By Justin Metcalf—Asst. News Editor
The Joker’s sinister yet playful demeanor makes him one of DC Comics’ most intriguing villains, but previous comic book films left audiences with an ambiguous or nonexistent backstory for the clown-faced psychopath. In Todd Phillip’s 2019 film, “Joker,” audiences finally embark on an in-depth tale of abuse, abandonment and insanity.
Set in the fictional realm of 1970s Gotham, the film introduces us to Arthur Fleck—played by Joaquin Phoenix—who is an aspiring stand-up comedian that works as a clown performing various gigs around the city. One day, while he spins a sign for a business closure on the street, a group of teenage boys steal his sign and assault him in an alley after he chases them down to recover it. As Arthur lies beaten in the dismal alleyway, the dark tone is set for the rest of the film. Soon thereafter, we learn that he battles with a neurological disorder, which causes him to laugh uncontrollably and at inappropriate times. At home, Arthur lives in poverty and cares for his delusional, ailing mother, played by Frances Conroy.
Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker is classic yet new and disturbing. His laugh is loud and distinct; it is exactly the kind of laugh we expect the Joker to have. He contorts his scrawny body in angular, unnatural positions and staggers when he walks along the street. He portrays a sad, victimized clown frequently shot with one tear streaming down his face.
When he discovers that his life and childhood were full of neglect and abuse, Arthur’s mental health plummets into a place of hatred and revenge. This portrayal of the Joker bestows upon the audience a cognitive dissonance because, although he takes a path of violence and destruction, his family and society victimized and neglected him.
The film symbolizes familial abuse, and it shows how trauma within the family and society at large gets passed down through generations. Not all victims of trauma become violent criminals, but it is a possibility as depicted in this film. Political leaders of Gotham like Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) make promises to people like Arthur and his mother that are shallow and empty, which reflect the politics of today.
The audience may feel bad for Joker, and what happens to him in this story is truly harrowing; however, it is dangerous to empathize with the past of violent, abusive people. The Joker never gains any real power back in this film. He only uses the abuse that he went through as a pretext for continuing to hurt others.
This film is not packed with action sequences or heroes who save the day. It is more a case-study of the psychology of someone who loses his sense of self and power. “Joker” is a twisted, humorous and provocative film worth seeing.