Joker: Birth of a Super-Villain in a Capitalist Society
How 'Joker' is the product of its time.
As of this writing you've probably seen 'Joker'. It's just one of those movies that garners a divisive reaction. To be fair, most of the criticism has come from film critics but most audiences have really appreciated the movie. Joker has earned over $334 million in US and Canada, and has earned $1.067 billion worldwide.
The two times I've watched it in theatre, my fellow movie-goers showered it with applause after it ended.
However, if we take a look at the critics it has been a different story. On Metacritic, it has a rating of 59. The disparity is also shown on Rotten tomatoes, where the critics rated it at 69 versus the audience that rated it at 88.
I do want to acknowledge that it still has won some acclaim and accolades. There's some Oscar-buzz surrounding the movie, which we will hear about soon enough. It won the Golden lion at the Venice Film Festival. It also got four nominations at the Golden Globes, out of which Hildur Gudnadottir won for Best Original Score, and Joaquin Phoenix, won for best actor. His speech is linked below, it was kind of all over the place, but there were still some sprinkles of sincerity there.
The Cruelty of People
In terms of the disparity between the critics and movie-goers reaction to 'Joker,' there's obviously a different way that critics view things. The critics view movies in terms of the structure and apply their knowledge in film studies to give us an informed opinion about what movies to watch.
In this way, there is a power disparity between the average film-goer and the critics, who become the arbiters or the gate-keepers of taste. In large part, the main problem most critics had was a moral one.
Joker was seen as a movie that celebrates violence, glorifies inceldom and minimizes the struggle of people with mental health issues.
There is a bit of truth in that but what I want to argue is that movies shouldn't be viewed by making moral judgements on what the characters do, some of the best movies have been created when we follow morally-flawed characters.
Having said all that, I want to say that there is a message in the movie. That all those moral failings, are the result of an oppressive society.
Memes aside, the reason the critics don't like the movie is because, it seems to them, that the movie doesn't condone the actions of Arthur Fleck/ Joker. But the critics will not make that same criticism of the world he inhabits in. The real villain is the setting.
Gotham City is a simulacrum of the real world, in this way it shares similarity with the world we live in right now. A world where there is a disparity between the working-class and the elites.
I will, however, for the purposes of this article, try to use the internal logic of the movie to make that case.
If we take a look at the movie, it begins with the discussion of the ongoing garbage strike. We could make an inference that it's a labor dispute. It seems that the authorities don't care, as the garbage continues to pile up.
The city is a literal dumping ground. They say that it will impact everyone in the city but the immediate impact is for the working-class. The city reeks of forgotten things, and it's the working-class that's swimming in filth.
This is where we find Arthur Fleck, trying to smile. He puts on his make-up to pretend that everything is ok, preparing himself to twirl for a job that he hates. As he attempts to do his job he gets harassed, cornered in an alleyway and gets beaten up.
There is a brilliant shot of him rolling on the floor defeated. Writhing in pain, and as the camera dollies out-- we see that there is water coming out of the flower on his breast-pocket. His heart is breaking. It's bleeding.
In the first 15 minutes, we establish that Gotham is a hellscape: the ever-present police sirens in the background, dilapidated apartments, the rude people who are lashing out at each other because they can't lash out at anything else, and also there are Super-rats now. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly oppressive.
These are all conditions that can't lead to anything constructive. We're already heading towards disaster.
There Will Be Violence
Society has spectacularly failed Arthur and continues to pile on the garbage, so to speak. In the scene, where Arthur's boss is yelling at him for losing the sign because of the beating he took. He docks his pay for losing the sign and doesn't care for the physical safety of his employee. As the boss continues to yell, the camera closes up on Arthur, looking teary-eyed with a goofy smile on his face.
And in the background, before the scene transitions, you hear a heavy sound of something breaking. The kind of sound that reminds you of a mind finally cracking. It cuts to Arthur kicking the garbage furiously. There is more exploitation. It's getting too much.
Frustration is building up, not only for Arthur but for the working class too. The defective elevator-ride with his neighbour, Sophie. His delusional relationship with her and now he has a gun and the two-finger-gun-to-the-temple-and-bang gesture. These are all implications of the violence to come.
And then there is-- Arthur decides to fight back against the Wayne Corp employees. He kills three of them as they attempt to assault him. His heart was broken once before and it won't happen again.
He runs and finds himself in the bathroom. He sees himself in the mirror. He recognizes himself and it's this recognition that births his new identity. He finally has control of his life. The control was granted to him by taking other lives, he finally realizes that he exists.
