Joker: What you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash

By Celia Hameury

“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” This simple question posed in the film Joker sums it up pretty well. Indeed, the latest film adaptation of the famous Gotham villain Joker’s backstory takes a dark turn dealing with mental illness and societal injustices. Conceived in 2016,  Joker was only filmed in 2018 and was released in the United States on October 4th 2019. The psychological thriller was written and directed by Todd Phillips, who interestingly is best known for writing and directing comedies such as the Hangover series. Joker was further filmed by the comedy cinematographer Lawrence Sher, frequent collaborator of Todd Phillips.


Joker tells the story of amateur comedian Arthur Fleck, living with his mother Penny Fleck (played by Frances Conroy) in a tiny apartment in Gotham city. Fleck lives a simple life, working as a party clown, but visits to a state mandated therapist hint to his tumultuous past and continued struggle with mental illness. Fleck’s life starts to go downhill, however after he is bullied and beaten by a gang of boys in the street. Fleck is fired from his job shortly after and begins to fall into depression. When he is attacked a second time while riding the subway, Fleck pulls a gun and accidentally kills both his attackers. The killings attract attention, as the victims are revealed to be young men of rich families. The fact that the murderer was wearing a clown mask when he committed the crimes further peaks the imagination of the public. Tensions in Gotham begin to rise as the poor see the boys’ deaths as an act of rebellion against the rich leaders of the city who are doing little to diminish the major disparity between economic classes. The rebels wear clown masks to show their support for the killer who they believe to be a bringer of justice. Fleck further gains attention for a failed stand-up comedy routine which he performs in an attempt to make his comedian dreams come true. Fleck’s depression deepens, causing him to become violent and suicidal. When he is invited to appear on his favourite talk show, Fleck prepares to broadcast his misery on live television and shoot himself in the head. He dresses in the symbolic clown mask and now famous red suit, but instead of killing himself during the interview, he proceeds to murder the show’s host Murray Franklin, portrayed by Robert de Niro. Fleck, who has now become the Joker, is removed from the building by the police, where he is greeted by violent rebels who are causing chaos in the streets. The film ends with Fleck dancing on the hood of the burning police car, before being caught once more and locked up in Arkham Asylum.


Joker is filmed in a unique manner, that makes use of many long, intense close shots. This helps emphasize the protagonist’s perspective. But the Joker is far from a reliable narrator. In many instances, viewers are left wondering if certain events really occurred, or whether they were entirely a figment of the Joker’s insane imagination. This is namely the case with his brief relationship with his neighbour Sophie, played by Zazie Beetz. The relationship ends abruptly when the Joker enters Sophie’s apartment uninvited and is begged to leave. The scene is troubling because Sophie appears to have no recollection of who the Joker is, beyond recognizing him as her neighbour. She acts as though no other relationship ever existed between them, leading viewers to question what they thought they knew about the Joker’s love life. Other similar events occur throughout the film. Some fans even suggest that the entire film may have been a figment of the Joker’s overactive imagination while he was locked up in Arkham Asylum, a theory supported by the fact that the Joker’s past in Arkham is briefly alluded to and never again brought up, and by the clocks which appear throughout the film, always displaying the same time. The Joker’s perspective is further tainted by his sensationalism. This is accentuated by the powerful and dramatic soundtrack, composed mainly by the icelandic cellist Hilur Guonadottir, known for her music in Arrival, Prisoner, and Chernobyl. The movie also heavily features Frank Sinatra’s “That’s Life”, a song which embodies the Joker’s twisted cynicism about society and his overall misery, while retaining a disturbingly upbeat tune. This song accentuates the sensationalist showman side of the Joker, which is fully unleashed at the very end when he is seen dancing on the hood of a car, dressed in his ubiquitous red suit and full Joker clown makeup.


