I don’t quite know how to feel or think after seeing JOKER. The latest DC film to come from Warner Bros, JOKER is hardly just another comic book adaptation. It carries heavy, challenging themes and an underlying message up for interpretation. How could it not when the subject matter is about a traumatized, isolated, and disturbed individual who embraces violence and chaos because he feels as though society has beaten and abandoned him? It’s a concept that’s potentially real for some real-life individuals.

In a day and age where we’re constantly in fear of large mass acts of violence, does JOKER’s themes and message run the risk of perpetuating/inspiring those who may feel a kinship to the character on-screen? Does the film want us to root for this troubled man who turns villain, or is it a challenge/warning for our society, wanting us to improve lest we find ourselves facing similar individuals/consequences in the real world? Let’s dive deeper and find out.

Warning: Spoilers to follow…

JOKER’s Motto: One Bad Day(s)

JOKER is essentially a series of unfortunate events befalling an already troubled and disturbed individual. Too many bad days occur and it eventually becomes too much to bear. Failing comedian Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) can’t take it any more and abandons any hope and optimism he was clinging to. Therefore he embraces the darkness of his environment, choosing violence. He sees it as way out. A way for people to finally notice him. A way to be free from his burdens and trauma. Upon making this realization, he says it himself:

“I used to think that my life was a tragedy. But now I realize…it’s a comedy.”

Arthur submits, deciding that if comedy is subjective, then violence and darkness are what’s funny to him. While JOKER isn’t a direct adaptation of any one Joker origin, it’s a similar concept foundation to what we saw in THE KILLING JOKE.

Image from DC Comics

In Joker’s mind, all it takes is one bad day for someone to become just like him. In Arthur Fleck’s case, it’s a series of bad days and moments that push him over the edge.

Do I Look Like The Kinda Guy? An Unlikely Spark

Arthur’s decent into darkness begins on the train, coming from a terrible day at work as a clown. The car is fairly empty save for himself, a woman, and three Wayne Enterprise gentlemen. The rich guys start harassing the woman, but when Arthur starts uncontrollably laughing due to his mental condition, they turn their attention to him. The Wall Street-types start to make fun of him. Arthur loses it when they start beating him, so he pulls out a gun and shoots all three. After rushing away from the scene, Arthur stops in a public bathroom. He revels and relishes in what he’s just done with an almost balletic physical expression.

JOKER
Image from DC/Warner Bros.

Thanks to his clown make-up, Arthur’s identity remains anonymous. Regardless, the public takes a hold of his act with a feverous support. Gotham throws itself into an uproar of anti-rich sentiment, seeing the “Killer Clown” as a hero for killing those who have too much. They hold rallies, wearing clown masks as a symbol of solidarity.

None of this was Arthur’s plan, yet he loves that it’s happening. It’s more attention than he’s ever received in his entire life. It perpetuates his choices later on, and his eventual transformation into Joker. Why wouldn’t he continue to be violent and monstrous? The society that always ignored and abandoned him has finally begun to notice him because of it.

Resistance Becomes Acceptance: JOKER Transformation

Arthur’s whole character is this loner who’s just trying to get by. He does his best to take care of his mother and hold onto his job. He tries to be a stand-up comedian, but fails to due to his laughing condition and quirks. Arthur tries to smile and be cheerful despite his terrible surroundings. When he laughs, he almost chokes on them, trying to hold them back so that he can fit in.

Image from DC/Warner Bros.

That all changes when Arthur finally gives into his violent tendencies, transforming himself into the Joker. He’s more confident, striding into the room. In Joker, for better or for worse (definitely worse), he finds an identity where people listen to him. They notice him. They fear him. He no longer has any remorse or worries. For someone like Arthur Fleck, the Joker personality becomes an escape.

JOKER
Image from DC/Warner Bros.

Send In The Clowns. A Movement is Born

After Fleck makes his debut as the Joker on the Live! With Murray Franklin show, killing the host (Robert De Niro) he once adored, the rallies he previously inspired turn to riots. Fires burn, multiple fights ensue and the masses start wearing clown masks all over the city. Joker rides through it all in a cop car, in custody. He admires the chaos, seeing it all as a beautiful masterpiece.

It doesn’t take long for his new followers to rescue him however. Afterward, he once more does his balletic-like performance on the hood of the car, the crowd cheering and worshiping him. They’ve been spurned on by his actions, letting violence and chaos take hold in order to fight their own feelings of similar disenfranchisement and marginalization.

JOKER is The Architect Of His Own Demise. Birthing of the Bat

What’s interesting is that there is one singular foundation of hope. Poetically, the birth of the Joker results in the birth of the Batman. The clown riots result in the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, leaving young Bruce Wayne an orphan to one day become the Batman.

JOKER
Image from DC/Warner Bros.

The contrast is stark. On the one hand you have Arthur Fleck, who submits and and gives into the darkness of his childhood trauma and negative environment, perpetuating that darkness to become one of the most monstrous villains of all time. On the other: Bruce Wayne. While he too suffers significant childhood trauma and lives in the same negative environment, Bruce chooses to resist that darkness. Instead he uses it as tool to better his society, becoming Gotham’s dark knight and one of the greatest superheroes of all time.

JOKER Is No Protagonist. No One To Root For.

So: Does JOKER present Arthur Fleck as the protagonist of the film? Is he someone the film wants us to root for? Is he sympathetic? I’m pretty confident the answer is no. In essence, JOKER is a film that answers the very joke Joker tells before he shoots Murray Franklin:

“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? Well Murray, you get what you f***ing paid for!”

Arthur Fleck initially has moments where we might pity him. But this is only in the beginning when he’s down on his luck, getting beat up, and still trying to be happy despite his hardships. However, there’s never full-on sympathy as we see more of the choices he makes that lead to ever darker and destructive paths. As a result, the audience are not called to root for Arthur/Joker. We’re called to watch, observe, and be warned.

Furthermore, a big part of his downward spiral into darkness is observed in step with a likewise breakdown of his mental stability. Relationships that might have pulled him out from this descent (like with his mother) aren’t what they appear to be due to new revelations. Also, said relationships lack less substance than we initially perceive them to have had as we’re seeing Arthur’s world through the lens of his own mental stability (or lack thereof) and how he views them.

Final Thoughts on JOKER

While people make our choices as individuals and should be held accountable for those choices, we as a society need to improve ourselves so as not to drive people to those similar regions of violence and darkness. Especially when it comes to those who have mental health obstacles. Near the beginning of the film, we see a piece of Arthur’s writing in his journal:

“The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”

This shouldn’t be the case. We as a society should be more open and accepting to those who have those mental barriers, not ignore their situations, or worse, ignore those people entirely.

JOKER
Image from DC/Warner Bros.

I don’t know. Maybe there’s elements of JOKER I’m not recalling and have neglected to put down. Even so, this I do believe: the knowledge that Batman will later on exist in the film’s world proves that Joker is not the hero of the story. He’s not an inspiring protagonist. He’s meant to be a character study for what can happen when people make bad choices, give in to their darkest and most violent urges/desires, and take it out on a society that didn’t care about them beforehand.

What did you think about JOKER? Have any additional thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!

JOKER is now playing in theaters starring Joaquin Phoenix.

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