‘Joker’: Villainous outcast cloaked under heroic arc

Nathan To, News Editor

With a box office opening weekend of over $96 million, Todd Philips’s film “Joker” is proving to be immensely successful despite its problematic narrative, which has sparked troubling social commentary regarding mass shootings and violence.

The film portrays the descent of Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, into the psychotic “Joker” villain after being constantly beaten down by society, both mentally and physically.

Before the film’s release, many critics were concerned that the film would inspire future acts of violence such as mass shootings — and upon the movie’s release, the content and themes that the film portray have made it apparent that these fears may not be too far-fetched.

In comparison to many action movie blockbusters released just this year, such as “John Wick Chapter 3” and “Rambo: Last Blood,” “Joker” is relatively tame when it comes to violence. The issue of violence in “Joker” arises not from the violence itself, but from the motives of the villain. Potential mass shooters probably won’t relate to a hypermasculine action hero caricature — but they may relate to a character like Arthur Fleck, a socially awkward outcast who has been pushed too far.

Several parallels can be drawn between Arthur Fleck and male mass shooters in America. Both feel that society as a whole has oppressed them, they struggle to create relationships with others and they want to seek revenge on the institutions they believe caused their suffering. Recently, society has been pushing to stop mass shootings at the source with antibullying campaigns and mental health awareness, but this film gives potential mass shooters a character to identify in a negative way.

Mental illness is also handled rather poorly in the film. Fleck suffers from numerous mental illnesses such as psychotic disorder and receives help from a social worker, yet he still struggles to alleviate his suffering. When the social services for mental health lose funding in the film, some positive social commentary is provided by highlighting the necessity of social services, but any positive message is quickly overshadowed by how Fleck reacts to losing access to his counseling and medication. Instead of seeking help in new ways, Fleck’s illnesses catalyze violent and destructive behaviors — essentially alienating those who suffer from illnesses akin to Fleck’s and further contributing to the stigma that severe mental disorders lead to violence.

Another issue is that the Joker is the protagonist of the story. It is well known that the Joker is a villain, but despite his atrocious acts such as murdering his own mother, it’s easy to look at the Joker as the hero of the film — he follows the classic hero arc of first facing adversity but releasing his true sense of self that leads to his retaliation against his oppressors. This interpretation is clearly problematic. The filmmakers have stated in interviews that “It is not the intention of the film… to hold this character up as a hero,” but any filmgoer can see that the Joker character is treated as such on screen, with one of the final shots portraying him standing victorious on the hood of a car while his supporters cheer him on, surrounded by the riots he created.

It is important for viewers of the film to ensure the dark elements of the comic book world don’t spill into real-life behaviors because the last thing the world needs is a Joker villain copycat.