What Joker Is Really About, According To Director Todd Phillips

Arthur Fleck looking in the mirror

Todd Phillips' Joker is one of the biggest movies to come from 2019, with both controversy and acclaim surrounding the dark psychological drama. Phillips brought something wholly unique to the comic book genre, as the gritty R-rated movie followed Arthur Fleck as he descended into madness in 1981 Gotham City. Its a grueling and riveting moviegoing experience, although the director recently revealed the true message behind Joker.

Joker is an unkind movie, with audiences left to watch as Arthur Fleck is beaten down by the streets, the system, and his own mental health issues. While it's an origin story about the Clown Prince of Crime, Todd Phillips actually believes his Golden Globe winning movie is about kindness and empathy. The Hangover filmmaker recently explained this distinction, saying:

If I had to drill down on one overarching theme for me, it’s about the power of kindness and a lot of people miss that. I think if you don’t see that you either don’t have a soul or you’re being reductive to make up for your own struggles in that area. But, really, to me, that’s where it started from and there are other things in the movie like lack of love, the lack of empathy in society, and childhood trauma, but the power of kindness really runs through this film.

Well, this is interesting. Arthur Fleck didn't experience kindness much in Joker, aside from his psychological delusions. But that's what the movie is about, as empathy is exactly what Joaquin Phoenix's character needed to avoid his dark fate in the movie.

Todd Phillips' comments come from the director's commentary included in Joker's home release. Joker is a movie unlike anything else from the comic book genre, as Phillips didn't include any heroes, costumes, or action. Instead the movie follows an unreliable narrator, one whose sad and lonely existence fostered the rise of The Joker.

Moviegoers can see how desperately Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck from early on in Joker's runtime. When he's watching the Murray Franklin show with his mother, Arthur imagines himself in the studio audience, connecting with the host and even being welcomed on stage. It's a sad moment when he snaps back into reality, and it's revealed that Arthur suffers from delusions.

Related: Joker Cut Joaquin Phoenix's 'Most Important Scene' Out Of The Movie

Then there's the plot line involving Zazie Beetz' Sophie. Sophie is Arthur's neighbor, and she is kind to him on a shared elevator ride. Joker then finds the two dating, with Joaquin Phoenix's protagonist finding comfort and affection. But it's later revealed that their entire relationship was a fallacy in his mind. And with his mother passed away and his medication/therapy cancelled, Arthur is left with nothing.

It's been fascinating to hear Todd Phillips' perspective on Joker in the months since it arrived in theaters. And there should be more insights coming, as the movie continues to compete in Awards Season. Phoenix won the Golden Globe for Best Actor, so we'll just have to see if the movie has legs at other ceremonies like the Academy Awards.

Joker is available on digital now, and will arrive on DVD and Blu-ray on January 7th. In the meantime, check out our 2020 release list to plan your next trip to the movies.

Corey Chichizola
Movies Editor

Corey was born and raised in New Jersey. Graduated with degrees theater and literature from Ramapo College of New Jersey. After working in administrative theater for a year in New York, he started as the Weekend Editor at CinemaBlend. He's since been able to work himself up to reviews, phoners, and press junkets-- and is now able to appear on camera with some of his favorite actors... just not as he would have predicted as a kid. He's particularly proud of covering horror franchises like Scream and Halloween, as well as movie musicals like West Side Story. Favorite interviews include Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Jamie Lee Curtis, and more.