Mental Health in the Movies: a Joker Review

One of the most important lessons The Joker’s story tells is that you will always be a villain in someone’s story.

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the joker playing card

We’ve learned a lot from pop culture throughout its influence. TV and the internet have only increased the influence of pop culture – Hollywood is a puppeteer, portraying things we can apply in our day-to-day lives. While some people think of movies as an escape, others use them to tell important stories. And while the recent release of Joker might seem timely near Halloween, there are several mental health awareness dates in the month of October. In fact, the first week of October is dedicated to Mental Health Awareness and the movie’s original release date was October 4th, 2019. 

If you look closely, there’s a window into a unique perspective in this movie: we watch Arthur Fleck’s descent into mental illness through his own eyes. We watch the system fail him. 

Mental illness is a topic only recently trending in pop culture to a point where it’s become less and less taboo to discuss mental health and corresponding struggles in a more public and open forum. And of course, when it comes to The Joker himself, there’s a lot of controversy due to the horrific and tragic events of the shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. 

The story of The Joker is a controversial one. That goes without saying — yet it’s important to touch on because it may be controversial for reasons you haven’t thought of yet. 

The Joker: A History

A variety of actors have taken the role of Arthur Jenks over the years. Jack Nicholson – one of the most memorable actors took the role once upon a time. Joaquin Phoenix, most recently, took the helm. Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker is the stuff of dreams. Maybe nightmares if you’re talking to the wrong person. Jared Leto is on screen for a total of nearly 10 minutes in Suicide Squad

The Joker’s history is honestly a lot longer than the short aforementioned resume. Realistically, his history is more like an anthology because of the variety of origin stories and strange ways DC Comics has expanded on its universe, but at the end of the day, the Joker arises as the Crown Prince of Crime in Gotham.  

It’s through his sordid tale that we see Gotham become a place in need of a savior. 

A Defining Moment

The actors who have played the Joker over the years have something to say about the way the character overwhelms other parts of life. Following in the footsteps of a man who was failed by society, bullied, and finally became the supervillain who helped create Batman has destroyed a few actors who have played Arther Jenks. Namely, Heath Ledger. 

In Joker, we see the exact moment where society has failed AJ for the last time. It’s a defining moment when a clown — someone we all know and love as silly, uplifting — and comedian becomes a killer. 

For some, the Joker represents an important story. The story of a psychiatric disability that impedes a fan-favorite’s life. Although he’s the villain, you can’t help but sympathize with The Joker himself. But more on that later.

The Joker is a controversial story, especially after the events associated with other films in the Batman franchise. Even if the films aren’t related, there has been a lot of buzz about the release of this movie and past events of gun violence. The messaging in the film is dark, which begs for a comparison of the movies before it. 

The Joker: Before 

If you’re a fan of superhero novels and their corresponding story arcs, you’ll know that fandom is something to be taken seriously. Especially when it comes to comics. Everyone has an opinion on which actor or actress should play the superhero, the villain, their love interest, and more. 

Put it this way. The fandom is spread so far and wide that people create all types of things to apply the stories to real life. From “affordable” Joker Art sold at online boutiques to elaborate and internationally attended cosplay events and even fictional credit cards, it’s realistic to say fandom runs deep. Even to the actors who have played the characters in question. 

Including Jared Leto, the actor who played The Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Entertainment news, specifically the Hollywood Reporter, has been citing that the actor reportedly tried to kill the movie after feeling led-on by the director of his installment of Suicide Squad and the buzz that movie generated. 

Could Jared Leto’s issues with the film be related to the fact that his director wasn’t particularly thrilled with his version of The Joker? It’s possible, even though reviews share that Leto wasn’t really well received as the joker. In fact, his performance was pretty underwhelming

The New Joker: Released 2019

Todd Phillips directed the latest installment of the Joker’s story, but it depends on who you ask whether or not it was worth creating. If you ask Jared Leto, he’s sure to say no. But fans might disagree, especially when you consider how important fandoms are to the creation, and recreation, of stories and films in the future. 

The new Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, provides an extremely unsettling yet unique perspective into the man sitting across from the failed mental health system of America. As viewers, people see the descent into mental illness and psychiatric disarray from the individual themselves. If they’re someone who has never experienced that kind of health condition or known someone who has, it’s disconcerting to say the least. 

Mental health and mental illness have become less taboo topics over the years, filtering in and out of the national conversation. What this film does effectively, according to psychiatrists who have seen it, is that it depicts an accurate portrayal of the day-to-day lives of people with mental illness and some of the struggles they may face. Though most would say that the film leans too heavily on the tropes of mental illness instead of the story about the character himself, it’s an important conversation to bring into the realm of entertainment.

What Remains The Same

Change may be the only constant, but there are several ties to Jared Leto’s character in Suicide Squad and Phoenix’s portrayal. These things may be tied to the character of the Joker himself. Either way, the concept of a clown always smiling is relevant in the conversation about mental health. Whether it’s a metaphor or a cleverly placed allegory about the state of our society, the Joker depicts how victims of bullying — victims of pressure — can easily turn to violence when they feel helpless. 

From a comedian into a killer, the Joker represents a larger problem than a mere fictional villain. And one of the most terrifying things about the messaging in this movie is that it showcases people aren’t looking at criminals the same way. They’re idolizing them, encouraging irresponsible behavior, and falling for mistold stories of the mentally ill.

One of the most important lessons the story of the Joker tells us is that you’ll always be the villain in someone else’s story. The very same city that failed Arthur Jenks is the same city Bruce Wayne grew to love and protect.

And some final thoughts, coming from a comic book fan: while there will be no performance like that of Heath Ledger, Joker is a movie we’ve needed.

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