Allow me to begin by stating that I am not a comic book fan. I know the basics – Spiderman, Superman, Batman. I know the gist of their back stories, their most famous arch nemeses. I even became super fascinated with Elektra several years ago when my daughter couldn’t stop watching the movie over and over again. But that turned out to only extend to a fascination with Jennifer Garner herself and how she manages to stay so fit. What I am a fan of, however, are villains – in every way, shape, and form. I took a World Mythology class in college where we studied the major archetypes and archetypal patterns that appear throughout all mythological stories, fairy tales, even modern television shows – and yes, comics, too.
Of all of the archetypes – the Hero, the Mother and Father, the Great Flood – the one that seemed the least flat and the most complex and interesting was that of the Trickster – the character who inevitably morphed into our modern-day villain. A Trickster is not just evil, he’s also a hero…maybe not to everyone, but to someone. In many mythological Creation stories, the Trickster is responsible for the introduction of essential elements to life, such as fire or the cycle of life and death. As time goes on and the Trickster makes the change into the Villain, he becomes more and more laden with backstory – a trait that I attribute to our natural human fascination with evil and why it is what it is.
Why do people commit the horrific acts that they do?
What would drive a person to go from a blubbering baby, making slobbery sounds and happily pooping with no concern for who is around them, to a menacing monster capable of torturing, mutilating, and murdering their fellow man…and sometimes truly enjoying it? I’m not an expert in any field of study. But as an avid studier of mythology, psychology, and crime, I can make this statement with confidence. There is ALWAYS a reason.
Enter Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019), the story of one of the most iconic comic book villains of all time, masterfully rendered onto the big screen by Joaquin Phoenix. I’ve literally just gotten home from the theater maybe 30 minutes ago from seeing this movie, and am still moved to the bone…so much so that I am not going to give any real spoilers. Instead, I’m going to tell you why I think this movie is beautiful in its disturbing nature, and why I think everyone who has any interest at all should definitely see it.
Anyone who has seen the trailer for this film can deduct that Arthur Fleck (The Joker/Phoenix) has a mental illness. The condition from which he suffers in the film is a true illness, though rare, called Pseudobulbar or Pseudobulbar Affect, which is a neurological condition that causes the sufferer to have uncontrollable fits of laughter and crying, often at times during which it seems completely inappropriate. People with PBA are not truly laughing at a situation. They may be feeling rage or extreme anxiety at the time. However, due to damage caused to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which controls emotion, they are unable to adequately express these emotions. So they laugh. The fact that Phillips inflicted Arthur/Joker with this neurological illness is quite frankly genius. It gives credence to the Joker’s nature of being, well, a Joker. A black soul void of sanity, angry at the world but seeming to enjoy its destruction. One of my favorite lines in the movie is towards the end, and I hope I’m quoting this correctly. “I was just thinking of a joke. You wouldn’t get it.” Creepy.
In the film, Arthur is a miserable individual. He is lonely, an outsider, a waif of a man. (Trivia alert – Joaquin Phoenix lost 52 pounds for this role.) His existence is sad and dark, and plagued with a dream that his general lack of confidence will never allow him to realize – to become a comedian. He writes jokes – poorly – in his personal journal, and studies what makes a funny man funny. To earn money whilst he waits for his dream to come true, he works as a party clown, often attending store closings or children’s hospital events. His job doesn’t necessarily bring him joy, but in rare off moments, he experiences what he is truly in search of – to entertain, to be smiled at, to be loved. It’s often short lived, however, as the smiles eventually die away, and he is shirked off into the cold world once again, to be mocked, ignored, and pummeled in the subway. The real kick in the balls? Funding is cut for his social worker’s office, and he loses access to the 7 medications that he is currently on. (Ok, I lied. There’s one spoiler.)
All said, Arthur Fleck is a character primed for a psychotic break. Now, I won’t give them away, but there are 3 of what forensic psychologists might call “triggers” in this film that push Arthur over the edge. We all have dark thoughts. The difference between a common citizen and the criminally insane is that the common citizen never gives in to these thoughts. Have you ever wondered what it might be like to do so? I don’t mean to murder someone, of course. But that person at the office that drives you nuts…what if you finally just gave him an R rated piece of your mind, without concern for what might happen next? That guy at the coffee shop that never gets your order right…what if you threw that coffee back in his face? Stuck in traffic behind an SUV that doesn’t know how to use his breaks properly? What if you floored it and rammed him from behind? I’m not talking crazy here; we’ve all thought about doing these things. We stop ourselves because the consequences would be worse than the benefits. For Arthur, there are no consequences left. Being in control, he can’t suffer any more than he already has. So Arthur gives in. And when he does, he emerges as the most stunning specimen of The Joker that I have ever seen. He stops fighting to be normal; he stops explaining. He becomes the embodiment of his darkness.
I’ve been informed rather emphatically that this story is not true to the comics. My possibly crude response? I don’t care. When I think of everything that I as a laymen know the Joker to be – maniacal, deranged, blissfully happy in his delusional world – I can’t think of a better story to tell. My heart broke for Arthur, and it soared for Joker. I saw him as a human. For me, it is the only story that I want to know.
I’ll sit and wait patiently for my hate mail.