The Missed Opportunities of 'Joker'

The Joker-Joaquin Phoenix-Publicity Still 7-H 2019
Warner Bros. Pictures
When Batman's most sinister villain becomes the hero of the story, can audiences still believe in the power of transformation for good?

[This story contains spoilers for Joker.]

Americans have been captivated by superheroes since they began appearing in comic books in the 1930s. Across serene blue skies, in the dark of night, their elaborate costumes distinguished these male archetypes as protectors of the innocent. As counter culture swept across the land of the free, a more diverse spectrum of heroes entered the mainstream lexicon. The web-slinging teenager, a formerly incarcerated black man and a Jewish scientist changed the idea of who could be a savior. A greedy government and a failing economy of the late 1970s brought about the prominence of anti-heroes that swept the zeitgeist in the '80s and '90s. Now, in the era of Trump, the villains have become the hero. 

In the final moments of director Todd Phillips' Joker, hands reach out to pull Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) from the wreckage of a crash. Like Jesus removed from the cross, Joker's body is lifted high above the crowd. His supporters dawn their clown masks in homage to their chaotic and murderous liberator. Cheers of celebration erupt as their new leader stands on the wreckage of a destroyed police car. Above the law and reveling in adoration, Arthur has reached the level of a messiah.

Structurally, Joker contains the same major beats of nearly every superhero film. The leading man comes from a loving but tragic beginning. A terrible event turns their world upside down. The hero struggles to fix the issues laid before them, even as a bad guy appears to stop them. The hero rallies, defeats the bad guy, and society decides to exalt or disparage the protagonist. Then, the hero prepares for the next fight. Joker is no different.

Beaten bloody by a group of teens, Arthur nearly loses his job. He receives a gun for protection, but after he brings the weapon to a children's hospital, his boss is finally forced to let him go. The co-worker who gifted him the gun now worries Arthur will tell on him. At the same time, Arthur learns his mother adopted him, and she allowed an ex-boyfriend to abuse him. He snaps and kills the co-worker and his mother, eliminating the evil in his life. Then, he meets his hero, a late-night talk show host named Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). But Murray only wants to embarrass Arthur. So he must be killed, too. In the end, the public loves the violence Arthur has allowed them to witness, violence against the corruption and filth that surrounds them. 

Comics, like all good art, hold up a mirror to society. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but always with the hope of reflecting the unseen reality to the viewer. Phillips uses a dirty funhouse mirror; distorting not just the original intent of the character, but also the reality of the poor, mentally ill and the politics of the day.

Given the current political climate, there are many ways in which placing a villain in the role of hero might have created an interesting conversation about those who pervert their power. The corruption of public office, the threat of a recession and a cold war make for an uneasy landscape for many Americans today, just as they did 40 years ago. Fear of a quickly changing world and an uncertain future divides citizens.

Joker's lukewarm take on politics places Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) in the chair of billionaire-philanthropist turned politician. Considering a run in Gotham's next mayoral race, Thomas appears nightly on television next to Arthur's idol, Murray. Where the host presents warmth and jovial laughs, Thomas represents elitism, a status Arthur could never hope to reach. To make matters worse, Arthur’s mother (Frances Conroy) is obsessed with the beautiful man who used to be her employer, and whom she thinks is her child's father. Every day she writes him a letter, hoping he will uplift her from poverty, but he never responds. As Arthur lives at her bedside and works for her stability, Thomas Wayne becomes an irritant for him. But he's unable to disobey his mother's desire for him to meet the man she believes is his father. When they finally meet, it's after Arthur paid a frightening visit to a young Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson). Thomas cruelly reveals that Penny Fleck lied about their relationship and then beats Arthur up. 

There's an emotional cost for Arthur, learning the one stable parent he's hoped for not only didn't want him, but was also just as cruel as strangers in the street. If Joker is an homage to The King of Comedy — the 1983 Martin Scorsese movie about an aspiring stand-up obsessed with a late-night host — then an analysis of celebrity is demanded in the film. But, the analysis ends at "rich, famous guy is an asshole." Thomas believes Arthur to be dangerous, which isn't an inaccurate conclusion. Thomas' political stances, and how he uses his power, doesn't get enough screen time. He might be against workers' rights, given a non-specific comment on the garbage strike. Thomas Wayne may not be likable, but he's certainly no villain.

News stories littered throughout the Joker storyline detail a trash strike; but neither the plight of the workers on strike, nor the powerful effects of poverty on the average citizen, become realized visually. Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), a struggling single mom, complains about the system and how it keeps her from advancing. But the creativity, sacrifice and joy of motherhood are not part of her character. Nobody experiences joy in this film. Without the contrast of light, the darkness becomes stagnant.  

Emotionally and physically abused his entire life, Arthur desperately needs professional medical help. He's in treatment, but many of the pills end up in his mother's lunch instead of in his system. The reason for splitting the pills isn't entirely clear. At first, it appears as if limited access to good care might mean sharing medication with his mother. Perhaps his mother existing in a delusional state exacerbates Arthur's desire to control her. But if the pills have a powerful effect on her mental state, the audience isn't made privy to it.

The characterization of the mental health system depicts a general apathy of the mostly black faces working in the industry. The program Arthur's currently enrolled in provides him with a social worker (Sharon Washington). Quickly breezing through his journal, she asks Arthur the same questions each time they meet, as if uninterested in actually helping him improve. Ultimately, she tells him that the government has shut the program down due to budget cuts.

Arthur doesn't attempt any additional therapy after that. The roadblocks to him seeking help are glossed over, and therefore an accurate meaning cannot be derived from the text. Begging a single individual for help, however heartbreaking, does not make for a condemnation of the mental health industry. For those who have waged war to advocate for their health, Arthur's journey only explores the first step. Does his insurance not allow him to get any additional help? Was this the last place he sought help or the first? Is Joker an irredeemable bad guy who thrives on chaos, or a man so destroyed by life that he no longer understands right from wrong? 

Unlike The King of Comedy, which utilizes a distinction in setting and editing to highlight the distinction between its main character's fantasies and his reality, Arthur's delusions are not made clear to the viewer. Sophie, for example, might have been a mirage. Wherever she appears, glowing halo lights follow. There's a montage that shows her absent from all of the conversations Arthur had with her in public. Did he ever speak to her, or was he simply fixated on a neighbor? Did she exist at all? Reduced to a mirage that reveals nothing about his character, one wonders why Sophie ever entered the story. 

The love interest in The King of Comedy acted as the dream girl from high school. If Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) had been more confident, he might have won her heart. He now sees a chance to win her back. He does everything he can to impress her, to erase the loser he felt he was in high school. Arthur's wants aren't clear. There were moments where Arthur seemed like an incel, an involuntarily celibate man. But, by placing the story decades before the term existed, and by not openly engaging with Arthur's loneliness, Phillips misses an opportunity to dig into why incels feel unloveable. Instead, he creates a hero for incels. This hero murdered his idol on live TV, and in so doing, launches a new era of extreme violence for Gotham. 

In the end, Joker only seeks chaos in the face of pain. Its hero's triumphs only exist when others suffer. When the audience looks into the mirror of this film, they can only walk away with despair or apathy.