely brought on by the abuse he had as a child, and his humor is not appreciated in the comedy clubs he visits.
Several times throughout the film, he is severely bullied, both verbally and physically, by different people from various strata of society, starting with a gang of kids to a trio of young professionals to a late night show host played by Robert de Niro. Each episode of bullying drives him further over the edge.
In Arthur’s case, this leads him to violence, a story that is not uncommon in the slew of gun violence and mass shootings that fills up our news feeds on social media. The film throws the challenge back at its audience and makes us question what part we have to play in the creation of real-world villains. Has our lack of empathy and understanding of those who are different from us perpetuated a cycle of bullying and violence? Or, are we like the citizens of Gotham City who pass by or tried to ignore the bullying happening around us?
For me as a follower of Jesus, have I failed in showing love to people I don’t understand and let them know that they are loved and valued? If there was someone like that in Arthur’s life, is it possible that he may not have become the Joker?
2. Do we put on a happy face while hiding our struggles?
As a clown and aspiring comedian, Arthur’s desire has been to make people happy, but he admits that he has never been happy a day in his life. He instead “puts on a happy face” to hide the sadness he feels.
Part of his mental illness is a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably even in situations where he does not want to. One of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes sees Arthur at night on his living room coach in his underwear laughing hysterically as tears of heartache flow from his eyes in the midst of all-encompassing depression.
This depiction of depression has challenged me deeply. Although I haven’t personally experienced deep depression, I wonder how many around me are trying to “put on a happy face” while they struggle in private.
Are there people who, like Arthur, want to make people laugh but are crippled by depression when no one is around? What can I do or say to let them know that there is someone willing to walk beside them? Or am I simply too selfish with my time and energy to invest into someone struggling with depression?
3. Is life a tragedy, comedy, or something else?
One of the most memorable quotes in the film takes place while Arthur is transitioning into the Joker villain character. He is speaking with his mother, who also struggles with mental illness. He confesses to her that, “I used to think my life was a tragedy. Now, I realize it is a comedy.” This realization seems to be the final piece that completes Arthur’s transformation into the full-fledged Joker.
This quote is one that speaks particularly into the sentiment of our culture and society today. There is so much bad news and negativity about the future that it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to view our existence as meaningless and purposeless. Just as the Joker used to think, the story of our existence could be seen as a tragedy. On the other hand, it might be easier to see our existence like the Joker does, as a comedy, where everything including death, destruction, and chaos is something to laugh at.
If only Arthur could have seen that there was another way to view our existence. Not as a tragedy or comedy. But as a romance. A love story between us and our Heavenly Father. In Joker, it is clear that Arthur Fleck, like all of us, is trying to be understood, to be valued, to be loved by someone.
A major plot point of the film is Arthur’s discovery of his birth father and his pursuit of understanding why he was abandoned by him. When Arthur meets with the man who could be his birth father, he doesn’t want any money. He just wants a hug. If only Arthur knew of his Heavenly Father, someone who has always been there waiting for him with open arms. Would his story have changed?
While the Joker’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, it doesn’t have to be the same for those around us. Joker is a challenge to us believers to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us in letting the Arthur Flecks of this world know that life isn’t a tragedy or a comedy, but a love story—and to invite them into it.
Editor’s Note: To read a different perspective on Joker, check out this review, “Joker: Good News for the Outcasts, Losers, and Freaks?”.