“Joker” film laughs in the face of controversy

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It’s been a month since the release of the Warner Brothers latest addition to the Batman universe, and movie fanatics are still going certified clown crazy over it.  

The new “Joker” movie has been highly anticipated by Batman and film fans alike since its debut at the Venice Film Festival this past summer. As the first R-rated Batman-related film, fans were raving about its dark, intense themes in the making of the infamous killer clown. 

Starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker himself, the movie highlights powerful themes related to mental health awareness and gun violence with the concept of a loner in a decayed society. 

The crime drama thriller is set in the fictional city of Gotham during the ‘80s, before the fateful night when young Bruce Wayne adopted his Batman identity. The city was depicted as a crumbling, crime-ridden urban area that lacked empathy for its citizens. Mental institutions were lacking proper government funding, which is how the audience meets the main character. 

The official movie poster for the “Joker” starring Joaquin Phoenix. Photo courtesy of IMDb.com/Joker(2019)

The plot follows Arthur Fleck, a mentally-troubled man with a dream to be a comedian. As his stand-up career continues to fall apart, the mental institutions supporting him within Gotham also fail, leaving Fleck alone with his “bad thoughts.” As a result, Fleck embarks on a downward spiral of bloody crime and chaos, meeting his infamous alter-ego known as the Joker.  

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A revolution subsequently takes place against the elites of the city, including the Wayne family, because of the various mysterious crimes in Gotham. As Fleck loses touch with both reality and society, he sees the revolution as a push towards his full adoption of the Joker identity. 

The movie holds powerful messages about today’s society and how issues like mental health and instability are handled by both the government and fellow citizens. 

While the DC graphic novel “Batman: The Killing Joke” was used as a foundation for this version of the Joker’s origin story, Phillips and other co-writer Scott Silver decided to forge their own path. 

Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, walking on the streets of Gotham with a cigarette. Photo Courtesy of Randomthoughts.com

 “There’s a liberating feeling about writing and making a film about such an unreliable narrator. You know, he says in the comic books that he prefers his past to be multiple-choice, so we thought, ‘Cool, let’s try choice B,’” Phillips said in an interview with Den of Geek.  

“We definitely made the choice to put blinders on and not look back – not because we didn’t respect that stuff, but because if we looked back at it, we might be paralyzed in fear that we have to live up to that stuff,” he continued.  

The gritty atmosphere of the film’s big city style allowed Phillips to pay homage to fellow director Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film “Taxi Driver.” Both films not only made it a point to cast award-winning actor Robert De Niro, but the underlying theme of loner in a failing society was also a strong similarity.  

The hype behind the film’s release did not disappoint. Domestic box office sales skyrocketed to over $96-million during the “Joker” weekend premiere, making it the highest grossing R-rated movie ever.  

Yet, “Joker” has managed to raise more than box office revenue and eyebrows. 

The film has been both praised and shunned for its intense themes of violence and mental health. After seeing these, many speculated if the film would become an inspiration for copycat crimes. 

This concern stems from the tragic 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado during the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises.” 12 were murdered and close to 70 were injured, marking it as the deadliest shooting in Colorado since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. 

In the week before the movie’s weekend premiere, multiple organizations warned movie-goers and theaters of a rise in otherwise disturbing talk of the film’s premiere on certain websites – describing what they considered to be a plan of mass shooting at an unknown theater.  

Security from local law enforcement was heightened in major movie theaters around the world. Many even spoke online about their preference to wait until the movie is released on DVD. 

Families of those in the Aurora shooting even spoke on the matter, issuing a press release directed towards Warner Brother Studios. They condemned the violence in the story as well as its seemingly sympathetic undertones for Fleck’s troubled past, saying that it warrants empathy for the cold-blooded criminal. 

In return, Warner Brothers pointed out its donations to victims of gun violence, but continued defending the movie, saying the intention of the film is not to instill real-world acts of violence.  

Arthur Fleck releasing the infamous Joker laugh. Photo courtesy of ComicBook.com

The film has made over $850-million worldwide, despite the backlash from its content. Needless to say, the controversies and eventual success in the box office has earned the film a spot in the global conversation.  

The conversation eventually found its way to the University of Northern Colorado campus last week. 

The Diversity Advisory Board within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences focuses on acknowledging diversity and perspective while relating these to the academic mission of the university. The board takes timely situations in today’s culture and uses them as a way to engage the community in social awareness and discussion.  

HSS Student Success Coach Hayley Blackburn saw the film as a great opportunity for the community to participate in conversation.  

“At the beginning of the semester, we were trying to brainstorm what kind of events could help students really engage in topics rather than just going to lectures. I really liked the idea of engaging in actual conversation, seeing how students feel and allowing them to interact with faculty as well.” 

The board organized two sessions of an open discussion titled “Joker: the Power Behind the Costume,” where students and faculty were invited to discuss the film and its themes. 

There was the discussion behind the power of costumes and the effect one costume can have on a single person or an entire community.  

Hands were raised and questions were proposed, which was exactly what Blackburn was looking for. 

“We came up with three goals that we really wanted. The first was in that engagement – so thinking about timely, relevant topics and helping students engage with those topics. The second was to build that sense of community – so helping students feel comfortable sharing with their peers and other faculty. And lastly was just acknowledging other perspectives and ideas that are just floating around in our social circle and having the tools and confidence to engage in and talk about all these different things with each other,” Blackburn said in an interview with Bear News 98.  

Whether it’s good news or bad, the “Joker” has rightfully risen to become a popular topic of discussion and opens avenues for more films to dive down the rabbit hole of social awareness.  

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