“Joker” provokes important discussions despite controversy

Despite controversies, Joker receives 11 Oscar nominations- and it deserves each one.

Despite controversies, “Joker” receives 11 Oscar nominations- and it deserves each one.

When a draft of Joker’s script was first leaked online, controversy sparked instantly. We know the Joker as Batman’s murderous archenemy. So when director Todd Phillips’ script clearly employed a sympathetic tone to display the Joker’s (Arthur Fleck’s) backstory, the public was outraged.

Now, with Joker’s 11 Oscar nominations-  including nominations in the categories of Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role and Directing- people have once again spoken up against the film’s approach to seemingly justify and condone this violence that is reflected within our own society. 

Arthur Fleck, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, is a failed comedian living in Gotham City as his mother’s sole caretaker. Bullied and alienated from society, Fleck struggles to subdue the effects of his mental illness. When the state cuts funding for Fleck’s medical treatment, he loses his only support system and gradually becomes the famous villain known as “Joker.” 

Phillips exposes us to a whole new realm within superhero movies, challenging us to understand someone who we have grown to hate ever since Batman’s original comics. The film intelligently focuses on Joker’s backstory and how his violent acts- while not justified by- are mostly evoked by his mental conditions. Yet rather than using this observation to consider what we can do differently when it comes to addressing mental health in our society, many people have instead completely misinterpreted the film’s message. People have even drawn similarities between the Joker’s motives and those who perpetrate gun violence in our own society.

“In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week,” Time writer Stephanie Zacharek said in criticism of the film. “And yet we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for Arthur, the troubled lamb; he just hasn’t had enough love … The movie lionizes and glamorizes Arthur even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behavior.”

Similar comments about the movie have been replicated across social media, but this is ultimately a flawed perception of the film, for multiple reasons. First, after countless psychological studies throughout history, it has never been proven that watching violence causes an individual to be more violent. While it may desensitize viewers the next time they witness violence, we cannot blame a 2-hour-and-2-minute-long movie for the violence caused by other people. The film itself does not provoke violence. But rather, it is people’s perceptual set that causes them to justify and then mimic the violence they observe in the film. 

By addressing and solving the underlying influences of real violence, we will be promising more safety for the world in the future.

Moreover, for decades now the world of cinema has been piled up with films consisting of senseless violence, and this problem has carried on into television shows and video games as well. Yet Joker is one of the few violent movies that actually have a greater purpose and meaning to its storyline- hence its rank as the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history, with a near $850 million profit worldwide. It’s astonishing that people would rather complain about the violence than acknowledge the underlying societal issues that the film brings to light. 

“Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around difficult issues,” the studio said in a public statement. “Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers, or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

The various thematic messages within Joker are meant to open our eyes to our ignorance and misunderstandings of others. Yet the fact that people shaped a controversy around Joker for its violence and sympathetic tone is the exact proof of our blatant ignorance. The film spends the majority of the time focusing on Fleck’s personal life, which should most certainly raise our concern and sympathy for this character. The sympathy-evoking backstory is obviously not justifying violence, but it does show the many influences that can contribute to violence. As a society, we are rarely reminded of our ignorance to people facing mental illness, and as a result, we feel strange when a film suddenly sheds light on this issue.  Our reaction to the film should be a feeling of sympathy towards the man who was abandoned, abused and as a result, developed a mental condition. Our reaction to the film should be, “We need to do something about the lack of support for people suffering from a mental illness.” 

It’s time we address the serious mental health problems in real life. While Fleck’s mental illness has never been specified in any version of his story, he has symptoms reflecting some very real mental illnesses. For instance, when Fleck feels angry, embarrassed or nervous, he often starts uncontrollably laughing. According to the Mayo Clinic, this could be explained by a disorder called the Pseudobulbar Affect, or PBA, which is usually found in people who have neurological conditions or traumatic brain injuries, as we see in Fleck. Phillips was first to characterize Fleck with this disorder. For Phoenix, he recognized some signs of PTSD within Fleck, which gave him a new perception of this well-known character. 

“It’s hard not to have sympathy for somebody who experienced that level of childhood trauma,” Phoenix said. “For someone in that state, does it mean his actions make sense or are justified? Obviously not.”

Being aware of the signs and tendencies of people with certain mental illnesses is essential to advancing in treatment and support. Although Joker in no way offers scientific evidence, its ability to change our perceptions and emotions surrounding mental health can have a powerful effect on how we acknowledge mental health in real life. To me, it’s shocking that we haven’t put more effort into improving treatment for mental illnesses, considering we’ve advanced significantly in many other areas of science and technology. It’s easy to forget about people’s everyday struggles with mental illnesses, which could range from discriminatory isolation to limited access of treatment. Maybe a movie that can reach out to the general public on a global scale, is exactly the reminder we need. 

Regarding both its cinematography and its impact, Joker certainly deserves its Oscar nominations. Despite the multiple misinterpretations, Joker impeccably conquered its controversies and brought to light an issue that is rarely discussed. So yes, allow yourself to feel sympathy for the Joker. For those outraged by the horrible acts of violence portrayed in the movie, take action. Because scolding a film that was intended for both entertainment and awareness, doesn’t change anything. Those working to overcome and subdue the effects of their mental conditions must have more support, both socially and medically. We’ve wasted enough time already. By addressing and solving the underlying influences of real violence, we will be promising more safety for the world in the future.