The Spectre of Socialism
After the subway murders we begin to see the new political order that is emerging. The haunting spectre of Socialism is floating up above. The subway murders has energized the 'Kill-The-Rich' sentiment. We continue to see the cruelty of the system as Arthur loses access to his Therapist and medication. They are 'cutting the funding'.
The victims of austerity are, once again, the working-class. Arthur complains to his therapist that she doesn't listen to him; she replies that neither one of them has a voice. This is juxtaposed to Thomas Wayne, the rich businessman running for Mayor. He is being interviewed on TV. His voice is being heard because of his wealth. But now Arthur's voice is being heard too. He realizes that the media ' begins to notice' him after his violent act. The media amplifies people of wealth and violence.
Thomas Wayne seems to be a representation of a typical Neo-liberal politician. And he further antagonizes the working-class when he refers to them as 'Clowns'. Instead of recognizing their pain he further creates a distinction between the 'Clowns' and 'Those-who've- made-something-of-themselves.'
The storyline of Thomas Wayne being Arthur's father is just a way to point out that they live in completely different realities. The world of the elites is crowned with opulence, mansions and all Arthur can do is look through the gate and the gate-keeper denies him entry.
And that denial is the main reason of resentment. Arthur is denied validation from Thomas Wayne, from Murray, from his Mother, from his Co-workers, from his therapist and from Society. He wants to be validated.
The only thing that he has, is his relationship with Sophie. Two-finger-gun-to-the-temple-and-bang gesture. And it's not real. There is nothing and no one that appreciates him. And now he will take revenge on all those who have failed to validate him. He will make them 'notice' and society has taught him that the only way he can be heard is by inflicting violence on a grander scale. Where everyone can see him.
Death of the Gate-keepers
Arthur is both victim and villain. He suffers from mental health issues, he is starved of affection, recognition and validation but at the same time his actions, should be condemned. Turning to violence on other people needs to be condemned and absolutely discouraged.
However, from a purely cinematic experience, there is something cathartic of him finally becoming the Joker. He has self-actualized into a psychopath. It is the complete subversion of the Hero's Journey, where we see the hero go through trials, tribulations and struggles and then coming out of it as a better hero; instead, we see the opposite in Joker where through his trials, tribulations and struggles he becomes a mass-murderer.
This isn't a transformative or a transcendent experience. It's a moment of immanence. As in, what else could he be? The trajectory of his life was a downward spiral. When he tells Murray his final joke: "What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?"
Answer: "You get what you fucking deserve."
The delivery of these lines, the way it's communicated is through a Joke. But these lines, encapsulate what the movie is telling us. The movie lays the blame on the creation of disturbed, violent individuals on a broken system that alienates and exploits the most vulnerable of it's populace. And we only give them recognition once they make the news after doing a violent act.
When he does his final parting shot he symbolically kills the one person who's validation he wanted the most. He has killed the gate-keeper who in his mind was denying him validation. Now the process of self-actualization is complete. There is no authority figure that can stop him from becoming the comedian he always wanted to be, and to kill him with a joke-- that was just the cherry on top. He looked up to him as a comedian but now he has surpassed him, in his mind. He is going to be heard now.
I feel this is where the movie finally tells us that Joker isn't someone who wants to offer any prescriptions. He recognizes that society is to blame but as he mentions in the movie he isn't political. This is a good move on part of the filmmakers, because if he did, his actions would corrupt the real concerns of the working-class.
The Joker is an authoritarian at heart because he doesn't believe in the movement but will co-opt and hijack their message to meet his own selfish need to be validated. To be recognized. And by doing this violent act on live TV his voice is amplified. And with that he has finally become A comedian-- A comedian who paints a smile in blood.
Joker is a movie that shows people in privileged positions are being challenged. They are no longer the ones to tell us what is good and what is bad. "What is funny and what's not."
The same goes with the critics. Let me be clear, we should hear them out but we shouldn't accept their authority blindly. That's what's been happening in the world at large. From the current political situation we are seeing there is a general trend for Anti-establishment movements.
The movie blames the ills not squarely on the individuals but in an environment of neglect, exploitation and disenfranchisement. Would we have a Joker in a different society? That's something we have to ask ourselves.
We also need to address the legitimate concerns of the working-class before these movements can be hijacked by 'Jokers'. Who don't have anything to offer but chaos and violence.
We shouldn't privilege authority and not put faith in individuals to change the system but rely on democratic means to bring an effective change in the world.
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