Joker: A Movie Review and Observation

Movie poster for “Joker”

This movie is no laughing matter.

I have to issue a disclaimer here. The following is partially a movie review, but partially my observations and reaction to the deeper messages and warnings in this movie. If you’re looking for a strict, objective and unbiased movie review, you may want to stop reading at this point.

As a “latter day Gen X’er”, I grew up watching several different interpretations and re-inventions of the Batman franchise and characters. I have seen them develop, change and examine different aspects of their makeup. I have seen the characters change from a comic strip characterization to deep, introspective and layered characters.

I was in middle school when I saw the first Batman movie in 1989 with Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker. At the time, I loved the campy, tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the characters. It was as if they had walked right off the comic pages into the silver screen. It was incredibly entertaining and humorous. Jack Nicholson portrayed The Joker with such style and panache that you couldn’t help laugh with him as he plotted his sinister deeds. I can still quote some of his lines.

We then all sat in awe as we watched Heath Ledger in The Dark Night (2008), and we marveled at the depth and intensity of his award winning interpretation of The Joker. He maintained some of the humor and socially awkward mannerisms and speech patterns that won him so much praise for that role, and cemented his place in silver screen villain history. His portrayal of The Joker was brilliant, and he deserves every bit of praise he receives.

As I sat down to watch this newest interpretation of a nearly 80 year old character, (The Joker was first seen in 1940) I was expecting a similar style to the character we have previously seen. A cartoonish stereotype of what we envision the Joker to look like. The comic book, brought to life. This is precisely what we got with Jack Nicholson’s interpretation in 1989’s “Batman” .

Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989)

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker

The character that I watched unfold was drastically different from any interpretation I had seen before. There was a depth and vulnerability in Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker that has never been explored. Some of it was the writing, and the the way they decided to show his backstory and “birth”, but Phoenix also brought this enigmatic character to light in a way we haven’t previously seen. It created an empathy, and even sympathy at times.

As much as we must marvel at the wonderfully textured and intelligent story created for us, as well as Phoenix’s poignant, subtle and nuanced portrayal, the real power and strength of this movie is in the subtext. Here it is: 

The Joker is a microcosm for anyone fighting mental health issues that are undiagnosed, downplayed or ignored by society. The resulting tragedy is meant to be a cautionary tale of the potential result.

I know, I know….I’m an English teacher, and part of my job is to seek out the subtext in everything. Having said that, there is usually a deeper meaning if you challenge yourself to look closer. 

Sometimes though, a tree is just a tree. 

It is pretty blatantly obvious that this movie is a warning to take mental health more seriously. After watching this movie, you become aware that the dark path the Joker took was 100% preventable and avoidable. He even wanted to go down a different path, but through a series of physically and emotionally damaging events, he is pushed to the ledge. Everyone has their breaking point, but that coupled with a very real mental health issue makes it virtually impossible to beat without outside help. 

There is scene in the movie where his state appointed therapist informs him that the program has been defunded (sound familiar?), and he will be on his own going forward. She then makes the the harsh albeit honest statement that, “They (the government) don’t give a _______ about people like you….and they don’t really give a __________ about people like me…”

This really hit me hard.

This was the inciting incident that led to the character’s ultimate fall. As I watched the remainder of the movie, I couldn’t help but feel simultaneously empathetic towards our protagonist while feeling anger and frustration towards a system that had failed him. It seemed as if we tempt and enable people to be criminals, and then punish them when they achieve the sinister goals we set. In essence, we are setting these people up to fail.

As a teacher, I primarily work with young teenagers. I observe this development in my classroom often. I see young men and women who are balancing on that see saw, and the support, love and nurturing they receive will primarily be the deciding factor on which side they ultimately fall. What saddens me by this movie is that although it is intended to be entertainment, and a continuation of a timeless character and franchise, it is very obviously a commentary on our ability (or inability) as a society to diagnose, treat and support those in need.

It is a wakeup call. I hope we answer the call. I hope we do better.

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