The buzz surrounding Joker has only been growing this awards season with each new big win by the film at various awards shows, including the BAFTAs and Golden Globes. Director Todd Phillips spoke about the central inspiration behind his film during a Q&A at an Awardsline screening at WarnerMedia's New York headquarters.
"There is a loss of empathy in the world that we all feel nowadays. ... Everything else was built on that. What if you grow up in a world without empathy? What if our Gotham was a cold, dark place full of people who don't really give a sh-t about each other? That's where this villain comes from."
It is certainly an interesting way to look at the Joker's origins. The idea that the character's descent into villainy is a direct result of society's callous behavior towards him, and a lack of help from the people who should have taken care of him, rather than his own personal choices and desire for things he could not get without breaking the law.
This interpretation of Joker is a direct contradiction to most traditional backstories for the character. Ever since he first appeared in comics, The Joker was an inherently bad person, who committed crimes for personal gain, and took joy in the act of committing gruesome murders for their own sake.
Two previous popular interpretations of the character departed from this tradition. The first was the comic The Killing Joke. It revealed Joker to have once been a down-on-his-luck stand up comic, who joined a criminal gang as a way to repay his debts, got thrown into a vat of acid, and was reborn as the psychotic Clown Prince of Crime.
The other interpretation, and arguably the most popular iteration of the character ever seen, was Heath Ledger's take on Joker in The Dark Knight. This Joker was also something of a pure soul, in the sense that he had a disdain for money, and the usual trappings of crime, and was instead wholeheartedly committed to spreading his philosophy of nihilism, and the belief that people are inherently selfish and evil, just like him.
Both these interpretations of Joker, at least to some extent, placed the blame for his destructive actions on the society around him, implying that he was forced into becoming a criminal by people and circumstances beyond his control. The Todd Phillips movie takes this line of thought to its most extreme, where Arthur's violent actions are justified as his acting out against an uncaring society that only knows to trample on the lives of the underprivileged and mentally ill.
It is interesting to consider that Heath Ledger once described his Joker as a "Schizophrenic clown with zero empathy", and now, more than a decade later, the new interpretation of the character is born, not by his own lack of empathy, but by the lack of empathy in society in general. If Heath Ledger's Joker was a reflection of the world at that point in time, what might Joaquin Phoenix's Joker say about the world today? Deadline.