Joker: An Unflattering Mirror

Joker: An Unflattering Mirror

Film review by Hanh T. L. Nguyen.


This article discusses the film Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, which had its first public screening on October 4, 2019. This paper attempts to refute a claim by some members of the media that the film is too dark and could incite violence. It invokes many films whose selling point is violence, a mass shooting incident, and some academic sources to demonstrate the absurdity of the media’s accusations. The article also discusses ominous resemblances between the society depicted in the film and that of our own, suggesting that the viewers in general and the media in particular are uncomfortable because they have to face the ugly reflections in the mirror held up to us by Joker. This article concludes that, unlike the media’s claim that the film is provocative of savagery, Joker inspires what the world is in dire need of, thoughts and self-reflection.

Keywords: Joker, media, violence, inspire, provocative.

Header image “Joker – Joaquin Phoenix” by Hersson Piratoba is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

After the third time watching the film Joker – directed by Todd Phillips with the first public screening on October 4, 2019 – I still do not perceive the movie as provocative and dangerous as claimed by some members of the media.. 

Joker centers around Arthur Fleck, a man struggling to make an honest living in the failing society of Gotham. He works as a clown-for-hire during the day while trying to pursue a stand-up comic career by night. Arthur gets beat up by strangers, mistreated by his co-worker and fired from his job, cut off from the medications and therapeutic treatment needed for his mental condition, and ridiculed by his idol, finally realizing that the joke seems to always be on him. His inherent savagery unlocked after an incident of self-defense manslaughter, Arthur spirals down a murderous highway desperately yearning for visibility and recognition. Being ignored and rejected his whole life as an innocuous man, it is ironically his act of killing that awards Arthur attention, albeit as a monster: “For my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice.” Arthur’s degradation into Joker is not a direct consequence of one single event but an aggregation of unceasing cruelty and alienation by an unsympathetic society where the poor and underprivileged are treated like garbage. The film characterizes a discriminatory capitalist society that benefits a minority of people with wealth and privileges whereas the vast majority of the people battle with poverty, unemployment, and escalating chaos. Arthur’s untold joke, “I hope my death makes more cents than my life,” is emblematic of the crumbling capitalistic system in which life is cheap and unvalued. Within such a society, people are so disfiguringly crushed by the system that they turn on one another.

That, however, is only one, the most obvious, of the storylines depicted in the film. In fact, Joker is much more complex and layered, which inspires polarized debates about what the movie really represents. This article discusses the movie in relation to the media’s suggestion that Joker is a dangerous movie.

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, actor Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Arthur/Joker, walked out of the room after being asked whether he worried that Joker might “perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about, with potentially tragic results.” Similar to The Telegraph, many other newspapers have also claimed that the film is too dark and violent and that it could incite violence among those “represented” by the movie. 

A columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, Scott Feinberg, claims that the film is “deeply disturbing” and “could incite real-world problems.” Vox held a discussion in which four journalists shared similar opinions such as Joker is “possibly damaging, definitely irresponsible” and it could become “a cult favorite that forms a strident online community.” Likewise, an Independent writer wrote, “I worry […] that some toxic guy will watch this film and think: ‘See? There’s nothing wrong with me. There is beauty in my chaos. I am the chaos. I am the beauty. The ends justify the means.’” IndieWire also published a review pleading that Joker spoke “to the people in our world who are predisposed to think of Arthur as a role model: lonely, creatively impotent white men who are drawn to hateful ideologies because of the angry communities that ferment around them.” To demonstrate their contending of the film’s dark nature, The Daily Mail reported that some moviegoers walked out of the theatre during screenings of Joker claiming that the film was “terrifying” and “ultra-violent.” Compared to movies whose violence is a major selling point such as Deadpool, John Wick, Kill Bill, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, violence in Joker arguably is depicted more sparingly and not as intensely. However, while many moviegoers recently enjoyed and even laughed at the highly graphically violent scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when Jack Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, burns a girl alive with a fire-spewing weapon, some Joker moviegoers allegedly walked out of the theatre for its “brutality.” The media also accuse Joker of glorifying and romanticizing violence. What about John Wick? The deadly sexy Keanu Reeves playing an assassin adamantly faithful to his dead wife kills hundreds of people over the course of the two-hour long movie. Certainly, no movie critics wrote that John Wick would encourage devastated widows to act violently. With reviews making claims such as Joker is “going to turn the world upside down and make us all hysterical in the process” (IndieWire), one would wonder what it is about the film that has sparked such a commotion?

