WARNING: The following contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in theaters now.
Joker aims to be a complex look at a troubled man and the things he does when he goes off the rails. But while Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is somewhat designed to be pitiable, he's also portrayed with a troubling amount of sympathy by the film. When things don't work out the way he wants, he begins killing people. But the film still wants to make him at least understandable, even empathizing slightly with the character and his plight.
But there's nothing to Arthur Fleck's actions beyond his immediate wants and desires. It makes him a particularly selfish and careless man, someone audiences shouldn't identify with. Instead he should be seen as a genuine monster for his crimes. That's the problem with rooting for Arthur Fleck (as the film does throughout the narrative, ending with a literal crowd chanting the Joker's name) and the morality of Joker as a whole.
Despite all the terrible things he does, it appears that Joker ultimately wants us to root for Fleck, at least on some level. The film paints him as a sympathetic and sweet guy in his quieter moments, a man who'd be fine if the world was kinder towards him. Although the film is wary of his actions, we're supposed to root for the poor, pathetic man who's been trodden upon his entire life to finally stand up for himself.
But what doesn't work about that is the darker aspects of the character aren't in service of any real thematic push. There's no morality or reasoning behind Arthur Fleck, twisted or otherwise. There's just a man lashing out at the world. Unlike other films that attempt similar arcs with unlikable protagonists (such as Taxi Driver), however, there's no real cause fueling his rage, no exploration or introspection. He lists off a litany of complaints with the world but never strives to make the world a better place in any of those regards. He just expects it to be better -- and lashes out when it's not.
The closest thing Fleck has to a cause is to bring up how the social services designed to help people like him have been cut, leaving people with issues to fend for themselves in a largely uncaring world. Yet, even before he stops going to therapy and has his medication cut off, he's clearly a man at the edge of a precipice.
Fleck has extended delusions even while on the drugs provided to him by the state. He talks about how unhappy and angry he is, even when his life is grim but somewhat stable. There's anger bubbling under the surface at his co-workers and the other citizens of Gotham long before he has any reason for it. There's no genuine target for it, no single cause that actually motivates Fleck outside of his own emotions getting the better of him. His fury just exists, and the film takes a perverse glee in seeing it unleashed without any proper reason. His philosophy seems to be "they laughed, let's kill them," and it comes to the forefront with no consideration.
What makes matters worse is that by the end of Joker, Fleck's empty philosophy ultimately turns out to be right. When Fleck embraces the madness within him, he takes on the persona of the Joker and begins to walk with more confidence and tell jokes with a rhythm that he lacked before. He seems inspired by his new "freedom," which includes a lot of violence and crime. His rant against the world on the Murray Franklin show about the way society operates to "mock" people like him is largely removed from his decisions. He wasn't getting some perverse sense of justice through violence, he was getting revenge. But when the citizens of Gotham hear his complaints and see him shoot a man in the head on live television, many of them decide he's right.
Joker inspires an outright riot in the streets. He's cheered on by the crowd that has come out in support of him. He receives the love and attention he's always wanted. In essence, the film ends with the murderer victorious. He shows Gotham its own dark soul in the process of unleashing his own. Yet, the fact remains that this wasn't Fleck's intentions.
He didn't kill the Wayne Enterprises employees because society was broken and he wanted to show the world that at least one man wasn't going to take it anymore. He killed the first two in self-defense and hunted down the third to protect his own skin. He smothers his mother with a pillow because she lied to him. And when a former co-worker comes to offer Fleck a present in a gesture of sympathy for the loss of his mother, Fleck stabs him for always going behind his back. None of these victims were symbols of society's failure. They were just people that Fleck specifically didn't like, and he's a troubled enough man to consider that a capital offense.
There's no larger cause for his actions. It makes Fleck's final speech on the Murray Franklin show incredibly out of character and fake. It's an attempt to justify his actions and the impact they've had on others that sounds weighty in the moment but falls apart in the face of the truth of his motivations.
However, the film doesn't treat it as a hollow victory for Fleck, who can be seen joyfully dancing around Arkham Asylum at ease after his eventual arrest. Neither is it bittersweet for all the rioters, who will likely get away with murder and mayhem thanks to the sheer chaos of the city. The film ends with Fleck "proven right" when he was never trying to actually prove anything. The message of the movie is apparently "society sucks, so you might as well do the bad things you want to do" -- an incredibly bleak premise for a film centered around a murderous clown.
It makes Fleck an incredibly poor protagonist, someone the film keeps pushing into the limelight as an unlikely anti-hero to the masses, when really he's just a bad man doing terrible things for no good reason. At times, the film doesn't seem to understand that about itself. The problem with rooting for Fleck is that it means cheering on a murderer. Yet throughout the film he is celebrated for his crimes, not his motivations. No matter how bleak your life narrative is, that probably shouldn't be the message you leave the theater with when the credits roll.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham.