VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
We've never seen a comic book movie like Todd Phillips' "Joker," starring Joaquin Phoenix. For this video, we're breaking down the world of "Joker" and explaining its themes, symbolism, and more. Our breakdown includes examining Arthur Fleck's character, his role in society, and his rebirth as the Joker.
The Symbolism of Joker
We’ve met many different versions of this iconic Batman villain over the years. But with the 2019 film “Joker”, director Todd Phillips delivered a uniquely grounded cinematic take on the iconic character. Utterly lacking in conventional superhero action (or any superheroes for that matter), “Joker” is a dark and gritty origin story that places us in the perspective of the titular character. It was an incredibly bold and risky film for Warner Bros. to greenlight, but the gamble paid off many times over, with the film going on to make over a billion dollars. And it did so with an R-rating no less, shattering records in the process. The movie has been nominated for a staggering 11 Academy Awards after picking up two Golden Globes, including Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix. Much like its namesake character, this film is one of a kind.
Long before it hit theaters, “Joker” was already generating substantial controversy. The mere concept of putting such a troubling character in the spotlight generated a media firestorm. Much to the frustration of both the film’s director and its star, due to the manner in which “Joker” reflects the ugliness of society, it became the subject of much speculation regarding the potentially negative influence of art - with some going so far as to suggest that it would result in mass shootings and/or incel-type violence inspired by the character. When you make a compelling film around a violent killer, you’re crafting an inherently challenging film - one that demands critical thinking from its audience. Thankfully, “Joker” doesn’t seem to have inspired any major acts of real world violence, but it has generated greater dialogue about its key themes.
“Joker” is, first and foremost, a film about mental health - more specifically the structures that allow issues of mental health to go unaddressed. It's also a scathing indictment of the divided society in which we live - a culture that dismisses the poor as having failed to capitalize on the supposedly “equal opportunities” of the American Dream. The strength of “Joker” lies in its ability to draw attention to these dual societal failings simultaneously, by focusing on an individual who suffers at the hands of both. As journalist Chauncey K. Robinson put it, “Joker” is “ ultimately an in-your-face examination of a broken system that creates its own monsters."
Arthur Fleck is a man who feels ill-at-ease in society. He has dreams and seemingly good intentions, but he is ill-equipped to realize them. And so as life hits Arthur with repeated reminders of its inherent cruelty, he’s progressively worn down to the point of snapping. In this sense, he’s a stand-in for the frustrated, the disenfranchised, and those who feel cheated by society’s promises. Many have identified him as a clear stand-in for white male rage, but to dismiss him outright with these three words is to oversimplify. He undeniably checks those boxes, but he’s also impoverished and has a history of severe trauma and mental illness. He’s a pitiable figure, one whose actions the film doesn’t ask you to forgive or apologize for, but simply to understand in order to better grasp how people fall through the cracks. His problems extend beyond any assumptions about what the world owes him; he’s in desperate need of help, but the solutions afforded to him are woefully inadequate. In short, Arthur is a stand-in for disadvantaged and marginalized individuals that society has failed - just taken to its worst possible conclusion.
When we first meet Arthur, he's in a sorry state. His life is going badly by most metrics: work, friends, family, romance, health - it's all bad. But he has just enough to hold on. He's got a mother who loves him, a roof over his head, a job, a social worker and (seemingly) a romantic interest. He also has ambitions, however unrealistic they might be.
In the “Killing Joke”, Joker famously says “All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” In Arthur's case, that translates into the loss of the few things he did have. Arthur has very few good days, but he sustains himself with what little he does have. When one has so little, however, a loss that would be otherwise manageable for a more fortunate person is devastating. And so for Arthur, the loss of his job is the beginning of the end. And as the other pillars of his fragile life fall in kind, so too does his sense of self. As his world crumbles, Arthur Fleck dies, and the Joker is born.
Out of the ashes of Arthur's former identity rises something new and extremely dangerous, an individual who, having repeatedly failed when playing by society’s rules, has chosen to jettison social norms and conventions. It’s almost a survival mechanism. And because his new attitude is such a stark departure from the norm, he is utterly unknowable to others. Yes, he's free, but in this freedom he becomes an inherently dangerous force of nature; his every movement is an act of chaos and destruction.
The Joker is a monster. Despite the sympathetic backstory, the Joker's actions are indefensible. And yet, while we, as viewers, are absolutely horrified by what he does, we simultaneously cannot look away. One argument is that we're fascinated by him because he's so fundamentally "other". He's unthinkably different. But... there's also an argument to be made that we are fascinated by the Joker because he represents an aspect of all of us. Not necessarily his violence or wanton disregard for life, but rather the act of freeing oneself from expectation and convention - to live without fear of consequence - even if consequences are inevitable.
By the time the film comes to a close, it’s impossible to distinguish Arthur/Joker’s reality from fantasy. He’s shown us, in a variety of ways, that he’s an unreliable narrator. So while there's been much debate as to what portions of the film are fantasy and which actually occurred within the onscreen reality, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. To quote the Joker again "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another... If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" And while in Arthur's case this is a symptom of mental illness, there's a universal truth to be taken from it too, about the subjectivity of our memories and perspectives. From would-be Mayor Wayne, to Arthur's social worker, and even the mother on the bus, we each experience life through the scope of our own first-person perspective which - though never entirely objective - feels undeniably real to each of us.
Joker’s journey, and its significance, functions outside the confines of reality. Whether it all happened in his mind, he drifted into fantasy halfway through the film, or he actually committed every single one of those acts, is beside the point. When Arthur becomes Joker, he intentionally seeks to detach from society and its rules, and objective truth is just a natural extension of that which he rejects. By the time Arthur has become Joker, he’s abandoned the pursuit of success, happiness or acceptance by conventional means, and instead finds power by choosing to dismiss the reality of others outright.
Real or imagined, however, Joker's pushback against an uncaring society inspires wider revolt. It’s a testament to the fact that he isn’t alone in the dissatisfaction that he feels. The circumstances that gave rise to the Joker extend to countless other people. A broken society encourages people to break free in kind and attempt to reshape their reality. Civil unrest is inevitable in any system that serves some but not others. And when society turns a blind eye to those in need of help, the film suggests that there’s no telling what they might become - and does so by showing us the worst possible outcome.
In the case of Arthur Fleck, the combination of poor circumstances, a lack of resources, plus mental illness leads to a catastrophic pushback against society and the birth of something truly terrifying - but also... preventable with greater care and assistance to marginalized people.