“Gotham Falls” by chiaralily is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Within the context of the US where many cases of mass shootings have taken place, there is fear that Joker might inspire another killing spree. The specific shooting incident that is most often brought up is the one in Aurora, Colorado that killed 12 people and injured 70 others at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. James Holmes, the Aurora mass shooter, was rumored to have thought of himself as the Batman villain Joker. In fact, many movie theatres in the US have banned cosplays at Joker screenings. Undercover police have also been planted in many cinemas. For one thing, if technicalities are to be discussed, Holmes had dyed red hair which, if anything, resembled the red-headed female superhero Mera in Aquaman much more than Joker with his famously green hair. Holmes later told his psychiatrist that he dyed his hair red because “red suggests bravery.” More importantly, George Brauchler, the Colorado juridical district attorney that prosecuted Holmes, confirmed that the mass murderer never referred to himself as the Joker (Denver Post). He emphasized, “If it had been ‘The Avengers,’ he would have been there. If it were ‘Jurassic World,’ he would have been there.” His killing spree was never inspired by the character. Therefore, the current media’s invoking of the Aurora case to warn people to stay away from Joker screenings is, in fact, perpetuating the irresponsible attitude held by the press reports that spread the unfounded rumor in the first place.

To those who are still concerned about possible consequences of the film despite now knowing about the other substantially more violent movies as discussed earlier, according to the American Psychological Association (cited in Ferguson et al., 2019), “for violent crime, a research base linking crime to violent media is lacking and disconfirmatory evidence too abundant to assert the presence of links.” If someone is looking to fuel their rage, anything could inflame their anger, a film, a book, or even an untimely glance. As for the media’s claim that mentally unstable individuals might be inspired by the film to take up violent actions, research has confirmed that “most people with mental health problems do not commit violent acts, and most violent acts are not committed by people with diagnosed mental disorders” (Glied & Frank, 2014).

With part of the media so blatantly criticizing the movie and warning the public to ignore it, I cannot help but wonder, is all this media hype around Joker based on reasons besides audiences’ safety? After all, the movie constructs one of the main antagonists of Joker as a vapid show host who doubly victimizes Arthur by humiliating him and then selling his very humiliation on his TV show. Perhaps this rings a bell about show business and the media in general. If the film depicts an insensitive and unsympathetic society, the show host Murray Franklin, idolized and emboldened by the people, is the centerpiece of this society. As Franklin mocks Arthur on the stage, the crowd hungrily wait for punchlines to join in his condescension and cruelty with their unconcerned laughter. This perhaps is reminiscent in part of show business in America and other places. In fact, Joker’s star, Phoenix, was once a victim of such an ambush for the sake of superficial entertainment when he was blindsided on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Without Phoenix’s knowledge, and, surely, consent, Kimmel played footage of the actor cursing while being on the set of Joker on his live show. This act of prying into people’s personal life at the expense of their privacy and dignity is not rare on American talk shows.

As for general viewers, perhaps the the movie’s “problem” is not that it portrays violence and disturbance, but that it humanizes and protagonizes the perpetrator. Unlike Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight (directed by Christopher Nolan, 2008), Phoenix’s Joker has a name and a life plainly presented to viewers. People feel comfortable watching Ledger’s Joker because he is depicted as a terrifying maniac who remains distant and mysterious. Ledger’s Joker kills only for the joy of destroying living things. Ledger’s Joker burns a mountain of money only to see the horror on the face of the greedy. Ledger’s Joker is an insane villain so unrelatable to spectators that he gives us a safe moral bridge to judge him from the other end. Phoenix’s Joker, however, breaks that bridge and makes viewers squirm in our seats because he narrates our own lives for us, however, from an angle where we look ugly. From Joker’s narrative we are the ones who create evil. We all want to portray murderers as monsters with fangs just as Joker is sketched after his first kill on the subway. But horrors do not come from another world; horrors conjure up within us and our society. Joker could be anyone we know whose suffering and eventual transformation into a vicious creature we might, knowingly or unwittingly, play a part in. He might be the eccentric quiet classmate whose name we never bother asking. He might be the neighbor whom we make a point of avoiding because he looks conventionally weird. We as viewers feel distressed because Joker unfolds in front of our eyes our own monster making. 

