By Sean Barry, SJ
The new Warner Brothers film Joker follows the story of Arthur Fleck, a man suffering from mental illness who loses his sense of identity and grows increasingly vindictive. Throughout the film, he suffers brutal violence at the hands and feet of people acting cruelly, whether prompted or unprompted.
His pain is hard to watch. When he gets uncomfortable, his nervous response is awkward, uncontrollable laughter, which he fights painfully and fruitlessly to contain. Arthur Fleck is, to put it bluntly, a pathetic man.
And he becomes the great Batman villain, the Joker.
Ever since I was a kid, watching Batman: The Animated Series, I have been fascinated by the character of the Joker. Whether played for laughs like Ceasar Romero in the classic 1960s Batman TV show or played as a psychopath like Heath Ledger in the Dark Knight, he is one of the most memorable characters in all of comics. His unpredictability and desire for chaos continue to captivate people.
I was both excited and nervous to see the live-action film about the character’s origins. Excited because of my love for the character. Nervous because part of the character’s mystique is that he does not have a consistent or coherent origin.
In the film, Fleck never quite feels like the Joker I have come to know. The villain that I know always comes across confident and calculating. In contrast, Fleck is portrayed as random, awkward, and hesitant. His laugh is not chaotic, nor is it malicious. It is unsettling, a nervous tic in stressful situations.
Suffering from violence and cruelty, Fleck evolves from a misunderstood misfit to a violent crusader. In a key early moment in his development, Fleck strikes back at those with power and privilege. While riding a train in full clown makeup, three wealthy young men beginning teasing and then physically assaulting him. Fleck draws a gun and shoots all three of them. This action changes his trajectory in life.
His actions become increasingly heinous as he lashes out with less remorse and more enjoyment. He suffocates his own mother. He crushes the skull of a former coworker. Along the way, the lower classes of Gotham, who don’t know the identity and background of the “clown,” turn him into a symbol of protest against power and privilege. People take to the streets in clown masks, which both baffles and excites Fleck, who doesn’t see himself as a leader nor part of any movement.
As the climax of the film nears, Fleck claims the name Joker for himself as he appears as a guest on his favorite late-night talk show. In a tense exchange with talk-show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert DeNiro, Fleck claims to be responsible for the unsolved murders. In a shocking moment, he asks Franklin: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” The answer, according to Fleck, is that you get what you deserve. He draws a gun and shoots Franklin in the face.
The emphasis of the film is that society created this monster, the Joker. His society has disregarded those with mental illness and those among the lower classes. Because nobody took the plight of these people seriously, they banded together and rioted against those with power and privilege, toting signs with hyperbolic lines like “Kill the rich.”
Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce Wayne, the future Batman, embodies the upper classes. He calls Fleck and the people taking to the street in masks, “clowns.” He separates himself from those people who struggle in life and are beaten down by society. Besides belonging to another socioeconomic class, they are another class of people in his mind who are less important than those he associates with.
The response of Fleck to those who ignore and torment him is problematic. He responds to cruelty with ruthless murder. This is not a response to replicate or support. Far from it.
But how can this film challenge us?
In our own lives, how do we act in response to those who are downtrodden? Do we act like Thomas Wayne and pretend that their problems do not touch our experience? Or can we recognize that we are all connected and act as if all the people in the world are our neighbors? Do we act like we belong to one another?
If we start to take the perspective that all others are valuable, including and especially the downtrodden, then change can come. It begins with each one of us. Gradually, we might find that society at large begins to change.
Say what you will about how successful Joker is as a Batman story. It has certainly been met with much controversy.
Yet, at its best, it does a good job of challenging us to think about how we relate to those who feel alone, suffering, and depressed. Nothing justifies Fleck’s violent actions, but how did characters like Thomas Wayne nurture an isolating environment through indifference? How do we exacerbate the loneliness and suffering of others by our own indifference?
We have the ability to counteract this movement, but we cannot do so on our own. Faith is an element that is unsurprisingly missing from this nihilistic film. But it is our faith that reminds us that this work is bigger than ourselves. Our culture of indifference is in desperate need of conversion. We cannot passively wait around for this change to come. We are called to take an active role. It starts by recognizing the humanity of those around us: the poor, the lonely, the misfits, the clowns.
In The Killing Joke, a comic centered on the Joker, he said that if he were to have a past, he would “prefer it to be multiple choice.”
We are right to question how Fleck justifies his violence aside from the claim that people are cruel to him. The reality is that there is no legitimate justification for Fleck’s actions. By killing others, he fails to see them as people and sinks to the same level of disregard he claims others have. He gets portrayed as a hero for misfits, celebrated for executing people. The film runs dangerously close to promoting unchecked violence against “bullies” or the more privileged. I’m not the only one who finds this portrayal problematic.