I grew up watching Cesar Romero’s portrayal of Joker on reruns
of the 1960s Batman series starring Adam West. If you’ve seen a Batman
movie in the past 40 years, however, you know that the franchise has gotten
progressively darker and grittier. Even by the time that Jack Nicholson portrayed
Joker in the 1989 Batman movie, the character had morphed from a campy “Clown
Prince of Crime” to a psychopathic killer. Fast-forward another 30 years
through Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the character and you can imagine where
Joaquin Phoenix takes him.
[WARNING: Stop here to avoid spoilers.]
Joker is an origin movie that purports to explain how
the killer clown came to be. The movie is more of a psychological thriller than
a typical comic book movie. Frankly, it was not what I expected at all. If you
want to take your kids, you can take some comfort in the fact that there is
less graphic violence and profanity than in many R-rated films, which is not to
say that there is none. There is also no graphic sex and only brief nudity,
which is not sexy at all. That does not mean that the film is suitable for
The story centers around, Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix,
a sad sack who works as a clown. Fleck lives with his mother in a tenement in a
1960s/70s version of Gotham City. The movie revolves around Fleck’s descent
into madness and violence.
While there have been some attempts to tie Joker to
one political side or the other, the feeling that I had as I watched it was
that its main relevance to the news cycle was in its depiction of how mental
illness can lead to mass murder, a theme that we have become all too familiar with
in recent years. Fleck exhibits many warning signs and is actually on police
radar, but, for much of the movie, law enforcement stays a step behind. Fleck
attempts to hold on to his sanity but others view him as a freak and their
harassment pushes him deeper into his fantasy world.
There are political ideas in the film, however. A recurring theme
is the anti-rich movement that Fleck sparks, which might be compared to Antifa
riots but could also be representative of any number of violent episodes. Another
scene with political connotations is when a social worker tells Fleck that
funding for his appointments and medications has been cut.
“They don’t care about you,” she tells him. This could be
taken as either a conservative anti-bureaucratic statement or a liberal
statement about conservatives cutting social programs.
Interestingly, the film undercuts the push for gun laws. Rather
than buying a gun, the murder weapon literally drops into Fleck’s lap. No gun
law would have prevented his later actions.
While the film does not feature Batman, there are numerous
Easter eggs that involve the Wayne family. I won’t spoil those, but I will
point out one obscure reference that I only realized as I was writing this.
Fleck performs his stand-up routine at a comedy club called “Pogo’s.” This seems
to be a reference to serial killer John Wayne Gacy who performed as Pogo the
Clown at children’s birthday parties.
There is one notable omission to the origin story and that involves
the idea from comic books and previous Batman movies that the Joker wears no
makeup. Previous Joker origins have included details of how he fell into a vat
of chemicals, bleaching his skin to the clownish white. This aspect of the Joker
origin is absent from the new movie.
I can’t really say that Joker is a good movie, but it was interesting. Frankly, it’s also a depressing movie. Fleck is a pathetic man whose destiny might have been changed if he had experienced a little more human kindness, both as a child and adult. One acquaintance is spared on the grounds that “you were the only one who was ever nice to me.”
Fleck would have also benefitted from involuntary commitment
laws. The sad truth of modern society is that mental illness often goes unrecognized
and untreated. Although mental illness does not always lead to murder, there
are plenty of recent examples in which the results of untreated mental illness
have been tragic. Although I’m a small-government conservative, government (especially
at the state and local levels) does have a role to play in identifying and
treating people who present a mortal danger to the public. I’m all for individual
rights, but it is not in society’s best interests to allow potentially homicidal
mental patients to remain untreated, unconfined, and armed
In the end, Joker is something of a cautionary tale. Modern
life can lead people to be isolated even in the midst of a metropolis (yes, I know the Metropolis is Superman’s town, not Batman’s) and when people are
isolated and alone, depression, despair, and mental illness can take root. A
lesson from the movie is that we should not push people further into isolation
by bullying the weird kid or mocking the lonely guy who lives down the street.
A friendly gesture can go a long way.
But sometimes friendly gestures are not enough. If someone
displays warning signs (learn
more about what to look for here), report them to the appropriate
authorities so that they can get the help that they need. The life you save may
be your own.