Does “Joker’s” cinematic brilliance outweigh its controversial themes?

Despite praise and box office success, Todd Phillips' "Joker" may do more harm than good.

Michael Burns

Todd Phillips’ “Joker”, released in the United States on October 4, sparked controversy beginning as far back as it’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Certain audiences aren’t keen on the movie’s portrayal of mental illness, some calling the film “deeply troubling” and “dangerous.”  Though “Joker” may be triggering to some, It doesn’t deserve the backlash it has received.

“Joker” follows Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, a struggling comedian craving affection from society. Fleck’s transformation is controversial, being it’s a white male turning to violence – many believe it’s a bad time for such a film to be released. Audiences worry “Joker”  has a negative impression on youth. Sandy Phillips, the creator of the nonprofit group Survivors Empowered, told the Hollywood Reporter, “My worry is that one person who may be out there — and who knows if it is just one – who is on the edge, who is wanting to be a mass shooter, may be encouraged by this movie.”

“Joker” is honest about living with a mental illness, but for cinematic reasons the film intensifies the struggles. Phillips intends to make a statement about how society treats people with mental illnesses, though many find the film to connect the root of violence to disorders. This is a plausible statement, being the symptoms of Fleck’s mental illness is used to back up his descent into brutal madness. Mental disorders are a tough subject, definitely in film, and Phillips should be acknowledged for the risks he was willing to make – whether the risks landed or not is up to the audience. 

Critics are worried about the effects “Joker” may have on mentally unstable viewers. The all too real violence performed by Arthur Fleck appears triggering and treacherous. Infamous mass murderer, James Holmes, entered a Colorado Cineplex with grenades, a rifle, and other guns, killing 12 people and injuring 70 at a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” (another film in the Batman franchise)  in 2012. Holmes had dyed his hair red and called himself “the joker”, making the possible consequences of “Joker” all the more alarming.   

The violence displayed in “Joker” is mild, we’ve seen significantly more violence in the “John Wick” series, “Rambo”, and many other action blockbusters. The stigma surrounding Hollywood violence has gotten out of hand. On Piers Morgan‘s CNN show, magician Penn Jillette stated, “There is no violence in entertainment. None. Zero. There is the artistic depiction of violence.Jillette brings up an interesting topic — films can never truly capture real violence. Film director Guillermo Del Toro portrays gore in an imaginative way, as “Fight Club’s” David Fincher takes a more gritty approach. No two movies are identical, and the same can be said about the violence. 

In the end, “Joker’s” controversy didn’t have an impact on the film’s success. With over $953 million globally after its fifth week in theaters, “Joker” is the most profitable comic book movie, as well as the highest-grossing R rated film. The movie continues to soar, getting a lot of Oscar buzz, specifically for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the infamous villain.