Joker: Why So Seriously Wrong on Mental Illness?

Intro by Maria

The Joker is one of the most recognizable comic supervillains of all time. Even if you’re not a fan, you know who he is, so I guess it’s no surprise that this iconic character has had a variety of portrayals throughout the years.

In 2019, the film Joker was released, this time played by Joaquin Phoenix. This “new” version of the Joker is more realistic, showing him having a job as a rent-a-clown and taking care of his mother. He seems less like a comic book character and more like someone who is struggling. 

Struggling against what, you ask? Cue the mental illness! Yes, this movie explicitly comments upon the Joker’s mental health issues and mental illness. In fact, when this movie came out, Brandon and I had already been releasing our podcast episodes, and so I started to get a bunch of suggestions from friends that we should review this movie because it was so blatantly mental-health focused. And so in early 2020, when Brandon and I picked our 2019 movie picks, it was my pick.

Now, just because the movie comments on mental illness doesn’t necessarily mean it helps the stigma around it. The film struggles in this regard. While Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker is complex, the character’s motivation seems simplistic, driven to become the murderous Joker because he is a victim of his circumstances without enough condemnation by the film’s makers for Brandon to be satisfied. 

Furthermore, the movie blames the Joker’s mother—herself suffering from mental illness and past trauma and abuse—for all his troubles, and that may have been the worst part of the movie for us as it perpetuates the idea that victims have control over their situations at all times and have the power to stop it. We know this isn’t true, so why does a movie as recent as this still back this lie?

So if you haven’t seen this movie yet, that’s OK. Brandon would tell you that you’re not missing much, so just skip it. All you need to do is put on a happy face as we delve into the next episode of Peculiar Picture Show.



Show Summary

General: Joker and this mental health podcast are a match made in heaven

Brandon: Movie was made for this podcast; first time seeing film; movie takes place in the early 1980s; many people divided over this film 

Maria: My pick; won two Oscars; conflicted about this film

Like: There was an attempt (at a movie about mental illness)

Brandon: Directing; editing; use of music; Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck (won an Oscar); technical aspects; tried to make a statement about mental illness; style

Maria: Movie about mental illness first, then a villain origin story; style; entertaining 

Dislike: Toxic masculinity and a surprising lack of risks

Brandon: Seems to revel in toxic masculinity; some things don’t really make sense and seem forced—seemed to throw in hot talking points; movie didn’t take enough risks

Maria: Uncomfortable film; Joaquin Phoenix; 

Mental Health: Hurting perceptions of mental illness and trauma

Brandon: Criminality and mental illness; how film can affect people’s views of mental illness

Maria: Victim blaming/shaming


Brandon: Toxic masculinity is finding ways to justify violent and abhorrent behavior. And so if you look at gun culture, it’s all about finding ways to glorify people who have used guns to solve problems, who have resorted to violence because that was the only course of action, and you have this entire group of people that dream up scenarios where violence is the noble thing to do. This extends into police culture and into a lot of things, and it’s tied to toxic masculinity.

Brandon: This movie kinda has a reputation for being edgy, but one interesting thing they could have done is just let Arthur Fleck be a terrible irredeemable person, but they didn’t do that. They constructed an entire world to be mean to him and unfair to him so he would have to resort to violence. It’s like incel fan fiction.

Next time

Lady Bird (2017) vs. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

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