Joker just came out and it’s already raking in money and breaking records (like grossing the highest October opening weekend of all time).
A lot of people are getting burnt out on the superhero film industry, myself included. With Marvel pumping out three or four movies a year, DC doing their best to keep pace, and every streaming network trying to get their own piece of the pie, the genre has become bloated to the point where watching a new superhero film seems as bland as the latest episode in a long running sitcom. Not bad per-say, just not as exciting as it once was. I was aware that they were making a stand-alone Joker film and that Juaquin Pheonix was playing the titular lead when I went into the theater, but that’s it. I assumed it would probably use most of its time tying a series of car chases and explosions together with a weak plot…
…and if that was what I got, I wouldn’t be writing this.
In fact, Joker is a two and a half hour long character study. Action scenes are sparse and most of its attention is spent on the little transitory moments that happen between scenes, delving into the emotional impact of events that most comic book movies simply glaze over.
It addresses two very sensitive topics in particular, mental health and American wealth inequality.
Without getting too deep into spoiler territory, I’d like to talk about how it explores a very realistic depiction of Arthur Fleck (The Joker) as a man suffering from serious mental illness. He has a condition where he laughs uncontrollably in moments of extreme nervousness or anxiety, much like certain kinds of Tourette’s Syndrome. It isn’t comical at all. In fact, he frequently weeps while trying to forcibly suppress the bouts of laughter, embarrassed by his condition and his inability to control it.
The depiction of the condition itself is really powerful, but what’s even more interesting is the way it affects those around him. People move away from him in public places, they taunt him or else provoke him with violence. Even his coworkers who know about his condition are unsettled by him.
His extreme depression worsens as he is continuously mocked, avoided and abused. This approach does a good job of showing the audience that Arthur’s mental illness isn’t what pushed him to violence, but the way he was treated for being mentally ill was certainly a contributing factor. This is an important distinction.
It isn’t quite as sensitive to the issue as I would like, but the film has given a lot more time and thought to the subject matter than I ever would have imagined given the source material.
Wealth inequality seems to play a similar role in the story, as Arthur is forced to live in squalid conditions, tending to his feeble mother while neither of them are receiving adequate health care. The film makes an obvious commentary on how people like this are all-too-often swept under the rug and the consequences of treating them this way. Thomas Wayne (Batman’s father) plays the counterpoint to this, a disinterested billionaire who has several opportunities to help people like Arthur and instead chooses to spend his evenings in the theater like a classical aristocrat.
I would love to talk about a lot of the finer points of specific plot events, but the film is still new and I’d hate to spoil anything for someone who wanted to go in with a fresh slate.
I will say that the film takes its time. Arthur is a very sympathetic character at the beginning and there’s never a point where he “just snaps” like so many other villains do. His descent into darkness is a slow, winding path and we, as viewers, are along for each and every step of it. This does something amazing. It makes The Joker feel like a real person. Not a dark and malevolent force of chaos or a cartoon character with a pension for gags, but a real life human being who’s own weaknesses and circumstances led him here.
I have a lot of praise for this movie. I haven’t even touched the brilliantly eerie cinematography, the use of vibrant colors, juxtaposed violently against grimy and dark settings or Pheonix’s Oscar-worthy performance, but I don’t want to leave you thinking this film is without its flaws.
I meant it when I said it takes it’s time. The scenes move slowly from one trauma to the next, but while that does wonders for character development, it can make the pacing feel like a grind. Especially since so many of the scenes are uncomfortable by design.
I mentioned earlier that it doesn’t depict mental illness as well as I’d like. That’s true. While it does a much better job than any other super hero movie I’ve seen, bringing the viewer in close to the complex social prejudices that people with mental health disorders experience every day, that isn’t a high bar. Making mental illness into a character trait of villainy will always be problematic. In fact, this movie might do more to hurt people suffering from these illnesses than it does to help. I worry that by making the conditions afflicting the character more realistic, the movie is treading a dangerous line in terms of representation.
The third thing I’d like to bring up isn’t so much a criticism as it is a warning to potential viewers. This movie is GRAPHIC. Most of the scenes are uncomfortable and some are disturbingly violent, made all the more difficult to watch by how connected we feel to Arthur as a character. I don’t think the use of violence is gratuitous. It always feels like it is serving a purpose in the story, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch. It might be especially difficult for people struggling with depression of their own, so please watch with caution.
Aside from that, I want to give the movie a thumbs-up. I just hope that the take away most of you get from it is that systemic mistreatment leads to violence, not that the poor and mentally ill are inherently violent and so mistreating them is justified. I also hope those of you who weren’t dissuaded by my earlier comments will give it a shot and let me know what you think.
Thanks for reading,