Film The Visual

“Joker” Wanted to Start a Conversation About Mental Illness. Here’s Why It Failed

Todd Phillips’ Joker captured moviegoers in early October, opening at a record $96 million domestically and later claiming the title of highest-grossing R-rated movie over Deadpool.  Since opening, the film’s self-described “mentally-ill loner” on a killing spree has generated a slew of controversy, ranging from praise as a brilliantly provocative representation of mental illness to critics highlighting the movie’s irresponsibility in an era of rising mass shootings and violence. Criticism aside, there is no denying that Joker sets out to establish that the villain’s legendary cruelty is a result of his mental illness. In doing so, the film not only explicitly draws a connection between mental illness and violence, but also creates a cliché villain that ultimately fails to present a unique character-driven story.

Joker had the opportunity to offer a more realistic version of the Joker we all know from the DC comics. In this version, he wouldn’t be just some psychopathic criminal mastermind, but a pragmatic villain with a set of complex beliefs, struggles, and backstory — a deeply disturbed terrorist. Notably, Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance of the Joker was deeply rooted in realism to showcase the character’s anarchist motivations. However, Joker wasn’t sure what it wanted to be: representative of the DC universe, or its own dark tale of a man with mental illness. As a result, the movie relies on a didactic script focused on tropes and inaccurate stereotypes of mental health. The final product is neither a powerful story nor a successful exploration of a mentally ill man, but an exploited and villainized message of what someone thought mental illness on film should be.

The overkill of Arthur’s mental condition

The careful portrayal of a character’s mental health can add unique complexity to their role or advance the plot. However, watching how Arthur’s mental illness was built into his character was like watching the poster child for insanity. The first scene opens with his mandatory therapy session. From the bat, the scene invites the viewer to feel bad for him by focusing on how “ill” he is, from the dim color pallet to the worn-looking wardrobe. Throw in choice dialogue with repetition of his seven medications and Arthur’s odd laugh, with a close-up of his disturbing journal and his bored-looking therapist, and one thing is clear: This is one anti-social, depressed, down-on-his-luck guy. While these elements may seem like characterization, they aren’t providing any new information to the viewer about mental health. Dark colors, medications, and a disturbing journal are overused and easily recognizable images associated with depression in film. As a result of these cliché images, we don’t learn anything unique about Arthur or how he embraces his depression — so we can’t latch to a specific human element of his character, which makes it difficult to sympathize with him. Sympathy comes from the ability to feel sorry or understand where someone is, even if it isn’t something that one has experienced directly. In this case, while the visuals are recognizable, they are so commonplace that audiences are desensitized to his plight and unable to truly feel sorry for his situation. 

One of the most cringe-worthy moments is the scene where Arthur cries while putting on his clown makeup. The contrasted golden lighting on his face and the close-up of Arthur pulling at his lips to force himself to smile screams, “I’m hiding my depression.” Rather than being an individualistic character-building moment that indicates this is how Arthur feels every day or this is what his routine is, it’s an over-the-top, seen-before representation of depression that tells the viewer, “You should feel bad for him.” Having what should be a powerful introduction to Arthur rely on cliché visuals is problematic to the story because it fails to let him exist as a dynamic human with depression. Strong stories need that unique, dynamic, and sympathetic moment to latch on to. Those moments are key to building character development, progressing the plot, and even advocating for a centralized message like improving the stigma around mental illness. The other downfall of this drawn-out characterization is the negative effect on pacing. While not all films need to adhere to the three-act structure, every story needs a framework to help progress the story and present information in a way that is logical for the audience. The first 90 minutes of Joker are dedicated to Arthur’s mental illness, which causes the first and second acts to bleed together into one slow progression. This weighs down the film, causing it to feel like one long, tiresome introduction that culminates into a sudden and rushed third act. These clear narrative missteps result in blanketed ideas of what mental illness looks like and hurt the film’s ability to do anything meaningful with Arthur’s character.

