Like A Devil's Sick of Sin
Do we silently praise villains? Do we keep them in our dark prayers to accomplish their nefarious goals? What happens when we can relate to a character so well, we begin to see shades of ourselves in them? We all wait as Lex Luther, Norman Osbourne, and Kingpin formulate their next devious plot for world dominance, only to be stopped by a single hero or a whole band of them. Even if they manage to kill our beloved heroes, someone will always show up to stop them. How do we digest a narrative so deliberately bleak, that we learn that the monsters are out there, we need help, but nobody is coming?
This month, we gathered in theaters to view the newest version of the most iconic villain in popular culture, The Joker. Actor Joaquin Phoenix and Director Todd Phillips bring their vision of the clown prince of crime set in 1980’s Gotham City. In a bold attempt to re-create what others have successfully accomplished, Joker instantly allowed for our character to become uncomfortably accessible and relatable. Without the looking glass we took for granted with Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s iterations, Joker instills intense camera work and compelling drama to bring you face to face with the mad clown of Gotham. While there are several elements of this version that set itself far apart from past films, the most notable is the inclusion of a back-story for our famed villain.
Inspired by Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Joker presents Arthur Fleck, an ill man struggling with purpose, identity, and rage. Besides suffering from inadequacies and social abuse, Fleck is inflicted with a peculiar condition causing him to burst into uncontrollable laughing fits when under stress or when frightened. Insecure and noticeably awkward, Fleck’s only support is that of his sickly and deranged mother. Quickly, we see that Arthur is a vessel for chaos and despair as his tolerance for personal anguish diminishes. As Gotham’s social and political climate begins to boil and spiral towards upheaval, Arthur starts down a path of grandiose delusions and extreme violence. As Arthur entertains thoughts of murder and suicide, his fantasies become more elaborate further weakening his grasp of reality. The turning point of the film shows Arthur as he, arguably, defends himself against a group of men who attacked him. The shock of the scene is not the murders themselves, but rather Arthur’s performance in front of a mirror after committing three brutal murders. The graceful waltz is focused, calm, and seems to place him in a state of peace amidst the chaos. Arthur commits to the carnage, and is bent on imposing his torment onto others.
As a performer, Arthur wishes to seek vengeance in a manner only a great showman can, on T.V. Arthur accepts an offer to be humiliated on live television, and turns it into an opportunity for his masterpiece and final performance. As Arthur grows more erratic and violent, his true intentions and overall plan on The Murray Franklin show becomes obscured. The film’s unforgettable climax and most turbulent act is the, seemingly, showdown between Arthur and Murray. The two do battle in a sense as they argue for rationality in deviance, and fight to determine the differences between vile acts of villainy and sensible responses to personal suffering. The exchange reaches a boiling point, as Arthur becomes overwhelmed and decides the conversation has served its purpose. What follows is a realization of chaos embodied in a man no longer restrained by logic, reason, or consequence. In full make-up, Joker takes center stage as a pillar of disorder and harbinger of mayhem.
Still, the story of Arthur Fleck allows itself for interpretation as we explore his journey into madness. Taking a closer look, we ask was Arthur’s descent inevitable or something that could have been avoided? I will quote the late Heath Ledger and state that “Madness is a lot like gravity, all you need is a little push”. While he did suffer at the hands of others, Arthur made concise choices in seeking self-serving vengeance. At the same time, Arthur took his medicine, attended meetings with his case manager, and was able to articulate his feelings to her and others. Unable to receive adequate medical attention and resources, Arthur was left vulnerable to the horrors he manifested around him. Arthur built the monsters that taunted him and sought help from those around him. In the end, Arthur was left defenseless as he realized that there is no good in this world, and there is nobody coming to save him. The tragedy of the film is Arthur himself, as we watch him surrender to the evil within. At war with himself, Arthur becomes a casualty as we watch him fall and die as the Joker is born and rises to take his place in Gotham! In the film’s sub-plot, Arthur is desperately seeking the identity of his father; although, the Joke is that it’s irrelevant who his father is when The Joker is the product of Gotham itself! The corruption of the city’s politics, and the unchecked power of the Wayne family all contributed to the delivery of the most heinous criminal in the history of Gotham City!
The film concludes with Joker explaining how and why he does what he does. Joker simply offers, “you wouldn’t get it”. Brilliantly, we are left with the notion that the story of Arthur Fleck might be one of Joker’s fantasies rather than an origin story. Whether Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix wanted us to believe in the existence of Arthur Fleck, as of this blog, has not been addressed. Regardless, Joker is a disturbing and dramatic trek into the inner-conflict, and vibrantly shows the nightmare that can result when we feed our darker beasts. I will end this blog with a poem written by Wilfred Owen. War is hell, the war within is hell within.
Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-Kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas shells dropping softly behind
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys – an ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.-
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me guttering, choking, drowning
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, butter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori
“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”