The absence of a superhero also brings the film closer to the real world we are living in. Joker’s story depicted as separate from Batman leaves the audience hero-less to face a humanity not represented by selfless heroism but by ugly selfishness and cruelty. The film holds up a mirror that reflects our contemporary society where most of us are too busy and maybe too self-absorbed to be concerned about our fellow human beings. We might have to ask ourselves: who is the real villain? Hero-less, we are left to face Arthur’s cry for “some warmth and decency.” In the 2008 Batman movie The Dark Knight, the Joker is proved bitterly wrong in believing that humankind is intrinsically evil when he makes them choose between murder and death, kill or be killed. Goodness is overwhelmingly emphasized in this movie even when death is only a tick tock away. Humanity is preserved even by the most unreliable group of mankind, felons. Joker, however, does not juxtapose the malevolent Joker with the heroic Batman and unyielding kindness. Instead, it is the downtrodden Arthur who is confronted with indifference, cruelty, and trickiness. When he tries to be kind and cheer up a child, the mother barks at him. When he has nothing but respect and admiration for the successful show host Murray Franklin, Franklin ridicules and humiliates him. When he reaches out for truth and love from who he thinks is his father, the noble and honorable Thomas Wayne assaults him and demeans him. It is understandably uneasy to watch an established order of right and wrong challenged, with good and bad so disquietingly ambiguous. The film sets a bleak tone not only because it tells the story of a sad mad who turns into a serial killer but also because the world seems to be enveloped in the gray area between the good and the bad.

Artworks are interpreted in many unpredictable ways whether intended by the artist or not. A good work of art should make us think. It is even better if it inspires us to reconsider our assumptions and conventional ways of thinking. Joker is a successful work of art because it kindles high emotion as well as intellectual energy. It meaningfully deals with real social problems which give people a chance to question normally taken-for-granted values and challenge our own ideological positions. As Joker expresses his frustration about a system arbitrarily determining funniness, righteousness, and value (who knew Joker was such a Foucauldian?), we perhaps should also ponder how our society works to construct world views, personalities, and behaviors. I believe a movie could be interpreted in various ways and should not be blamed for some viewers deciding to view it in a dark light. 

The film might ask for sympathy for a man who is bullied by society, but it certainly does not condone murder. If the audience might catch a glimpse of themselves or their families and friends in the lonely poor Arthur, they do not identify with the Joker in his colorful costume and clown make-up. The film makes sure of that. When Arthur has his identity as Joker announced on the Murray Franklin show, symbolizing his complete transition into madness, the character becomes unmistakably comic. His voice becomes shrill, his facial expressions dramatized, and his body unexpectedly breaking into dance after shooting the show host twice! Who would relate to and sympathize with such madness? I dare say no one in their right mind and heart would. At this point, the audience can see that Arthur Fleck has become the Joker, just as estranged and unrelatable as the 2008 Joker. The media’s argument that Joker gives sympathy to a murderer is, thus, baseless. If the film is provocative of anything, it is of thoughts and self-reflection, which the world is in dire need of.


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Ferguson, et al. (2015). News Media, public education and public policy committee. The Amplifier Magazine.

Glied, S., & Frank, R. G. (2014). Mental illness and violence: Lessons from the evidence. American journal of public health104(2), e5-e6.

Meyer J. P. (2015). Meyer: The James Holmes Joker rumour. The Denver Post.

Michallon, C. (2019). If Joker is just another celebration of a toxic egotistical male justifying his bad behavior, I’m not here for it. Independent.

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Scott Feinberg

Stein, M. (2019). How Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker made the media go mad. Daily Beast.

Wilkinson, A., Romano, A., Frank, A. and Polo, S. (2019). Did Joker deserve all the discourse? Vox.