Few films that portray complex mental illness have had as much polarizing debate over the past year as Joker, the origin story of the infamous Batman villain, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix.

The film is set in Gotham, the fictional New York-esque city in which Batman resides. This story is unique in that it takes the viewer back to an earlier time when Batman is still a child, and the Joker has yet to evolve into his true villainous form. Since the release of the film, and despite its multiple Academy Award nominations, viewers have had some strong opinions on whether the story depicts mental illness in an appropriate manner or not.

The story focuses on Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a man whose struggle with mental illness is clear right from the start of the film. His most unique trait is that he suffers from a disorder that results in an uncontrollable laugh, which arises even at the most uncomfortable and un-funny moments (quite fitting for a man who later morphs himself into an evil clown). Fleck resides with his mother in an apartment in the city, where he takes care of her when he comes home from his day job as a – you guessed it – clown.

As the film progresses, the viewer is taken further into Fleck’s tumultuous world; His basic struggle interacting with others, issues at his place of work, the multiple medications he is on, his complicated perception of reality, his mother’s problems with mental health, and so on.

It also follows his increasingly violent nature. He gets more violent with each passing scene, which the filmmakers seem to correlate directly with his mental health concerns. It can leave the viewer with a sense that he is crazy or insane, which may be true for the Joker himself and necessary for the story, but it isn’t painting mental illness in an ideal (or completely accurate) light.

That’s where the basis of this heavy debate lies among people who have seen the film. Those who are concerned draw their argument from the films’ overarching message that mental illness equals violent outbursts and full-on lunacy.

The film shows the journey of Fleck’s complete descent into madness. He goes from dealing with a mental illness to letting it completely take over his entire psyche, thus creating a violent, menacing clown villain that ends up (spoiler alert) in a mental facility. Some viewers argue that the direct depiction that mental illness leads to violence is a harmful and skewed point of view, as many of those who deal with mental illness in real life are not violent.

In fact, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, “Current research shows that people with major mental illness are 2.5 times more likely to be the victims of violence than other members of society.”. This shows that not all mental illness sufferers are violent – in fact, they are often the victim.

Keep in mind that this is a film based on a well-known comic book universe and is not meant to be a real biographical tale. It’s a fictional character who needed an elaborate back story to establish and validate his villain title in the rest of the Batman franchise. That isn’t to say, however, that the film shouldn’t respect mental illness and how it’s portrayed. Films are extremely influential as to how we view the world, and if mental health issues are associated as being only one thing (violent and having a blurred sense of reality), many people may come to view it as just that.

The opposing argument from viewers is that it gives a clear view of what a day-to-day situation can be like for someone with a mental illness – or even just someone who is an outcast of society. Something as simple as riding the bus or speaking with others in public can be an immense challenge, and Phoenix brilliantly portrays these small yet significant moments. He astonishingly transforms himself on screen into someone who is greatly suffering at the hands of an illness, a complicated family situation, and his daily surroundings.

In one poignant scene, Fleck is notified by his social worker that her services are being cut – meaning he will no longer have her for support or even somewhere to receive his prescriptions. This is an all-too harsh reality that people with mental illness face regularly. Cuts to funding in the healthcare sector can drastically alter the everyday life of individuals who rely on services just to get by and live their lives.

It’s essential to end the stigma and engage in the discussion around mental health, especially at a time when more and more people feel comfortable opening up about their own struggles, regardless of how big or small they may be.

If anything, a film as high-profile as Joker is adding to a much-needed conversation about this important topic, and the debate and analysis surrounding it will only help to progress advocacy of mental health.

By Heather Gunn