The box office hit sends mixed signals

**Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for “Joker” (2019) and “Batman” (1989)

Since his comic book debut in 1940, the clown prince of crime has captured the hearts and minds of nearly every DC comics fan. To this day, The Joker is among the most famous comic book characters in the world, with a fanbase as large as the caped crusader himself. His character has been depicted in a variety of ways from Cesar Romero’s wacky acting to Jack Nicholson’s touch of cartoonish villainy. Through it all, fans everywhere have loved to imagine different ways to view the Joker.

Although the villain has had many origin stories, none have been so highly discussed as the new movie, “Joker,” which premiered last Friday. According to the creators of the film, this depiction of the Joker’s origin story is entirely new, stepping away from the different comic book versions of the character. The movie even goes so far as to give the Joker a real first and last name, Arthur Fleck, which is canonically unheard of, other than a few aliases which were never confirmed as legitimate identities. 

It is with this rebirth of the clown prince that many have found issue, with some going as far as to claim “Joker” might prove as inspiration for real world violence — and it’s not hard to see why.

While the Joker has always been a villain, he has not always been so heavily empathized with as in this newest depiction. In previous works, the Joker has murdered cruelly, tortured beloved heroes and committed heinous crimes which — even fictional — are enough to turn one’s blood cold. But fans always knew that these acts were evil. The Joker has always been a bad guy, beloved not from a sense of sympathy, but because of his dynamic with Batman.

In “Batman” (1989), Nicolson’s Joker is connected with Batman in an unbreakable way after he kills Bruce Wayne’s parents. Theirs is a story of the villain and the avenger. “The Dark Knight” (2008) depicts Heath Ledger’s Joker in a philosophical battle with Batman over the future of Gotham City. Batman is fighting for the city’s humanity, while the Joker tries to prove that all humans are inherently evil. Theirs is a battle of philosophy and human nature. 

But Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” presents a different dynamic altogether. In this version, Bruce Wayne is a child the entire time, only appearing on screen a handful of times. As the title suggests, this is not another Batman and Joker movie. For the first time in cinematic history, the stage belongs to the Joker, and him alone. 

This would not be a bad thing in itself. Fans might have learned a new origin story of how the Joker became powerful. Perhaps we would meet a new rendition of Harley Quinn, or see how the Joker’s great and terrible mind brings Gotham to a low point where it needs a Batman. But this is not what we get.

Instead, the movie is structured in a way that makes the audience empathize, and even sympathize, with Arthur Fleck so much so that when he finally becomes the Joker, it is a celebratory moment, instead of a frightening one. 

Every scene in this movie is structured in an upward angle, with each moment bringing the man closer to his eventual stardom. Likewise, each scene follows a pattern: 1. Arthur is suffering from elements outside his control; 2. He does something he shouldn’t; 3. He is closer to obtaining the iconic Joker persona. 

In one scene, Arthur sits in a subway as three men harass a woman. Due to a mental condition similar to Tourette’s syndrome, he begins to laugh maniacally, which prompts the men to jump him. The audience knows these three men are bad, but it is still shocking when Arthur shoots them. The first two are done arguably from self defense, but the third, who runs away, is chased down and murdered. 

The very next scene shows Arthur taking care of his elderly mother, speaking softly to her. He is, in every sense, a loving son in this moment. 

Within a few minutes, Arthur went from being a sad party clown that young men beat up for fun, to being a cold blooded murderer, back to being a loving son. Following this format, the entire movie depicts Arthur as a creature of circumstance, who only became the Joker out of a sense of self preservation and due to a lack of care from the community around him.

The movie seems to argue that if only Arthur got the help he needed — if the government didn’t cut his therapy, and he had continuous access to his medication — if his mother was a better person, and the woman next door loved him, and the community treated him right — if only he was loved, none of these murders would have happened. 

When the Joker finally appears on stage in his red-and-gold tux, green hair and clown makeup, it is a joyous moment. And that’s the problem.

While no one can deny Phoenix’s phenomenal acting skills, one must be wary of such a movie as this which, intentionally or not, glorifies a villain to the point of heroism, and creates a space of sympathy for that character.