With Joker, Joaquin Phoenix joins the list of actors to have played Gotham’s most iconic villain. But this new take on the infamous character differs significantly from the original Joker, created by DC comics in 1940. In the Gold age, the Joker was a criminal mastermind with a warped, sadistic sense of humor. He evolved into a goofy prankster in the Silver age (1950’s), in response to the regulations dictated by the Comics Code Authority. By the late 70’s, he had returned to his darker roots as a remorseless serial killer. This Bronze age Joker was further revealed to be legally insane, explaining his incarceration in Arkham Asylum. The modern 90’s Joker’s backstory was again revised, as he became a failed comedian who committed crime to support his pregnant wife. Around the same time, he also gained a side-kick, Harley Quinn, who was his physiatrist while in Arkham Asylum and later his lover. The Joaquin Phoenix version of the Joker most resembles the Bronze age Joker, who went insane because of “one bad day”. Elements from the more modern failed comedian Joker were also incorporated into Phoenix’ character. But where Phoenix’ character really differs from the traditional Joker is in his criminal activity. While the Joker’s backstory and personality have changed many times since the 40s, the character has always been a murderous villain, with evil intent. Phoenix’ character is much more complex; he appears to have been pushed to violence and murder by societal neglect, loneliness, and insanity. His criminal actions are vengeful and impulsive rather than cold-blooded and deliberate.


This version of the Joker also differs significantly from previous film adaptations of the character. Indeed, the first time the Joker appeared on screen, he was portrayed by Cesar Romero in Batman: The Movie, which came out in 1966. Romero’s Joker was goofy and childlike with a boyish charm. This was very unlike Phoenix’ character who, despite being showy and slightly childlike, had little charm. Jack Nicolson’s Joker, who appeared in Tim Burton’s 1988 film Batman was significantly darker than Romero’s, yet equally showy. Famous for playing villains, Nicolson lent his character a dark charisma. Phoenix retained his sensationalism but failed to match his evil allure. Probably the most iconic portrayal of the Joker was of course that of Heath Ledger, in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Ledger’s Joker was a deranged character who had no other motive besides the desire to ruin society, finding amusement in the chaos he created. While Phoenix’ Joker was easily as insane and remorseless as Ledger’s, his lacked the confidence and chaotic intentions that Heath Ledger brought. Jared Leto was the last actor to play the Joker before Phoenix, portraying the character as an edgy tattooed gangster in the DC supervillain film Suicide Squad. Leto’s Joker is probably the furthest from Phoenix’, as Phoenix’ Joker is neither edgy nor a gangster in any way. The various versions of the Joker illustrate how the character has grown over the years. Each version has been altered to best represent the things that frighten the society that created him. Phoenix’ most modern Joker embodies the fears of neglect, loneliness, and insignificance that currently plague society.


Despite being the origin story of one of DC comics’ most famous villains, Joker is, at its heart, a character study, which deals with multiple complex themes including social and economic rifts, depression, and mental illness. Fleck may be a villain, but as the protagonist of the film, he is the character with whom the audience is supposed to relate. This allows the viewers to gain a new perspective on villains, both fictional and real, suggesting that society may have a role to play in their creation. Fleck claims that he became Joker because society abandoned him and treated him like trash. Such insinuations lead viewers to reflect on their treatment of others and the consequences of their behaviour. Joker also brings forth the issues of economic disparities between rich and poor, and unjust leadership. Indeed, the murderous Joker character quickly becomes a mascot for the underprivileged. Those rebelling against the wealthy leaders of Gotham embrace the violence of the Joker and rejoice in the deaths of his two victims. This makes viewers wonder about how far rebels will go to further their cause and what is acceptable behaviour for rebellious groups.


Finally, despite being a powerful and compelling film which introduces a gritty dose of reality to the usually cheerful superhero genre, Joker has not been without its own issues. Speculations as to whether such a violent film may inspire violence in viewers have been at the heart of these controversies. Whether Joker celebrates crime and insanity is also a matter of much discussion, particularly since the Bronx steps where the Joker performs his triumphant dance at the end of the film has become a tourist attraction. In conclusion, Joker differs greatly from most other DC films, because beyond merely entertaining, it sparks debate and provokes questions in its viewers, making it a truly meaningful work of cinema.