A Spoiler Warning is in effect throughout this whole article, I want to do a deep-dive as best as I can, and it can’t be done without discussing some huge plot points.
Todd Phillips’ Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man trying to be happy in the 1980’s at a time when the world doesn’t care about him or anyone like him. He’s beaten down just far enough, that during the events of the film we get to watch him break. Combining elements of the Killing Joke with a subtle hint of the Court of Owls (like, a tiny hint, really small) and creating a version of the Joker that we can really empathise with… a little too much.
One Bad Day
I think it fairest to describe this Joker as most like that of the Dark Knight, not aesthetically, but in terms of philosophy. If you’re familiar with the Killing Joke comic story, then you’ll be moderately familiar with elements of the film’s narrative, most notably the failing efforts of our protagonist’s stand-up career, the impoverished home life, and the transformative experiences that lead him to donning greasepaint and a revolver, but instead of a vat of chemicals and getting entangled with a criminal enterprise, our version of Arthur Fleck goes through his own, unique ordeal. One bad day.
I’ll address the film’s portrayal of mental health later, but in short Arthur is already suffering some serious lapses in judgement. He was raised in an abusive environment by a delusional and – by the time of the events of Joker – overbearing mother, has spent time in an asylum, and is about to lose the one therapy program keeping him teetering on the edge of normalcy to “funding cuts”. Yes he’s mentally compromised, but we’re under no illusions that this is a man who is a product of a system, a system that neglects the barest necessities. It’s no mistake that this rendition of Gotham is filled with rubbish bags and infested with rats, and that no inch of wall is visible behind spray paint, or that no lights seem capable of continuous function on public facilities. The city is decaying, and the people are rotting right there with it.
We hear people tell Arthur to “Get some help” and that “There are programs”, I actively winced at that line because so many people I know have been let down by programs that have either been incapable of properly helping anyone, or have been shut down.
In effect, Gotham is a place where a Joker could rise at any moment, and that it takes only the slightest provocation, the slightest pushback, and suddenly the streets are teeming with the dissatisfied and the forgotten. As Arthur learns the painful truths about himself, his adoption, learning the truth about his father only to have all truths snatched away from him, including his mother, he leaves behind all sense of identity and adopts instead the philosophy of outrage, indignation, futility and anarchy. This notion of fundamental chaos, elemental chaos being part of humanity, and being deep within all of us, a primal scream that expresses itself in fire and destruction, is exactly the kind of Joker we fell in love with in 2008.
Replace the “One bad day” idea with the signs and slogans of the clown riots, “We are all clowns”, a phrase said by Thomas Wayne, parroted back to him in outrage by the insurrectionists he has just insulted, the people who he – in theory – would be trying to help as mayor of Gotham, instead he’d be another friend to the rich, set to keep everything comfortably out of balance. The rioters embrace “The Clown”, the carnage, and they too rejoice in the shedding of identity in favour of chaos. Don’t forget that it nearly happened in Britain in 2016.
So, the stairs that form part of Arthur’s daily commute are a pretty on-the-nose visual metaphor, but it’s worth mentioning that all instances of him climbing or descending stairs, indeed any scene of ascension or declension are used to further the metaphor.
When rising the “main” stairs, he is slow, small, hunched over and struggling with every footstep, the scene is unapologetically saturated of colour and darkened, and shot at angles that show the climb as his master, his yoke to bear. Every day he strives for more, every day he reaches upwards to try and break free of his burden, every clawing stretch to maintain normalcy is destroying him. Note that when he flees the subway after his first killing spree, the first thing he does is climb over the last body and up the stairs, a mad scramble away from the carnage of his own creation, fleeing towards normality where he is an innocent man again.
Declension is embracing insanity, a literal descent into madness if you will, most notable in his great, glorious dance down the “main” stairs, the only shot in which he is depicted as bigger and more spectacular than his greatest obstacle. He’s in fullest, most glorious colour, dancing his way downwards with his arms in the air, his burdens far behind him, and the scene ends with him fleeing the police in a mad scramble. We also see this scene in miniature as Arthur leaves his office in the “forgot to punch out” scene, after he’s thrown some damning information casually into the room, smashed a symbol of his oppression, and walks down the stairs, defacing a sign “Don’t
forget to smile!” and into the bright sunlight of freedom.
You’ll see it again in its tiny ways in the elevator in the run-down apartment building, but my favourite incident of the staircase metaphor is neither climbing nor descending, but the moment in the stairwell after stealing his mother’s psych-evaluation file. He stands on a landing, having gone down a few flights, and his entire identity is unravelled in his hands.
We’re All Mad Here
Ok, so mental health is a big theme. and I’d describe it as the most (and I have come to hate this word) problematic element, and it’s not because it has been mistreated.
Let’s start with the basics, Arthur has a condition thanks to his trauma that causes him to laugh when what he wants to do is cry, he’s also not so good at laughing in the first place, seeming to laugh with people rather than laughing at humorous stimuli. It seems almost cliche for the Joker to laugh at tragedy, it’s written fine, but it still feels a little on-the-nose. It’s a real condition, and wonderfully performed that makes this Joker far more painful to behold, but one can’t help but feel that the Joker having that condition seems… I dunno, prescriptivist?
I think perhaps the worst element of this is that we have in Phoenix’s Joker, another villain who’s a dangerously insane person, and that the surface interpretation is that he’s a villain because he is insane, but the underlying point doesn’t take much thought, I think the film is pretty obvious in its intended message; that mental illness becomes insanity when it is not helped, when it is chemically buried, ignored and sidelined, or worse, feared and reviled. Prevent supervillainy: fund therapy.
The mental illness makes our narrator unreliable. He idles in delusions that spill into his reality; we see him fantasize about meeting his hero, and it’s a moment of pure indulgence that tips a little too far into realism, then later we see his fantasies of his beautiful neighbour become his reality, and our reality too! She appears right where he needs her, shares moments of beauty and intensity when he is at his most emotionally unstable, bringing him comfort that we learn later were all fake. It’s a condition he shares with his mother, an investment in a delusion so potent that it has consumed them, and it sets up a finale that… well…
And He Woke Up…
We all know this classic, “it was all a dream”, or a simulation, or otherwise didn’t happen making the entire journey seem fraudulent, ultimately a waste of time. Well, in this case the conclusion strongly suggests that the events of the film were all a glorious and self-congratulating delusion. Of course Arthur didn’t kill his hero on live television, of course he didn’t start a revolution that would burn Gotham to the ground, and of course he’s not the crown prince of crime decades before such a character should exist (theoretically, still not certain on the age gap between Bruce and the Joker canonically).
He’s been in an asylum the whole time, daydreaming of his moment, his glory day, his fifteen minutes of fame. Earlier in the film we hear Arthur’s therapist ask “Why were you in the facility?” and he responds “Who remembers?” and I found myself asking questions myself, was the finale scene flashing back to his time in the asylum, after the events of the film, or did the events even happen? The bloody footprints he leaves behind him seem to imply that maybe…
I’d like to think that it’s a continuation of the premise, that the Joker could be anyone, and it need not be this guy, that this elemental chaos dwells bubbling below the surface, in some of us deeper than others.
And it was at this moment that I found myself thinking that the film was suffering a narcissistic personality disorder as badly as its protagonist, it’s bordering on pseudointellectualism, and I resent reviews that describe films as “too clever for their own good” but when you swing a big hammer at the previous hour and a half and bring it all crashing down, you’d better be certain that the ruins will be sitting on solid foundations. I had to wonder, is Joker trying to do too much, does that conclusion over-egg the proverbial pudding?
My conclusion: not quite, but it got really close. I enjoyed Joker, truly I did, and I have massive respect for this post-comicbook comicbook film, the blending of genres, bringing purpose and intelligence to a genre that’s gotten a lot of criticism for being mindless box-office schlock, but Todd Phillips’ vision may have pushed a step too far in the opposite direction. But I still liked it dammit!
The violence is visceral, not grand and filled with explosions and choreographed fight scenes. It’s low, and dirty, and personal, and infrequent enough that every punch and scream and gunshot is made all the more powerful. Phoenix’s performance is commanding, he fills the screen even when he’s a small part of it, and I’ve barely touched on the dancing, the media obsession, or the myriad of inspirations that built this film. I could write as many articles on this film alone as I have ever done across the MCU.