Joker (2019) : Who's the real villain, Joker? Or US?
"What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you f***kin' deserve!" *BANG*
Think of the word 'movie'. Ok... now think of the word 'villain'. Done? Now, think of both those words together. Is the Joker one of the first things to come into your heads? If not, maybe this blog post isn't for you... but if Joker does creep into your minds, I don't blame you! The Joker has been one of the most iconic psychopathic villains of movie history, making his debut appearance way back in the 1940's in Batman #1. But the most recent flick in the DC franchise, 'Joker', casts a completely different light on the green-haired character that we, as audience members and comic-book readers, have been somewhat spoon-fed to despise for decades. Joaquin Phoenix is the most recent person to paint that famous red smile on his face since Jared Leto's reimagined Joker in the 'Suicide Squad' films, as well as the legendary Heath Ledger's Joker from Christopher Nolan's 'Dark Knight' trilogy. Those are some pretty big shoes to fill, to say the least, but I think Phoenix did it with nothing but excellence. Well... he has an Academy Award for Best Actor to show for it! Something that I love about Todd Phillips's 'Joker' is that it's not about the CUNNING Joker that we all recognise, but rather the BECOMING of the Joker we all recognise, as we see failed comedian Arthur Fleck try to juggle his mental illnesses with a society that rejects him. Having watched the film myself several times, a question that proposes itself to me is - Is Joker really the villain? Or is it us, as a disregarding society, who are the true villains.
For me, 'Joker' is one of those films that intrigues me deeply. We, as spectators, get so used to following the perspective of the "good-guys" that it is so refreshing to walk in the shoes of the "bad-guy" for once. Observing the world through the eyes of Joker, seeing how various events in his life unfolds and how he evolves into the murderous creature we all recognise, we can find it almost understandable how he turned into the crazy criminal we know. Isn't it strange how many of us align with his character in this film, and even empathise with him, even though we have close to nothing in common with him?! I don't know about you, but I certainly never thought I could see bits of myself shine through a psychopathic murderer! Yet, somehow, it works, and we just do. That is why I find it so arduous to label who is the hero and who is the villain in this film, as, on paper, Arthur seems like the hero. In fact, he actually seems like the perfect model individual for society: His ambition is to bring joy into the world, he takes care of his mother who is unable to care for herself, he protects strangers who he feels are in danger (like the girl on the Subway), he works at a job that provides people with entertainment, and all he wants is a world of or togetherness and laughter. It seems he has all the ingredients to make an amazing hero:
"My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face. She told me I had one purpose: To bring laughter and joy to the world."
But, despite all these heroic qualities, he is constantly rejected by his society. Why is that? Why is he an outcast or turned away for being kind? Surely this is only flaws within society rather than flaws within him! Is it because the people in Arthur's society, like so many societies away from the big screen, flock like sheep: They follow each other around, and are too afraid to take an alternative route, or be individual. Arthur is someone who perhaps seems like an obvious, easy target to disdain due to his illnesses, which could be why his society, collectively, reject him. They're too afraid to be different and accept him.
Moreover, Arthur's mental illness and laughter condition is something he seeks to overcome, but he is constantly denied of the tools and services needed to help him. His therapy sessions, of which seemed not particularly helpful, end up terminating due to a lack of funding, leaving him alone with his illness, and mocking, jokey thoughts. Not only does he need to fight his interior battles, but he also needs to deal with his noticeable, and visible battles too. Daily, he receives stares and scorns from people due to his unusual laughing condition, despite excusing himself with a medical card:
It seems he cares for everyone, but no one is there to care for him. And he needs help. He is alone.
I'd like you to read this overview of the plot as if it is not about the Joker, but rather about the man behind the mask, a kind, caring, but seriously ill individual named Arthur. Whilst reading, ask yourself - who sounds like the real villain:
From Arthur's perspective, society is a vicious circle of violence, greed, crime, division and hatred. We see this almost immediately, even before the film's title appears, as Arthur gets attacked by a gang of delinquents, and all for nothing. Being different makes Arthur even more vulnerable to his violent society where everyone is vulnerable, so much so that he is even given a gun by his colleague just in order to survive the day. With even more attacks being made on him because of his illnesses and unique personality, it leads him to pull the trigger for the first time as a matter of self-defence. It is then, when Arthur joins in on this violence that has been advertised on his doorstep daily by his society, that he experiences a feeling of value and recognition for the first time:
"People are starting to notice"
No wonder Arthur continues this violence. From what was initially a matter of self-defence from an uncontrollable, vicious society, Arthur is valued for the first time. In fact, the more extreme his acts of violence are, the more he gets accepted by society. By the end, having committed several murders on people who themselves were murderers, he even gets idolised. People he doesn't know wear his 'clown-face' image as a symbol of community and togetherness - something that their society has been deprived of for so long, especially after Thomas Wayne's extreme capitalist campaign. So... who do you think sounds like the villain here? Arthur, or his society?
Now I do want to make myself clear... I am not pardoning the fact that Arthur is a murderer. That is a villainous thing to do, don't get me wrong, but I just wonder what could've been if his society treated him with as much recognition and respect when he was kind and caring as they did when he was wicked and evil. Belonging is a basic human need, but it goes awry when joining the crowd means betraying the call of our heart or who we are. This, I feel, is what Arthur gives into. This desire to belong. He desires it so much that he looses bits of his true self along the way, becoming a product of a vicious society. But hey, I guess, in the words of Joker himself: