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Let’s start with a disclaimer: this piece was inspired by the review of The Joker in the previous edition of SCAN, by Angus Warrender (so please check out that one to get the other side of the coin). In fairness, I do agree with Warrender that The Joker is a film we’ve all been waiting for. A deeper look at the characters’ backstories and a lifelike representation of the heroes and villains that are others often portray in such a fantastical manner.
Joaquin Phoenix played the character of the troubled Arthur Fleck both effortlessly and faultlessly. Warrender has said that all of the characters seem cartoonishly negative and horrible – from the boys on the street to the uninterested therapist and the work colleagues. He said that this is just not an accurate representation of real life. I beg to differ. We must remember that this is a film in which we see everything through the perspective of one individual; thus, it will encompass biases and Artur’s perspective will likely differ from how others would view certain situations. What we also must understand is that one person’s life experiences are not the same as another’s. Especially for people who suffer from mental illnesses. Especially for people like Arthur.
For Arthur, everyone sees him as an outcast. The woman on the bus assumes he is bothering her child, and this is what most mothers would do if their child was interacting with someone that they might deem ‘strange’. We’re wary of people who are different, so we either avoid them or treat them differently – and we watch Arthur deal with this every day.
The Joker encompasses one of the greatest acting performances I’ve ever seen. Phoenix had the almost impossible job of following on from the legendary heights of Heath Ledger, and he did so in the best way imaginable. He did not copy Heath; he created his interpretation and created an almost likeable character – a character that we can empathise with.
This element is where the film toys with the boundary of ‘brilliant’ and ‘too brilliant’. By this I mean that the character of Arthur Fleck is so realistic; his downfall and descent into anarchy is so utterly understandable; and his path there seems so agonisingly out of his control, that it could be dangerously relatable to many people watching.
The turning point for me (though for others this might be his mother’s betrayal), is the unfolding of his ‘relationship’ with Sophie Dumond (played by Zazie Beetz). Their relationship may have been imaginary, but it wasn’t to Arthur. He has intertwined his imagination and reality, so that there’s no way to discern between them. So, the rejection becomes the straw that broke the camel’s back. People can only take so much, and Arthur is pushed to his limit.
The ending (possible spoiler alert) somewhat glorifies the actions of Arthur (now known as ‘Joker’). He performs his trademark dance atop a totalled police car, among the flames, carnage and death surrounding him – he is hailed as a hero.
With these two components together, a dangerous precedent could be being set. Ennobling the murderous actions, coupled with the relatable struggles of a man with mental health issues, could inspire or encourage people to follow in his footsteps. This is where we must be careful.
This is not the classic action-packed DC or comic-book-based film. It’s slower. It is not necessarily an enjoyable or easy watch, but it’s an important one. I think it adds some much-needed backstory to the DC universe; which has been clutching at straws for rich and meaningful content. With films like Batman vs Superman looking like DC trying and failing to show us that they can still produce good films, The Joker is a welcome relief that perhaps they can. And finally, in the process of making such a film, hopefully, it might make some us think twice before avoiding, judging, or bullying others.