For a film based on a character that is regarded as the living embodiment of madness and chaos, Joker‘s rhetoric makes a startling amount of sense. Todd Philips’ treatment of the comic book villain bears a distinct departure from the popular mythos. Instead of a homicidal clown that is purely motivated by senseless mayhem, Joaquin Phoenix portrays a Joker weighed down by the harsh realities of life. A philosophical Joker may be a hard concept to swallow for most comic book fans, but it helps to view this latest installment in the DC cinematic universe as more of social commentary than origin film.
Catch Joker in your local theatres now
Image credit: Warner Bros
The Joker as social commentary
From the get-go, Todd Philips has been upfront about his desire to make Joker more of a character study piece than a comic book movie. We are introduced to Arthur Fleck, an aspiring stand-up comedian with less-than gainful employment at a clown-for-hire agency. Being diagnosed with a mild neurological condition, Fleck is defenseless against the growing discontent that festers within a cash-strapped Gotham City and the overall harshness associated with city life. As the film progresses, we bear witness to Fleck’s metamorphosis into the titular villain.
Yet, it is hard to whole-heartedly accept the Joker as a villain in Todd Phillips’ vision. He certainly isn’t a true victim of circumstance either. The pathos of this version of the Joker is an interesting one, being one that will no doubt resonate with the majority of cinema-goers today. In a time when income inequality and social divide are at an all-time high, it certainly feels like there could be a Joker lurking inside us all.
Arthur Fleck struggling with a mental disorder
Image credit: Warner Bros
It would seem like that’s the message; the potential to commit atrocities can be found in each and every one of us. But really, Joker is more of a treatise on the concepts of power and privilege, two aspects of modern society that have come under intense scrutiny as of late. The transformation of Fleck into the infamous Clown Prince of Crime is catalysed by the failings of a system designed to maintain order and balance, albeit at the cost of the downtrodden. This realisation is marked with senseless violence and in turn is met with a disproportionate amount of brutality. It is the metaphor of the camel’s back breaking given form, and one that mark’s the cathartic rebirth of Fleck as the Joker at the end of the first act.
Arthur Fleck reborn as the Joker
Image credit: Warner Bros
An inevitable descent
Interestingly enough, the Joker does not go all out on a psychopathic rampage at this point. While not overtly shown, the film depicts Fleck’s efforts and willingness to make light of his situation in life. A potential love interest, a good showing at the comedy club, a lost family connection revealed and the prospect of meeting his childhood hero manage to bring him back from the brink of madness, however briefly, even in the face of personal tragedy.
Of course, all good things must come to an end. The events of the film culminate in the third act when Fleck, met with a startling realisation, discards his naive personality and fully embraces the persona of the Joker without hesitation or remorse. Yet, this transition is not marred by the onset of criminal insanity, at least not in the conventional sense. In fact, the Joker is more expressive and articulated than Fleck.
Arthur Fleck's futile attempts to make sense of his surroundings only makes the Joker's emergence all the more violent
Image credit: Warner Bros
The Philosophical Clown
Anchoring his views in social philosophy, the Joker justifies his actions as nothing more than a natural consequence. His motivation doesn’t go beyond emotional placation as for him, violence is nothing more than his method of making sense of a (in his view) chaotic world.
It is a rhetoric that is slightly reminiscent of the character The Merovingian in the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy and his beliefs on causality. However, the Joker doesn’t challenge the concept of free will at all. For him, the puzzlement lies in his fellow Gothamites collective decision to forego human decency, knowing full well that it would result in the misery of others. His existence isn’t so much a retaliation as it is capitulation, a darker reflection of men’s actions and a representation of its logical conclusion.
A cathartic moment for the Joker
Image credit: Warner Bros

One particular aspect of the film which I enjoyed was the exposition given on the choice of the Joker’s clownish wardrobe. Previous adaptations took the aesthetic as more of an afterthought, assigning the label based on appearances. The backstory provided by Todd Philips however, strives to inject a little more sense into this. In what can be described as a homage to Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Arthur Fleck is given a daytime job as a clown-for-hire and an ambition of being a successful stand-up comedian that comes up for naught. We are given a sense of how humour is central to Fleck’s emotional core, along with his mother’s prophetic words on how his purpose in life is to “put a smile on everyone’s face”.

Joker’s choice of attire is a subconscious decision to subvert his misfortunes. Instead of outright abandoning the guise he has cultivated for the majority of his adult life, he uses it to explore the emotional territory of “what-ifs” that has been denied to him by a cruel reality – vindication, affirmation and self-validation. It is an incisive exploration of the depravities of the human condition, one that is as sharp as the blade wielded in its name.

Sowing the seeds of Joker's emergence
Image credit: Warner Bros
Yes, you should watch it
In its entirety, Joker is an amazingly well-executed cinematic experience, right down to the colour grading and soundtrack. The film’s pacing is excellent and serves to capture Fleck’s knock-down-drag-out (but ultimately futile) struggle against his adversities and eventual transformation into the Joker. His relationship with his environment is visceral and can be looked at as a convincing projection of his psyche – akin to a thread balanced on a knife’s edge. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is truly immersive, thoroughly enjoyable to watch and emotionally exhausting to bear. The mantle of Joker has been carried by a number of notable actors in the past but this latest reimagining of the role might just prove to be the most socially relevant, and frighteningly so.
written by.

Evigan Xiao

Evigan is an avid fan of bench-made boots, raw selvedge denim, single malt Scotch and fine watches. When he's not busy chuckling over image dumps on Imgur, he can be found lifting heavy objects in the gym or fussing over his two dogs, Velvet and Kenji. He dreams of one day owning a cottage in the English countryside and raising a small army of Canadian geese to terrorise the local populace.
Joker and its dark observations of modern society (spoiler-free)
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