Empathizing with the Joker!

We occasionally get to know about a person or a deed, which we refer to as “Evil”. These deeds or the people associated with them possess a moral compass, which is in total dissonance with that of ours’s. Though these minorities might be a subset to the society that encompasses them, we often, comfortably, consider them as aliens. They are as much a product of the milieu, as a so called “Normal” person is. Each person, born into this society, is equipped with an equipoised core, a substrate capable of multivalence. The nurturing milieu’s mood teases out the Evil, or the Good, or both in varying permutations; from the individual. The adult persona is but a function of the environment that breeds it. This empathy for the moral other is not an exercise in condoning, justifying or rationalizing the malevolent deeds.

Arthur Fleck in his saner days
Gotham City

Joker is an interesting character. A benign and a playful façade hiding Evil is an appealing conceit. However, the latest representation, in the 2019 film—Joker, of the character is conceived differently. He is no more a caricature, no more a superhuman antagonist. He is humanized and made the protagonist. He still has evil elements in him, but he is no more the evil incarnate. This film does not dwell upon the Joker’s duels with Batman. Instead the film maker and the writer take you on a tour through his psyche. A journey in which we witness: a poor, aspiring stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck, afflicted by a weird illness that causes inappropriate fits of laughter, taking care of his ageing mother, and is constantly being bullied and harassed by the hostile Gotham city.

Arthur Fleck and his mom Peggy

Arthur Fleck’s evolution into the Joker is well fleshed out. To start with Arthur Fleck is outwardly “normal”, however we get to know of the weird elements that inhabit him. Gotham city and its people’s depression-era-behavior tease out the Joker in Arthur Fleck. If there is a villain in this story it is Gotham city. We end up empathizing with the Joker rather than hating him or being scared of him.

Fleck, is now the Joker

If I were to say that the portrayal of Arthur Fleck and his Gotham city were influenced by Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, it would be an understatement. The depression era Gotham city shares many of its seedy features with Taxi Driver’s New York. The meanness of its inhabitants, and the void between the rich and the poor, are some of the glaring similarities. By basing the Joker on Taxi Driver, the makers of Joker, put the emphasis on the evolution of evil rather than evil itself. Most of the plot unfolds from the Joker’s point of view, which forces us to understand the situation rather than judge. Thus, the empathy for the Joker, which we acquire at the end, does not seem coerced but naturally acquired.

Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver
Taxi Driver’s New York