For nearly 80 years, the Joker has kept his backstory a mystery. Since the character’s first appearance in Batman #1 in the spring of 1940, comic book readers have known the Joker as an ordinary man with a penchant for robbery. That first comic book depicts the robbery of a chemical plant gone bad, which forces the character to flee through a pool of toxic chemical waste, ultimately changing his body forever. Later that evening, the once-ordinary man looks in the mirror and is shocked to see a face looking back at him with bleached-white skin, bright red lips, and fluorescent green hair. Deciding his new look resembles that of the joker from a deck of playing cards, he renames himself as such and a supervillain is born.
More than 20 actors have starred as the Joker across film, television, animated series, and video games since the character’s big screen debut in 1966, including Cesar Romero (1966), Jack Nicholson (1989), Heath Ledger (2008), Jared Leto (2016), and now Joaquin Phoenix (2019).
Only in 2008 when Ledger played the anti-hero in “The Dark Knight” did viewers begin to see the villain break away from the mutant trickster trope they had seen for decades. Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight” was no longer disfigured by exposure to chemicals, but instead by physical abuse and trauma. “Joker” Director Todd Phillips and leading actor Joaquin Phoenix take that element of trauma even further as they humanize the man whom superhero aficionados have spent a lifetime judging and loathing.
“Joker” follows the life of Arthur Fleck, a poor man with a neurological condition that causes fits of uncontrollable laughter. Making the most of his unusual condition, Arthur finds work as a clown, twirling “everything must go” signs on the sidewalk, performing dances and comedy acts at children’s birthday parties, and anywhere else clowns are needed. In his spare time, he works on developing his stand-up comedy act—his escape from life’s challenges. Between battling depression, loneliness, judgmental looks as he tries to stifle his uncontrollable laughter, and hardly making enough money to support himself and his elderly mother, it’s hardly any wonder why Arthur writes in his journal “I hope my death makes more sense than my life.”
Every turn in Arthur's life is tramatic, and it only worsens as he learns more about his past.
“The thing I like about this film is there’s not just one thing that changes Arthur,” Joaquin Phoenix said in a video interview with Film4. “I was never certain what his motivations were, but he experienced childhood trauma, and I think that more than anything else shapes his perception of the world. He had the traits of post-traumatic stress disorder—somebody that’s in a highly reactive state in which they perceive and look for a threat everywhere. For me, that was the foundation of the character.”
Watching trauma unfold and seeing Arthur transition from victim to villain might make a viewer wonder: was he born bad, or did the environment in which he was raised shape him this way? If these same events had happened to anyone else, would they have responded and turned out the same way as Arthur? Could society have intervened before Arthur’s situation escalated this far?
StreetWise vendors and participants Lee A. Holmes, Donald Morris, A. Allen, and Tony Landers went to the Music Box Theatre in Lakeview for an opportunity to see the film and answer these questions for themselves.
StreetWise: How could Arthur Fleck become the Joker? Was he the real villain in this movie?
Allen: I get how the Joker turned out to be how he turned out. He was neglected and abused. He wanted recognition. Since comedy didn’t work, he took another route. I think the real villain in the movie was his mother because she lied to him and led him to believe something that wasn’t true. He really believed it.
Lee: Joker is more the victim than the villain. But the victim became the villain. He kept getting redirected back to his mom, even though he was going through a lot of child abuse in her care. Now, that speaks to the system again. There should have been something keeping this child from getting hurt. How does this boy keep going back to the same woman, with different men abusing him? Think about all the different mental things that he went through as a child.
Tony: Losing his job really messed him up. After he lost his job, he kept finding out more and more stuff. The more negative stuff he found out about his life, the more motivated he became, the more of a madman he became. He went on a killing rampage.
Donald: Let’s go back to the first incident with the young gangbangers, snatching the sign out of his hands and running him into an alley, which turned into crime alley. Then when his caseworker said that “this is the last day,” that’s really when he started going off. It was right before he faced those guys on the train. Personally, I didn’t see them as upstanding citizens. It looked like he just put the wham on some mobsters who had it coming. From that point forward, his mental condition progressed into a more monstrous attitude. He was a villain who had mental problems, but he had knowledge about who he was going to get. If you were against him, he was a vigilante against you too.
Lee: It speaks to the fact that just because you have mental problems doesn’t mean that you’re not smart.
Do you think that a villain is born, or made?
Allen: In both fiction and real life, a villain is made through their social environment.
Donald: They made him. The politics, society, situations. The way stuff fell in his lap...
Tony: A villain is made. Once he lost his job the whole thing changed. He was made into that person.
Lee: That is a twofold question. Everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe in accidents or coincidence. He was born to do exactly what he did. That was his mission in life, to make people and politics stand up and pay attention to what’s going on. So, he was born, just waiting for his purpose to unfold. But a person can be made into a villain.
Donald: A lot of stuff was taken from him. If you take seven necessary medications from somebody, you've taken a lot. You really have. He was made. Let me tell you, he was really born to be an entertainer, but he took that entertainment a little further and was made into something else. He made his goal, but what he needed to do was keep on entertaining children.
Tony: It all depends on how you grew up because of what’s going on in the world today. There are a lot of shootings in schools and it’s some of the nicest students that do the worst things. I hear it on the news and I hear 'Tommy was one of the best students that we have ever had, then he came to school with a shotgun and shot seven students.' Some people are just born and want to be evil, but some aren’t. It can go both ways.
Do you think that anything could have been done to prevent Arthur Fleck from becoming the Joker?
Allen: Something definitely could have been done. His mother could have been honest with him. If she were sane and in her right mind, she could have prevented a lot of problems. Society could have been there for him mentally. Today’s society cuts a lot of mental health programs. When his mental health program was cut, things got worse. He had no one to talk to.
Lee: I sense that a little bit could have been done. Maybe if his counselor had been a little bit stronger and given him a little more advice, instead of not listening to him. He would go there, and she wouldn’t listen. Maybe if the counselor was more experienced, and worked with him, it could have been prevented.
Donald: He told her to her face “you don’t listen to me” and that’s what pissed him off the most. I mean, here I am right in front of you and you don’t hear a word I say.
Lee: Think about the quote he wrote in his journal, “I hope my death makes more sense than my life.” Okay, now how many ways are there for you to die? You can die physically, yeah, that means you aren’t ever coming back. But you can also die mentally. That part of his mind that believed in hope and compassion died, and another part came up in its place. Like Tony said, if his counselor would have had a little bit more experience, she would have asked him to explain that quote, but she just told him that “the program's been cut, the system doesn’t give a **** about you and they don’t give a **** about me.”
Tony: I can’t stop thinking about the part when they showed him hitting his head against the door. The hospital staff didn’t sit down and work it out with him in the office at the psych ward. All we see is him beating his head, and then he’s suddenly back on the street. They show him in psych, but they don’t show us what went on in the psych ward. He wasn’t ready to go yet if he’s still hitting his head against the door, so why was he out talking to a social worker? We didn’t see him ever getting any kind of real help. If you show up to psych acting like a damn fool, you’re going to stay. When you show improvement, you can get out.
Lee: The movie spoke to a number of issues: mental health, child abuse, the lies and deception of a mother. She was delusional and he suffered. When he found out the truth, that everything was a lie, he just flipped. He transformed from one thing to another. And you see that throughout the whole movie: transformation. When the social services got cut, he couldn’t get his meds, and without his meds, he couldn’t maintain stability within his mind. His mind was always racing back and forth. He was delusional, thinking he was funny when he wasn’t. But then again, toward the end of his transformation, he wasn't thinking about being funny anymore.