Most villains in superhero movies are used as plot devices. They only exist to drive the protagonist’s story forward and as such rarely have anything in the way of a decent backstory or even a reasonable motivation. There’s often little connection between the antagonist and the protagonist which tends to make their fights against each other lack real significance for the characters. Often villains are just forgettable one-dimensional characters with no depth.
In Todd Phillips’ Joker, the film starring Joaquin Phoenix, the titular villain is a well-thought-out character, not just a collection of cliches or one for which extreme evilness is meant to substitute for depth and development. Joker is the kind of villain that the filmmakers want you to understand as a person, even relate to—someone who is considered the bad guy from the perspective of the hero, but the good guy from their own perspective. He’s broken and misunderstood as a result of his environment and circumstances.
Joker takes in place the decaying city of Gotham. Troubled people run rampant throughout the city, causing crimes on the grimy streets. The wealthy are comfortable, wearing lavish clothing and going to movie theatres. They sit and watch the city flooding with crimes and struggling people trying to make ends meet.
One of those strugglers is Arthur Fleck.
In this movie, you follow Arthur Fleck. He struggles with an unstable condition that causes him to laugh and laugh for long periods of time. Arthur is constantly told by his mother, “don’t forget to smile.” He tries his best to instill this inside him by constantly smiling and trying to spread the same positive energy provided by his mother to others. But because of his distorted image—frail frame, weird laughter—he gets these negative interactions with people around the city. As he continues to get put down by society, he slowly transitions into becoming a very twisted character, the Joker.
Arthur’s life is mundane and degrading, he has no sense of self worth and nothing is really interesting about his life. It consists of him going to work and facing scrutiny from his co-workers, and coming home late to tend to his elderly mother. It isn’t likeable or pleasant. He fantasizes that he will one day get a girlfriend, will become a successful stand up comedian, and will find a caring father figure. But as time goes on, he realizes that he cannot grow into the person he wishes to become. This is because of the environment that he is surrounded in and those who he thought are supposed to be supportive, are not. He can’t make things better and eventually accepts who he is. He embraces his self destructive tendencies and turns his back on society.
Alone in this cruel world, Arthur doesn’t have anyone to go to in times of need. He is stuck in this grim situation with his mother, constantly tending to her because of her inability to be independent. While watching a TV show, Arthur begins to imagine a vision of the TV host, Franklin Murray. Murray says, “The lights, the show, the audience, I would give this all up to have a kid like you.” Arthur is seen smiling and moving vibrantly. Cutting back to reality, Arthur’s worn out body and facial expression is visible. The grin no longer there, and replaced with a frown. We get this clear image that he is very desperate for a father. When Arthur’s mother brings up a story that his father is Thomas Wayne, one of the most powerful citizens in the city of Gotham, he gets easily convinced. He eventually finds Thomas Wayne, hoping that he would accept him with open arms because he is his son. But soon, all hope for a father comes crumbling down for Arthur.
Murray is Arthur’s other father figure, but Fleck is spurned by him too. Murray ridicules and humiliate on live television. Fleck wants to be creative and tries to express that through comedy, but even his own mother says, “Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” Frustrated by his failing career and the mockery of those around him, Fleck’s creativity manifests in a negative way—through violence and destruction.
A couple of years ago, there were news reports about clowns seen carrying knives and guns and hiding in creepy places. These pranks startled people and created a fear of going out at night. The media amplified its effect. The same dynamic is seen in Joker. As Fleck begins to kill, the media spins and twist the story. This narrative of the killer clown is utilized by the powerful and used to represent all of those who are struggling in this poor-ridden city and think of them as pathetic clowns. But the poor turn this narrative back on them, donning the clown masks and makeup. Arthur has created this growing cult through his actions, and through the chaos he creates in the city, he finds something that he hadn’t felt in a long time, which is happiness. He feels empowerment from within by conjuring a former weakness he had.
Joker is different than the rest of the comic book movies that we are all accustomed to seeing today. There was no villain opposing the protagonist, or a build up to a big battle. Instead, it follows a troubled man trying to overcome problems from within himself. Arthur’s transformation is fascinating, and Joaquin Phoenix brings it to life. The dancing and various types of laughs that the actor developed for different situations of the movie were quite stunning to watch. What also stood out to me was the way Joaquin acted out Arthur’s suppression of emotions. It gave me the creeps while watching as I’ve never seen such performance from any other actor before. His performance was extraordinary in every way. With the success of Joker in the box office, earning one billion dollars, we should expect a sequel coming out in the near future.
Image Credit: Warners Bros. Pictures