Get ready to put a smile on this October for the return of Hollywood’s most wicked clown: The Joker is back.
*This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner*
This time, the villain returns for a first-of-its-kind, standalone film focused on the origins of Batman’s arch nemesis. Actor Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a clown-for-hire and miserable comedian who dreams of stardom. Based on the newly-released trailer, it’s safe to say Fleck’s dreams will become a nightmare for Gotham City.
<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”><a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/JOKER?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#JOKER</a>. <br><br>OCTOBER 4. <br><br>LET'S GOOOOO!<a href=”https://t.co/dqQ0D4Tisl”>pic.twitter.com/dqQ0D4Tisl</a></p>— HYPEBEAST (@HYPEBEAST) <a href=”https://twitter.com/HYPEBEAST/status/1166752247923040256?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>August 28, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script>
The new film, Joker, aims to disturb audiences with its depiction of the slow transformation of Fleck into the terrifying villain we all know and love. Yet in light of recent mass shootings, this spin on the character feels more familiar than ever — and that should scare us quite a bit.
Since his beginning in the Batman universe, the Joker has embodied the chaos factor. He rages against hierarchies, systems of order, and rule of law. He does it all with a smile.
In a sea of fictitious villains chock full of contrived victimhood narratives and self-righteousness, the Joker has provided a refreshing escape. He’s the type of character that sees a nicely ordered display of food in the grocery store and quietly shifts one single item, to see if anyone will ever even notice the change. Or if he’s in a mood, will knock the whole display down. It’s not because he’s against shelves. The Joker would just be curious to know why you’re so opposed to the floor.
Over three decades, we’ve seen four or five depictions of the Joker and they all share this disruptive, anti-social outlook on life. What’s different in Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, is that we get the backstory the character has long dangled on a string before his enemies. In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker would make up new horrific stories anytime he had a captive audience, to talk about his facial scars resembling a permanent grin.
Now we’ll see how he got to that point, and boy does it look fascinating.
Arthur Fleck is a strange, middle-aged, white man, living with his mother, playing comedy clubs at night and routinely falling flat on his face. He endures humiliation at every turn and insult is added to literal injury when his comedy is mocked on national TV by a renowned late night host, played by Robert De Niro.
Fleck is unsuccessful, alienated, aggrieved, and most importantly, deeply disturbed.
In a short scene with his therapist, Fleck is agitated by the routine nature of the questions she asks. “You never listen do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job? Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have…are negative thoughts.”
It’s a chilling moment as he stares down the therapist who tells him they won’t be meeting anymore going forward. She sees something in him she can’t fix, and they both know it.
The Joker himself is a disastrous punchline you can see coming from the beginning. He’s brooding, socially awkward, and starved for recognition, and the people around him can see it. So when considering Joker, it’s hard not to think of the mass shooters that have seized on the anxieties of so many Americans. When these individuals commit massacres and end up on the news, their profiles are never identical, but they certainly have common elements. And Arthur Fleck appears to mesh pretty well with that profile.
There’s so much about mass shooters that’s hard to classify. Some cite ideological or hate-fueled motivations for their crimes, such as shooters in Charleston or El Paso. Meanwhile, others are wild cards, such as those who carried out attacks in Dayton, Las Vegas, and Aurora.
The mention of Aurora is important in this context, as the Aurora shooter dyed his hair and even called himself “the Joker” when he opened fire at the premiere of a new Batman movie. The massacre embodied the infuriating unpredictability of these tragedies.
If the shooters were all racists, well, we can address racism. If shooters were driven by homophobia, there are ways to ameliorate that. But we all know and come across individuals who are just not right — like the Joker — and what are you supposed to do?
The same ideas always get thrown around: red flag laws, more government surveillance, looser patient-confidentiality rules for doctors, gun confiscation, or collusion between social media and law enforcement. How far are we willing to go?
This conundrum of risk management and morality is what the Joker constantly pushes throughout the Batman series. The latest incarnation of the Joker casts him as an unlikely leader of a movement, whose crimes are inspiring others to wear clown masks and follow his lead. This Joker appears delighted by the realization that he’s not alone.
This is exactly what we’re seeing time and time again on the most horrific days of national news, when we’re forced to grapple with yet another mass shooting. We keep calling these young murderous men “loners,” yet they’re clearly anything but. This is why Joker looks truly terrifying, because in real life, we’re surrounded by Arthur Flecks — and don’t know what to do about it.
Stephen Kent (@Stephen_Kent89) is the host of Beltway Banthas Podcast, and an entertainment contributor for the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog.