Why Todd Phillips' Joker Makes You Both Smile and Frown
If you walk into Todd Phillips’ “Joker” thinking, “Batman, Heath Ledger, explosions, and daring stunts”, all rolled into a politically correct burrito of your helping (hold the sour cream), then you may become disillusioned; and in fact, choose to exit the film. If Michael Keaton was somewhere deep in your mind; well, my condolences. The film by no means creates a glorified utopia in which Tony Stark (or Superman for all you DC fans), flies down to save the day. Instead, Todd Phillips creates a story in which the fiction becomes non-fiction.
Due to the success of many experimental superhero films such as Deadpool (an R rated comedy) and Logan (an R rated Western), superhero films are no longer coasting within the norms of society. Traditionally speaking, in order to be a hero, you needed to look like a hero. You know, kind of like how cops look today. Well, not anymore; and the word “hero” tends to be defined by whoever is controlling the narrative. With the recent controversy regarding gun control, as well as America’s attitude toward mental health, no longer must you look or act “clean” to inspire change. Change comes in all forms; positive, negative – and if you walk into the film understanding that this will not be an Avengers movie (sorry Disney, leave your kids at home) and that large popcorn and soft drink just cost you $23.50, then you are treated to a dark (and rather disturbing) character study, that perhaps describes more individuals that we know of rather than not.
We are first intimately introduced to Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) and his psyche in a rather revealing scene in which Fleck is at work and stares at himself whilst looking at a mirror. As he does this, he puts on clown makeup and makes two gestures with his hands. The first time, he forces his mouth to make a sad face and the second time, he makes a happy one. But if you pay close attention to the second time he does this, his right eye forms a tear. This provides an insightful glimpse into the intense duality that Fleck experiences when trying to feel authentic happiness, yet having to constantly force a smile via his makeup. This moment establishes a key theme within the film: smiling; and to a further extent, comedy (and the tragedy that encourages it).
Joaquin Phoenix does a phenomenal job at delivering a deep character study of understanding perhaps how a broken man could fuse confidence with terror; and how his violence, albeit, sporadic and shocking, could possibly be justified. Throughout the film, Fleck is ridiculed for having a mental illness that forces him to have extreme fits of uncontrollable laughter during high stress situations. In his journal he writes, “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” One can assume this is the turning point that solidifies the justification for Fleck’s transformation into the Joker that smiles at violence. In fact, often times when someone is said to be eccentric or abstract, they are known to be “marching to their own beat”. More times than not, Fleck engages in a dance as if it's the 1920’s, and he’s in a beautifully lit ballroom, filled with all those that respect him. It’s as if during the entire film, throughout all the degradation and societal decline, Fleck is waiting for an applause – waiting for a “Good job, you’ve made it this far despite all the hardships life throws at you.” In reality, Fleck craves approval, and when he is denied this courtesy (especially from his beautiful neighbor who is a single mother played by Zazie Beetz), the film forces us to pick a side and see the rise and/or fall (depending on your social perspectives) of a mentally ill man who, at the end of the day, was tired of being bullied and decided to do something about it.
But does the film succeed in creating empathy for the broken? Whether you agree or disagree with all the violence (like who hasn’t seen a Tarantino film), one thing that is certain, is that the film does not shy away from exploring the power of how violence can quickly dilute (or enhance) any ideology. And how that very same violence was interpreted into an ideology that became the foundation for a new era in Gotham; an era in which the rich are confidently challenged by the poor. They are confidently challenged by a class of citizens who have newfound solidarity in the anarchy that the Joker has created.
Written by Matt Koger