It says something about the state of our society when a security guard is checking your purse at a movie theater.
I’d heard rumors about these safety measures leading up to the release of Joker and wondered, what’s the point? Is this really necessary? Is a repeat of the Aurora, CO shooting at a showing of The Dark Knight a real threat? Is that reason enough to be afraid? I didn’t take these fears seriously. This, I thought, is not the world we live in.
But it is.
In August, days after the shootings in Texas and Ohio, a crowd of people in Times Square panicked when they heard an ominous sound. They fled from it, holding the hands of their loved ones and keeping them close. They made 911 calls. Dozens suffered injuries from a stampede. A gathering of people enjoying a public space on a summer night heard a sound, and they feared for their lives. What they thought was gunfire was actually just a motorcycle backfiring.
Acts of mass violence occur with such alarming frequency that people expect them to happen. The sound of gunfire seems like a more likely scenario than a motorcycle backfiring. A feeling of peace and safety in a public space is replaced with fear. That is truly terrorism.
But to say that a movie — or anything from pop culture — turns people violent is misguided. It’s troubling when a great work of our culture comes out and people are afraid of how other people will behave when exposed to it. They fear the ideas that it conveys. Parents challenge books in schools and libraries rather than have real conversations with their kids about sexuality, drug abuse, violence, and religion. People are outraged over Joker and fear it may provoke violence rather than have a real conversation about violence.
There are a few movies over the decades, like Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers, which have inspired real-life violence. However, and this is a key distinction, they have mostly inspired the specifics of violent action rather than the violent act itself. Individual pieces of pop culture, be it movies, TV or video games, don’t turn empathetic people into murderers. — “ From ”Joker,” “The Hunt”, And The Myth of Movies Inspiring Violence, by Scott Mendelson, Forbes, September 27, 2019.
When the gunfire is real, we tend to grasp for easy answers.
We blame violent video games even though millions of people play them without becoming mass murderers.
We blame access to guns even though millions of people own guns but they don’t shoot up a school or a movie theater.
We blame mental illness even though millions of people with psychoses and disorders and all the rest of it go about their day without ever turning violent on another person.
We ignore these contradictions, finding comfort in our self-righteousness. Meanwhile, a disease in our society spreads, and people go to work and they die, or they go to school and they die, or they go to the movies or a concert or a nightclub and they die because we failed to solve the real problem.
If you are outraged by Joker, then the problem is you, not the movie. Director Todd Phillips is challenging us all to have the conversation we’re not having about mental illness, guns, and violence.
The film starts by asking you to have empathy for Arthur Fleck, and you have to. He’s the protagonist. Empathy is how you get buy-in from the audience. Empathy allows the audience to invest in your story, believe in the protagonist, and give two shits about them. If a storyteller provokes empathy in you, it means they’re doing their job.
Phillips does this by leading Arthur Fleck down an alley where he gets the crap beaten out of him by a group of vicious youths. He then takes you along on Arthur’s miserable journey: getting fired from his job, getting beaten up (again) on the subway, losing his mental health services, finding his father only to be rejected by him, being publicly humiliated by his idol, and discovering the truth about his mother and the trauma he suffered as a child.
Each of these incidents on their own puts a crack in Arthur’s already fractured sanity, but it’s this last one that shatters Arthur once and for all, transforming him completely into Joker. “I used to think my life was a tragedy,” he says as he smothers his mother’s face with a pillow, “but now I realize it’s a fucking comedy.”
Arthur’s character arc is one of a man who, because of his psychosis, is an outsider. His condition causes him to behave in a way that is bizarre to others. “The worst part of having a mental illness,” he writes in his journal, “is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” He loses what few things empowered him to function — a job, health care, trust and belonging in his family. Since he cannot conform to society, he makes society conform to him. Since he cannot behave the way society expects him to, he creates a society that fits his behavior.
Like Virgil guiding Dante through Hell, Phillips takes you on Arthur’s journey from light to dark, from good to evil, and if you’ve never had your own journey through Hell, then the whole business feels pretty goddamn disturbing.
Living with a depressive disorder, that journey into the dark is familiar to me, too familiar, but I’ve also come back from it. As surreal as it is to say this, it’s something I take for granted. It’s hard for me to put myself in the shoes of someone who hasn’t been through that. To them, the darkness of Joker is a terrifying no-man’s land, an edge of the human psyche that is best left uncharted.
For Arthur Fleck, that darkness is all he knows. “You ask the same questions every week,” he says to his social worker. “‘How’s your job? Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” The social worker gives him the same dismayed look that therapists give me when I tell them I have a thousand anxious thoughts a day. Having a mental illness or a disorder is being trapped in a room with no exit. Sometimes that room is light and sometimes it’s dark. You have control over it but you can never escape it, and your only visitors are your negative thoughts.
So, you started this journey with empathy for Arthur, your heart aching when he was curled up on the pavement in the alley, squirting water out of the fake flower pinned to his jacket. The journey into his madness is as constricting for you as it is for him. You’re trapped in that room with him. The camera shots are confining and contain you within Arthur’s claustrophobic world…and then comes the coup de grâce. Thomas Wayne, who Arthur believes is his biological father, coldly rejects him. (The guy just wanted a hug you stingy bastard!) You thought Sophie was his girlfriend? Nope. All a delusion!
You’re on this carnival ride and there’s no getting off it. You and Arthur Fleck are in this shitshow together. This is the point of no return. We’ve been losing Arthur to his madness throughout the narrative, but he’s really far gone now. He’s going his own way, and he’s taking Gotham with him.
Murray Franklin gives him the audience he craves. (Remember, for his whole life he didn’t know if he “even really existed” but “people are starting to notice.”) As Gotham erupts in riots, Arthur/Joker goes on live television and calls a spade a spade.
“Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me? They don’t.”
Gotham is already a merciless shithole before Joker comes to life. The city doesn’t need Joker’s help to become mired in filth and violence. Gotham ruined itself. Joker merely sees his opportunity, molding it into an environment where he can be free, be himself, and thrive.
He murders Murray Franklin on live television, a spectacle. The camera pans out to a wall of TV screens. The news reports Franklin’s murder amid reports of the riots and…commercials, advertisements for Energizer batteries and paper towels. It’s all a show.
Violence is release. Violence is catharsis. Violence is the explosion that Joker needs to set off the bomb that will blast him out of the prison of his mind, freeing him at last. Violence is power for the disempowered. And you, viewer, are freed from those wretched confines, only now something has changed. Something is different. Gotham is burning, and you’re euphoric because Arthur — Joker — is finally free. Like it or not, you’ve crossed into the darkness and discovered a desire you never knew was there: a desire to watch the whole world burn.
If Arthur/Joker is the protagonist, then Gotham is the antagonist. Rather than go to war against the city, as Batman will later go to war against Joker, he exploits Gotham’s greatest weaknesses, it’s deprivation and greed, it’s ravenous appetite for destruction and brutality. In the final scene, you see him being chased by hospital orderlies. He may be confined within Arkham’s walls, but his mind is finally free. Nobody can take that from him, not Arkham, not Gotham, and not even Batman.
The security guard who checked my purse at the movie theater couldn’t have prevented another James Holmes from causing another Aurora tragedy. If anybody had that kind of intent, a security guard isn’t going to stop him from making the effort. Either way, this is what he was really looking for, according to Cinemark’s policy:
Please note that masks, hats, helmets that cover the face, and face painting are not allowed within the theatre or auditoriums. Additionally, simulated weapons are not permitted in the theatre or auditorium.
A mask isn’t a gun, but it can be just as dangerous. Face paint gives people ideas. Security wasn’t there to prevent someone from mimicking Joker. He was there to prevent people from mimicking Gotham.
Photo Credit: “Took Me By Surprise” by Phil Dunne is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0