By Cassandra Vega (‘20) and Priyanka Sarkhel (‘20)
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
“Why are you watching Joker?” a man asked us as we walked into the theater. We answered and asked him the same question.
“Oh, me?” he replied with a glaze in his eyes and a wild grin, “I’m just a psychopath and I wanted to see another like us on screen.”
This encounter really happened to us and, in many ways, exemplifies the strangeness surrounding this film.
The Joker film has had its fair share of controversy, though many have praised the film and its starpower, speculating possible Oscars in its future. The main concern the general public has regards the main character and his behavior as a straight white male who resorts to violence to get his way, which many felt would inspire more “incels” and mass shootings.
Though there is no doubt the social implications of the film are aplenty, the focus here is solely about the movie and the main character, DC supervillain Joker.
Since his inception in Batman #1 in 1940, the Joker has been synonymous with insanity and terror. His backstory has been told countless times, in comics, cartoons, television shows and movies, though what adds to his lore is the fact he is an untrustworthy narrator, meaning any and all of his origin stories could be lies.
Most comic fans accept The Killing Joke backstory: A man is trying to provide for himself and his pregnant wife as a stand-up comedian before he is talked into robbing a chemical plant with the mob to make some extra money. Right before the heist goes off, his wife and the baby die and he is forced to go through with the crime. Batman attempts to stop the robbery and goes after the man, believing him to be the leader as he is wearing a red hood. The man falls over a railing in the plant and despite Batman’s effort to save him, he falls into a vat of chemicals and becomes the Joker.
In the film however, the origin story of The Joker is skewed. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) lives at home with his mother in Gotham City and suffers from a condition that results in laughter whenever a situation occurs that would normally warrant sadness, fear, anger or disappointment. He works as a party clown because of his love for comedy, and he dreams of becoming a stand up comedian.
Fleck has no chemical plant run-ins, nor does Batman even exist in this reality (yet), though Fleck does meet a young Bruce Wayne and his parents. It is unknown if Fleck ever finds out about the murder of the Wayne parents, though the murder is beautifully similar to the comic book version, complete with Martha Wayne’s pearls scattered across a rundown alleyway.
What makes the film adaptation unique in its own respect are the performance of Joaquin Phoenix, who portrays Joker in a haunting, complex manner, and the underlying themes of the decrease in mental health funding in welfare programs and the divide between socioeconomic classes.
Fleck, who has dealt with physical, mental, and emotional abuse all of his life, suffers from a number of mental illnesses both because of his experiences with abuse and because of his mother, Penny Fleck’s (Frances Conroy), history of mental illness as well.
Along with dealing with poverty and the frailty of his mother, Fleck is constantly subjected to teasing and bullying not only from coworkers who find him ‘strange’ and ‘weird,’ but from neighborhood kids who beat him mercilessly in alleys. His therapists, provided to him by welfare programs, are lackluster and uninterested. Even less helpful is the discontinuation of the program itself, which leaves Fleck vulnerable and unable to afford a doctor who could prescribe him medication.
“The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T,” writes Fleck in his journal in a messy, childlike scrawl.
The overall dark, rundown atmosphere of Gotham City complements the mental state of Arthur Fleck all throughout the movie. It also heavily contrasts the privilege of the wealthy, which is demonstrated by Robert De Niro’s character, late night show host Murray Franklin, who Fleck admires in his own pursuit in comedy.
The presence of De Niro is also significant because of the movie’s parallels with his old film, The King of Comedy, with a similar plot of a failed comedian and his obsession with a late night talk show host.
The contrast between the haves and have-nots in both films has been a constant theme in 2019, from movies like Us and Hustlers, though they are all different genres and targeting different audiences.
Joker has taken audiences by storm, dividing the people and their willingness to accept the horrors of the human psyche, specifically those of the consistently alienated.