Misuse of empathy in the story

There is nothing wrong with a little sympathy for a villain. The audience’s ability to perceive, understand, and react to another person’s distress is a huge part of successful storytelling. While sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, in storytelling, sympathy creates narrative distance where empathy cannot. Sympathy allows viewers to emotionally understand a character while also drawing a line to say, “This is a film.” This separation is key to successfully shift the audience away from empathy, or placing themselves in the character’s shoes. Viewers need narrative distance in storytelling for other elements, such as characterization and theme, to work without audience bias. When the audience becomes empathetic, the story becomes personal to them. They can’t be objective to larger thematic conversation, character arcs, or the world of the story because they are stuck in the context of their own biases. 

In Joker, narrative distance and sympathy would have been essential to successfully achieve what the film set out to do: evoke audience understanding toward Arthur, explore commentary on mental illness and how society can improve mental health care, and still allow the plot to be about the rise of Arthur as a villain in his own right. Joker failed to achieve these things because in its array of narrative missteps and clichés, the film evoked empathy instead of sympathy for Arthur. This extremely problematic for the story because the audience loses narrative distance. In forcing audiences to place themselves in Arthur’s shoes, the proverbial can of worms is opened. The audience feels anger, fear, and shame. This first-person experience of Arthur’s emotions blinds the audience from the film’s intent to frame mental health as both a personal and a social issue. Instead, the film forces audiences to condone his behavior, as if to say, “It’s okay, you get what you made.” Arthur paints this picture best in the final minutes of the movie when he says, “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get: You get what you fucking deserve!” and then shoots his childhood hero in the face. As the film draws to a close, viewers watch the death scene on repeat across news channels at a television shop — a direct correlation to the news coverage after mass shootings. Given the film’s release after a deadly summer that left 126 dead in mass shootings, a film that reinforces the idea that mental health equates to violent actions, whether intended or not, is a dangerous and irresponsible misstep. 

Joker had the opportunity to responsibly showcase the harsh realities for those with mental illness, build humanity, and evoke sympathy for those struggling with depression. It could have even built a realistic representation of someone turning to violence after being failed by the mental health system and society as a whole. Joker did none of those things. By relying on blind emotion, guns, and a madman, the education element of the film is entirely lost. Joker not only irresponsibly perpetuated society’s current fears of mental illness and violence, but also fostered public acceptance of it through its distortion of narrative distance and misuse of empathy. As a result, the value of the message about Arthur’s conditions is lost. Instead, Arthur’s violent crimes are blamed on society. For the record, Time magazine noted this year people with untreated mental illness are more likely to hurt themselves than others. Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence that suggests mental illness “pulls the trigger,” and studies show that people with mental illness contribute to only about 3 percent of violent crimes. 

The joke is on you

Despite its serious shortcomings, Joker has gone on to become the most profitable comic book movie of all time and has potential Oscar buzz. It is distinctly different than what we have seen from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It wanted to be grittier, more malicious, and more interactive with its audience. Rather than presenting the escapism that comes with superhero movies, Joker wanted the audience to think about what was in front of them. That is not a bad thing, and we need more films that are representative of the human experience. This may have been what Joker attempted to do — but it could have been better. The film missed the mark because the audience never really knew who Arthur was. The creative direction and narrative choices turned Arthur into a plot device. There was nothing different, unique, or human about Arthur or his story. Instead, Joker depended on clichés and blind emotion to build a recognizable character, rather than digging into Arthur as a flawed and struggling human. Without a fully formed character, the conversation about improving mental illness’s stigma in society fell apart into a hollowed idea of what mental illness looks like and provided no inspiration for viewers to learn from the film or act upon its thematic ideas.  

At its core, story can provoke difficult conversations around the human experience through a variety of craft elements. Joker failed as a story not because it was a villain-lead film with lots of violence in a time of turmoil, or because it was a bad representation of mental illness. Joker failed because, in its attempt to be as realistic as possible and open conversations around things we can improve in society, it lost what films are supposed to do. It failed to tell a damn story about how one guy became a legendary villain.

Cassandra Wagner is a Public Relations professional based in Southern California. A story enthusiast, pop-culture connoisseur, she loves that her passion for writing can be more than just her everyday job. Her other hobbies include hunting down collectibles and dancing out at Zumba.