‘Joker’ Is No Laughing Matter

 by Conall Sahler ’20

“Joker,” Todd Phillips’ 2019 alternative take on DC’s most popular villain, is tracking a lot of reactions and opinions. The movie follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally ill man who is neglected and beaten down by society until he feels there is no other choice but to turn to violence and murder. This premise has caused an uproar of controversy from many sides; the most prominent voices though, are claiming that the movie is dangerous in characterizing a mass murderer as the protagonist.

In 2012 during a showing of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, Colorado, 25 year old James Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 others. Families from this tragedy have recently spoken out about Phillips’ new film. “I don’t need to see a picture of [Holmes]; I just need to see a ‘Joker’ promo and I see a picture of the killer … My worry is that one person who may be out there … who is on the edge, who is wanting to be a mass shooter, may be encouraged by this movie. And that terrifies me,” stated Sandy Phillips, the mother of a victim murdered in the tragedy, to the Hollywood Reporter.

In response to such criticism, director Phillips in an interview with the Associated Press stated, “It’s a fictional character in a fictional world that’s been around for 80 years. The one that bugs me more is … when you go, ‘Oh, I just saw John Wick’. He’s a white male who kills 300 people and everybody’s laughing and hooting and hollering. Why does this movie get held to different standards? It honestly doesn’t make sense to me.”

The studio that produced the film also issued an official statement, “Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

Many film critics have used their platforms to speak out about the film and its depiction of violence and mental illness. One such critic, YouTuber Chris Stuckman, recently posted a review in which he stated: “In films past, as you know, whenever that character [The Joker] was involved in the movie Batman was also there so there is a sort of good and evil presence. Now we are just focused on this person and at first I was a little adverse to that … You do feel sympathy for him because you understand how bad his life has been, and that could be dangerous. But Joaquin Phoenix [ Arthur Fleck] and his performance tread that line very beautifully. Even when you feel bad for him you begin to see this brewing darkness behind his eyes and you no longer feel bad for him. It’s a very realistic and probable portrayal about how somebody might become like the Joker.”

Stuckman notes the dangers of portraying a villain as the main “protagonist” but admits that the film is very important in that it does not make Arthur Fleck a hero. “It makes the audience ask some difficult questions. What role do we play in creating the Joker? Are we a part of that system? Is there a way we have caused this without even pulling the trigger? The fact that a comic book film is asking harsh questions like this is really great. Most importantly it is starting a conversation.”