Joker is an extremely popular and significantly controversial film. It has been accused of glorifying violence by making the violent protagonist someone the audience can sympathize for. However, though it is probably true that most viewers will sympathize with the protagonist to a degree, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
If we can humanize evil-doers it means two things: one, we can recognize them more easily when we see them in real life–no one ever “knows” a murderer, but they often know the neighbor who ends up being one; and two, we may even be able to reach out to these people before they turn to violence. In order to prevent violence, it is imperative we be aware of those who may pose threats. To be aware of these people, we must recognize them as human, the very humans we interact with every day. If we assume that these people are somehow fundamentally different from us, we will not recognize them until it is too late. People are better at reading each other than we like to admit. Someone who means us harm will always betray their intentions if we interact with them before they attack. To read more about this phenomenon, read The Gift of Fear. The best option, however is to reach out to potentially violent people and get them the help they need to avoid carrying out any violent acts—towards themselves or others. While it may take more than one person to do this, the movie does suggest this theme via the Sophie character.
In the movie, all it took was one person to “see” him and treat him humanely for him to have a little happiness and peace. This was Sophie, the neighbor with the daughter, who, as it turned out, only befriended Arthur in his delusions. If the relationship had been real, perhaps he wouldn’t have felt the need to lash back out at the city that had legitimately harmed him in its callous disregard and schadenfreude. However, it must also be noted that in this delusion of his, Sophie applauds the act of the killing of the three men on the subway, reinforcing his violent behavior. When confronted by the real Sophie when he enters her apartment uninvited, the audience is left to wonder whether or not Arthur harmed her.
Does the movie reinforce the stereotype that people with mental illnesses are violent people?
No. It isn’t until another character gives Arthur a gun that he commits a violent act, and that first violent act by Arthur on the subway, though carried way too far, begins as self-defense. Before this point, he had fantasized about killing himself on the Murray Franklin show with the revolver that Randall had given him. His violence was directed inwards until the incident on the subway. This is a more accurate depiction of someone with a mental illness—being more prone to self-harm than outward violence. Arthur also did not become violent until after he had been denied the opportunity to continue his medication regimen due to budget cuts by Gotham. The character being given a firearm and being denied access to medicine and being attacked by others finally led him to snap and become outwardly violent. He wasn’t just a violent person to begin with by virtue of being mentally ill.
Is Joker like these mass shooters we see in reality?
No. He only harms those that have done him wrong, though the range of these wrongs is broad. First, he kills the three men on the subway who beat him. Next, he chokes Thomas Wayne’s butler, but doesn’t kill him, for mocking him and denying him access to Wayne. Then he kills his mother, who lied to him his entire life. Next he kills Randall for treating him poorly and not being honest about giving him the gun. Next he kills Murray Franklin for making fun of him. Finally, he kills the psychiatrist in Arkham Hospital attempting to escape. None of these killings are random. Real life mass shooters may begin by killing family members or acquaintances, but seem to always kill random people as well. This isn’t “better” or “worse,” it’s just a difference.
Joker has some interesting themes about violence in it, but none of them are that violence is sometimes justified or righteous.