The Joker stirs controversy over relation to personal issues: who will get the last laugh?

Emma Lightfoot

Despite an incredible amount of controversy, the newest movie installment of the DC Comics villain, “Joker,” has crushed the American box office. Since its theater release on Oct. 4, the R-rated dark drama has made hundreds of millions of dollars. The film’s opening weekend alone made 93.5 million dollars, setting the record for the highest-grossing movie debut in the history of all October movies. Though the film appears to be a success, it has also received immense controversy for its use of violence and depressing topics such as mental illness, isolation, harassment, abandonment and more. Exposure to these aggressive actions and upsetting topics has discouraged many viewers from seeing the film.

Courtesy of Gerardo Lisantii
Walking down the street of Gotham city, the ‘Joker’ is determined.

In fact, several theaters have questioned showing the new film, due to the public upset of the viewers. Century Aurora and XD in Aurora, Colorado, chose not to show the film in response to a 2012 incident, in which a gunman killed 12 people in the theater after viewing the Joker in the film “The Dark Knight Rises.” In spite of this, many audiences are still going out to see the film, with some viewers excited and others falling back into the theater chairs in fear. 

Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck (otherwise known as the Joker) provides another perspective of the classic villainous character. Set in the early 1970s, Fleck is a failed comedian desperately looking for human interaction and connection. Fleck pursues his dream of bringing joy and laughter into the world both as a comedian and clown in Gotham City. Despite his best efforts, Fleck cannot bring anyone joy and laughter, due to the public making fun of his efforts. Within this struggle, he begins to lose his sense of purpose and soon loses himself as well. Completely separated, bullied and isolated from society, Fleck’s depression spirals into insanity. Ultimately, Fleck becomes the infamous villain known as the Joker.

Phoenix’s accurate portrayal of the Joker is disturbing and unsettling, and it left me questioning my own sanity when I stepped out of the movie theater. Phoenix was able to convey every behavior of insanity, embellishing his performance into a realistic portrayal of instability. 

Phoenix’s emotional and physical commitment to the role was evident. After losing 52 pounds for the movie, he was able to present a damaged man with little care for well-being. Phoenix’s performance in this role was undoubtedly his best and is now receiving Oscar buzz.

Within the first few seconds of the opening scene, I was already overwhelmed with distress. The scene opens up to a failing clown agency with the local news station trumping the muffled street noises. This chaos completely opposes the slow-moving and isolated character, Arthur Fleck. Staring blankly into his vanity mirror, Fleck completes painting his face. Soon, his eyes focus in on his mouth, which sparks movement through his body. Putting both index fingers into the sides of his mouth, Arthur hooks his cheeks and starts to move them up and down, making him smile and frown. 

At one point, Fleck begins to pull up so hard, as if to ensure that the smile on his face will stay and that the frown won’t return. Fleck’s hands tremble as a single tear rolls down his cheek, smudging his painted face. Haunting clown music follows this scene, interesting the viewer and giving them a taste of what is to come. 

This is a visual realization of the personal tug-of-war that Fleck faces on a daily basis: his life torn between tragedy and comedy. This struggle is present throughout the entirety of the film, as he grapples with the violence to come.

The film’s continuous conflict represents the dark reality of a poor and mentally-ill man who is beaten down by society. Solitude and sadness consume Fleck, as he sees little hope for happiness or acceptance in the future. There are several scenes throughout the film that demonstrate the Joker’s fantasies rather than reality. Some have to do with the success of his stand-up comedy, while others are related to his female interest in the film, “Sophie Dumond,” played by German-American actor Zazie Beetz. They represent Fleck’s longing for acceptance and for him to just be like anybody else. 

Fleck’s want of acknowledgment is one of the reasons why I believe many people are struggling with the concept of this movie. The purpose is deeper within the film. I think that the need for acceptance, belonging and love are all part of human nature. However, these things are not simply handed to us; we are forced to create our own connections, making this topic more relatable and, in result, sparking controversy.  

Though the movie has received an enormous amount of mixed reviews, more and more viewers are discovering an awareness for the film and the Joker’s actions. 

When first watching it, I would not have recommended it to anyone. Several scenes were just too gruesome for young adults to see and pushed the boundaries of even an R-rated film. Nonetheless, with time and analyzing the film and its message, I was able to come to an understanding of the movie. I think that “Joker” is important to watch and absorb, as you can look at this film through a handful of lenses. Nevertheless, anyone still interested in watching the movie should evaluate their sensitivity to issues surrounding mental illnesses and violence. “Joker” has made headlines one way or another, and, though the controversy is great, so is the amount of viewers.