When the press released the first photo of Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker, I felt nothing but excitement. I had been waiting for this film my entire life. I must admit that a few of the early reviews made me nervous. Some of them remarked at how cynical the film came off as. Some found Joker to be somewhat horror-esque. After seeing the film, I can agree with this sentiment, though not from their perspective.
If Joker is a horror film, the Joker was the protagonist, not the antagonist. If anything, this character was written to be a vigilante. It reminded me of another vigilante that I hold in high regard: V from V for Vendetta.
I will base this comparison solely off the V from the 2005 film, V for Vendetta, as they are both film adaptions of comic book characters. There will be major spoilers for both films in this piece, so you might want to watch both before reading.
In V for Vendetta, V is a vigilante who wears a costume and a mask. He bases his public appearance on who he aspires to be. He wants to be brave, so he models himself after someone brave (Guy Fawkes). The Joker does something to this effect as well.
Arthur Fleck already dresses as a clown. It isn’t until he accepts himself that he commits to the persona by dying his hair green. His transformation into the Joker is a representation of who he wants to be. Arthur thinks that he wants to be a comedian, but what he actually wants is for others to see him. Once the public around him starts to recognize the clown persona, he embraces it.
Both of these characters create massive social movements. Both of them selfishly murder people who have harmed them. Both of them are eccentric, strange, and seen as insane by those who cling to society’s rules for comfort. They’re both romantics while not understanding how to treat the people that they care about. Listing all their similarities would be exhaustive.
There are two reasons why someone might not make this connection. Both have to do with relatability.
The first is the setting of each film. The Joker is set in an ambiguous past, somewhere around 1980. While Gotham is not an actual city, it resembles cities that we know: New York City, Chicago, and Detroit. It feels familiar.
V for Vendetta, however, is set in a dystopian Great Britain. Even if you were to live in Great Britain, it isn’t easy to connect to the experience of living in their world. There are no Fingermen with black bags coming to nab us in the night for reading the Quran.
Abnormality lends itself to poverty, which is the primary way that Western governments control their people.
Because of this, it is easier for us to rationalize what V is doing. He is a murderer, a thief, and an abuser. But the world that he lives in seems so cruel that his brutality is easier to swallow. In the time and place that Joker is set the world is almost just as harsh, though.
You will not get black bagged for being abnormal, but you might get beaten, harassed, or murdered for it. Abnormality lends itself to poverty, which is the primary way that Western governments control their people. It is just as insidious and harmful, and people in power ignore it all the same.
The second is how the characters are produced. V is a product of physical abuse by his government. He is a monster, representing a system that has gone out of its way to harm people for the sake of power. The burns on his skin show that he has undergone excruciating physical pain. It is something all people can be empathetic towards.
The Joker, however, represents a system that doesn’t care about the mentally ill. A lack of public funding limits his access to therapy and medication. He’s fired from his job for having a gun that he uses as protection. He is beaten, ignored, and treated with cruelty by the world because he cannot follow social norms.
He is a monster created by a society that refuses to acknowledge (and many times detests) the mentally ill. Unlike V, the Joker’s only physical representation of his suffering is his dilapidated body. But that dilapidation is due to poverty — something that many will blame on the poor.
Despite the lesser reality revolving him, V is a more relatable character than the Joker. The reason for that is simple: we just don’t care about mental illness. By painting V as a hero and the Joker as a villain, we decide that physical suffering is more valid than mental suffering. Which, frankly, isn’t true.
Neither of these characters should be celebrated or demonized. I have always viewed the Joker and V as men coping with their suffering in the way that most men do: violence. They are both complex enough to represent real people, so they (like all of us) fall into a grey area.
For me, this film was a perfect exploration of that. Maybe you disagree with my assessment. Maybe you yearn for a clear villain to root against. That’s fine too, I think, but that’s not what Joker is about. So, it shouldn’t be judged as such.