Joker (2019): A struggling artist and naturalistic villain

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 28: Joaquin Phoenix attends the premiere of Warner Bros Pictures "Joker" on September 28, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 28: Joaquin Phoenix attends the premiere of Warner Bros Pictures "Joker" on September 28, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images) /

Todd Phillip’s psychological thriller Joker took an already respected comic book villain, the Joker (Joaquin Phoenix), and transformed his story into a psychological thriller. During the performance, Phoenix manages to portray a struggling artist on the brink and moments where he goes over the edge. For me, the struggling artist angle is the most under-examined aspect of the film and is just as powerful a theme as mental illness. The character of Arthur Fleck is trying so hard to make it, but life, in its cruel and usual way, seems to mock him with ever-elusive success.

The question is, how can Arthur make things go right? Is it his act? His lack of connections to industry insiders? These are all questions that actually extend beyond mere issues of mental health, and the lack of answers adds significantly to his mental decline.  Whether Arthur is a clown, a musician, or a magician, he feels he has been cheated by life, and removed from any possibility of success.

‘Joker’ is a naturalistic villain

It’s easy to watch Joker and assume it’s making some specific statements about mythic killer clowns or guns. However, like the issue itself as experienced in the United States, the film provides no truly easy answers. By the end of Joker, it is obvious that Gotham City (and, by logical extension, modern urban life) is approaching collapse with or without guns, or even without a specific villain such as The Joker. Ultimately, Arthur Fleck is little more than a mascot here, rather than an underworld crime lord or a heartless, deeply self-aware agent of chaos. If he’s a villain at all, it’s because he stumbles into the gig through his life’s natural progression.

Similarly, Arthur Fleck doesn’t only prove his points with a bullet but makes use of a pair of scissors, even a pillow. He also self-justifies his behavior either out of feelings of vengeance or simply his lack of self-control. In the grander scheme of things, there’s a whole lot of Arthur Flecks in society right now, waiting to emerge, to lash out, and be confronted by police. He is also aware of his mental illness, to an extent, but resents how life treats him like a dummy, so he feels that his mental problems never simply belonged to him.

Joker. Image Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment, HBO Max /

Arthur loses

Joker highlights some other alienating factors in life, such as being fired from one’s job. Basically, at every step along his life’s path, there are people telling him he’s a failure, a loser, that he should never try but must still be successful. In a world like that, how can you not expect some people to be sent flailing over the edge? Arthur also fails to actually begin a relationship with a woman in his building, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), who he sometimes stalks when she leaves her apartment.

When Arthur appears at the comedy club and performs his routine, we know he does not have the capacity to leave himself in the dressing room. He fails to separate the performer role from himself, and any little critique catches him off guard. Rather than improve himself or his material, he rejects the constant feelings of failure, and that rejection ends up having some real victims. For example, we might even hate Randall (Glenn Fleshler) for lying about the gun and getting Arthur fired, but when Arthur stabs him to death, it’s certainly not just about that one betrayal, but a lifetime of feeling betrayed and belittled.

Someone to look up to…becomes a corpse to spit upon

Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) is apparently a late-night TV host who may have achieved legendary status. Just as crucially, he’s a legend in Arthur Fleck’s mind. However, when Murray mocks him, it’s yet another nail in the coffin of Arthur Fleck’s normalcy. It’s yet another reason Arthur’s life becomes vacant, and it results in Murray Franklin getting killed, live on national television. By this point, as Joker basically tells us, it’s no longer that he considers his life tragic, but he now finds humor in imposing tragedies on others, and he hates Murray Frankling right back.

Arthur eventually goes to the asylum for his crimes, and there is really only a subtle nod in the direction of Batman. Interestingly, there is a sequel in development, slated to be titled Joker: Folie à Deux, and it’s apparently going to be a musical! It is rumored that Joaquin Phoenix will reprise his role and that Lady Gaga might play Harley Quinn (which will be controversial for fans of Margot Robbie). In any case, we have this Joker movie, which still offers some food for thought, even if we saw some of its elements before in classics like Taxi Driver.

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What are your thoughts on Joker? Let us know in the comments!