*Note: This essay contains major spoilers for Joker. Read at your own risk
In the climactic scene from Joker, the classic villain finally makes his long-awaited appearance on Murray Franklin’s television show.
For the titular character, it was a long time coming.
See, for most of the film, Joaquin Phoenix portrays Arthur Fleck — down on his luck, living with his aging mother, and suffering from mental illness. He’s stigmatized and marginalized by a society with little time to take an interest in his struggles.
He’s also failed to hack it as a stand-up comedian, and Franklin (Robert de Niro) once used a clip of Fleck’s fledgling performance for laughs. So, when the opportunity arises to appear on the show, Fleck jumps at it.
He rehearses it, time and again, to get the performance just right. In one scene, we see Fleck seemingly plan his own suicide. In true dramatic fashion, however, he goes off-script.
By the time he appears on Franklin’s show, he is no longer Arthur Fleck, but has fully transformed into the Joker. He dances his way to the guest seat before telling some crude, offensive, unfunny “jokes.” When Franklin comments on Joker’s sense of self-pity, Joker responds by ranting about his situation. The tension builds, his anger clear as he enlightens viewers about the mistreatment he’s received and the stigma he’s faced as a result of his mental illness.
Then, the Joker asks a question — “What happens,” he asks, when a mentally ill person is treated in such a way?
“I’ll tell you what you get,” Joker says. “You get what you ******* deserve!”
With that, Joker pulls out his gun and shoots Franklin in the head, instantly killing him. The sudden act of violence, perpetrated on live television, is shown to trigger city-wide riots across Gotham, the tipping point toward aggression in the class warfare that had been building throughout the film.
Joker is trying to say something meaningful. As I previously wrote in my brief impressions of the film, it is closer to an art-house film than a typical comic book movie; less explosive action, more social commentary.
In particular, Joker has been praised by many for its depiction of the other, and its attempt to encourage empathy and understanding. It is abundantly clear that the film wants to say something about stigmatizing and marginalizing those suffering from mental illness.
Early on in the film, Fleck is shown being harassed and beaten up by a group of kids; later bullying on the subway, at the hands of seemingly well-off Wall Street types, triggers his first real act of violence.
More tellingly, in the notebook Fleck keeps at the suggestion of his therapist, he writes, “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
Unlike many classic depictions of the Joker, this film shows a character who evolves into a villain not after falling into a vat of acid, but rather being thrown into a society that doesn’t understand or appreciate his struggle; that stigmatized him and used him as an easy punching bag, nothing more than fodder for cheap laughs.
Joker is telling us, or at least trying to tell us, something about an important social issue. It warns, very directly, about the need to better understand and care for those suffering from mental illness. It seeks to encourage empathy and warn us about the dangers of failing to care for those in need.
Still, something about the message didn’t sit quite right with me as I left the theater.
In part, I think my discomfort revolves around what the film shows and what it tells.
One of the key elements in good fictional storytelling — whether in books, films, video games, or anything else — is the ability to show rather than tell.
Showing — depicting emotions or ideas through visual imagery and action — is generally preferred to telling those ideas through exposition.
Show us a person lying on the ground, curled up, grimacing in pain; don’t tell us that they’re hurt.
Showing lets us work out the emotions for ourselves and allows for different interpretations. In so doing, it also respects our intelligence as viewers or readers.
While a film is, to a degree, always showing — most ideas are communicated through scenes that the viewer can actually see — expository dialogue is often used, sometimes to good effect, but often to a film’s detriment.
For most of its runtime, Joker does a good job showing. This is due in no small part to Joaquin Phoenix’s excellent performance. His facial expressions and awkward movements. His laugh.
We see the pain he endures.
The film explores its ideas through visual imagery. It examines Fleck’s mental state, encouraging the viewer to question what is real and what is imagined. Depending on the interpretation, Joker shows both a painful reality and an idealized imagination.
The entire run-time is filled with powerful imagery that allows us to witness Fleck’s pain and encourages us to empathize with him. Joker shows its ideas and its message through its setting and its actions.
Then, the climactic scene happens.
For nearly two hours, we’ve seen a clear depiction of his mental state, the mistreatment that results, and his increasingly negative response. But his appearance on Franklin’s show brings a sudden dump of expository dialogue that is wholly unnecessary, and comes off as a heavy-handed attempt to tell us what message the film was trying to portray.
Joker’s own question and answer — “What happens?” and, “You get what you deserve” — suggest, quite clearly, that the mistreatment he experienced is what directly caused — and what justifies — his violent behavior.
This scene — the needless exposition-dump, and the violence that follow — made me question the film’s message regarding mental illness.
Why, I thought, did Joker suddenly resort to such clear expository telling, when it’s done such a good job showing up to this point?
And I think it may come down to concerns about what viewers may take away from the film.
In the wake of virtually every mass shooting — which, unfortunately, have become a common feature of cultural life in the United States — there is a conversation that sometimes pits the issues of gun reform and mental illness as opposing explanations for gun violence.
I do not mean to suggest that there is no place for a conversation about these issues. In fact, we are in need of a wider and more open cultural conversation about mental health. However, initiating that conversation by, and centering it on violence is highly problematic.
One of the dangers of associating mass shootings with mental illness is that it risks perpetuating the myth that mental health is closely related to violence. That mental illness and violent crime are closely related is already a belief among a significant portion of the public, yet is unsupported by data. It’s a distraction from the more important, more complicated, social, cultural, and political factors that contribute to violence, and further stigmatizes and marginalizes those suffering from mental illness.
As much as Joker tries to depict the other in a sympathetic manner, its most powerful imagery is a shocking act of violence. And, importantly, one that follows an expository dump that directly links violence with the mistreatment of those suffering from mental illness.
In other words, Joker’s climactic scene directly links mental illness with violence, and I can’t help but think the over-explanation of Fleck’s suffering was designed to serve as a counter-measure against this negative association, to make it seem reasonable and understandable.
In this, I think Joker failed.
People love stories, and from those stories we often carry with us the most powerful imagery.
Joker is a good film that is worth seeing. And, in some sense, it should be applauded for its attempt to depict the other.
In the end, though, I fear that what it shows most powerfully is violence and aggression on the part of a man suffering from a mental illness, and in so doing, risks perpetuating a dangerous and untrue myth, rather than engaging in a meaningful conversation about mental health.
Perhaps, Joker really is just a good movie that says nothing, but says it quite loudly.