The Source of Evil: Psychosis
Joker is a beautiful mess. The audience may be conflicted between pity and anti-hero idolization, but the film guides them to see crime as motivated by mental illness rather than economic distress. The character, the Joker, represents a manifestation of evil brought about by psychosis. For a significant corporatized film, it explores exciting ideas but does not quite tap the pulse of an anarchic vein in a culturally fulfilling manner.
Joker is not an ordinary Superhero movie
Opening with a background radio describing the horror and economic distress in Gotham, Joker has subtle economic rebellion ideas placed throughout that connect with the real world. It feels real and not all that fanciful. The setting and environment beautifully paint Gotham as a horrid and vile place for stratified people. It is invigorating to see visual set-pieces contrast the usual Batman aesthetic — Bruce Wayne never rode a Gotham subway or sought help from a Social Welfare center.
However, Arthur Fleck’s economic situation gradually deteriorates at the hands of the corporate and political elite, yet this is not the primary motivation behind his actions. Major narrative devices still orient around mental illness in a destabilizing way. A character with a more rational outlook and motivations becomes an empathetic bridge between the audience and the anti-hero, but Joker chose a different direction. I threw up my arms in disappointment when hallucinations and delusions vanquish Arthur Fleck’s most human connection. As a result, the audience has no way to see him as anything but a dangerous, disturbing psychotic individual with no functional place in society. Boring. That movie already exists (Taxi Driver, American Psycho, Clockwork Orange). My case, here, is that steering away from the tone of systemic rebellion and towards individualized psychosis damages the film’s cultural impact and reinforces mental health stigmas.
Mental illness motives
Scapegoating mental illness weakens the beauty of anti-heroes — the connection that each audience member feels on some uncontrollable, impulsive level. We try to reject feeling hopeful for Walter White’s escape (Breaking Bad) or feel regretfully charmed by Deadpool’s charisma and attitude. This impulsive empathy does not happen much with Arthur Fleck in Joker, and if it does, then the movie is sure to shame us for these feelings.
Fair warning: If you laugh when Joker laughs, then you look like a psychopath, and everyone will look at you as if you just laughed at infanticide.
Perhaps, if the ideas of environmental stress and mental illness were linked more causally, then there could be more empathy for the character rather than sheer pity. Nearly every audience member sacrifices mental health, relationships, and other critically functioning components of identity for work and more favorable participation in the marketplace machine. However, instead, the narrative twists Arthur Fleck away from these ideas and towards more individualized motivations. Most audience members may struggle to identify with trauma, neuroses, mental health, and neurogenic, especially when it motivates violence.
Joker punches down when it should punch the ruling class
It’s fine by me to tell a story which screams: “Eat, kill the rich.” At least it’d be a fresh position. How often are films made which glorify wealthy materialism or their inherent narcissistic god complex (Basically Batman in a nutshell)? Why can’t the Joker be born from societal and economic dysfunction instead of an exaggerated alienating mental illness? Since, when is the latter more of an empathetic bridge than realizing your world is run by callous, greedy narcissists?
The cynical side of me believes the scapegoating shows that the message is clearly co-opted by corporate motivations designed to steer the viewer away from ideas of systematic rebellion. The basic idea is clear: you’re crazy if you are not part of the system — which is working fine for the hardworking citizens who white-knuckle the steering wheel — and those who lead this countercharge are ruthless psychotics.
Look. It’s a Warner Brothers movie, so I should not be surprised that it takes a road away from the more culturally rebellious, relevant ideas. Billionaire Thomas Wayne’s head doesn’t end up at the end of a pike, so I was destined to be disappointed. Regardless of its narrative choices, the film is stunning and transcends the stale, comic book movie genre. It is likely just one step along the developmental path of media touchstones exploring the Shadow and the origins of counter system movements. I just worry that it brilliantly articulates new ideas but with a direction that is dismissive of mental illnesses by reinforcing a negative stigma.
Systems of Empathy and Compassion
Joaquin’s performance evolves slowly from a man pretending to be reasonable in an increasingly dysfunctional environment to eventually full-blown, animalistic physicality. He may not reach the horror and brutality of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but this film expands upon Batman canon, so Ledger’s character is more progressed along that path of destruction than the Joker in this film. His act follows a resistant deterioration, from start to finish, and brilliantly shows a man who’s begging the world for a sign that it cares about him.
Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for Best Actor at the 2020 Academy Awards for his performance as Arthur Fleck and Joker in the film. He accepted the award with a very memorable speech imparting a simple, unifying idea:
“I think we fear the idea of personal change, because we think we have to sacrifice something, to give something up. But human beings at our best are so inventive and creative and ingenious. And I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.
The systems of change guided by love and compassion did not exist in Gotham. Nor did Arthur Fleck receive an ounce of sympathy for the type of illness or mental disturbance he endured. While Joaquin’s performance is beautifully fragile and begs empathy, the narrative uses mental illness as the ultimate culprit, instead of the systemic failure of a fragile man. The shadow form of his personality, Joker, becomes dominant because his environment never provides a pathway to healing through community and ritual. His rise is a foreboding lesson of the dangerous products produced by a society without systems of compassion or empathy.