Slammed by the critics as “a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness…a cynical movie so vast and pervasive….an intensely racialized movie…awash in racial iconography,” the movie Joker, in true never-ending culture war fashion, has become the latest politically-charged work of art with endless interpretation and debate.
Even before its release, much was made about its potential to inspire mass shooters. After its release, having pulled in $96.2 million domestically on opening weekend alone, it remains a cinematic hot potato: too dark and violent for some, overtly racial and political for others, a challenging look at mental health in America, among other things.
Summary and Analysis
Joker is not just the latest superhero flick. In fact, it is not a superhero movie at all; it is a very dark and timely portrait of a mentally deranged albeit relatable individual, who slowly descending into greater levels of madness, provides a peek into a society that is far too familiar to our own.
Joker’s many modern political, social, and economic parallels embodies our angst-filled cultural era: disillusion with government, an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, decaying cities with growing poverty and forgotten people, an undercurrent of rebellion against the established powers that be, callous disregard and distrust of one’s neighbor, vapid entertainment that is virtually the singular joy of both the rich and poor alike, etc.
At a surface level, Arthur Fleck, the crazy clown guy protagonist undergoing his Joker transformation, is a man simply down on his luck. The proverbial loser and mama’s boy who can barely provide for himself much less attract the attention of a potential mate, the disenchanted Fleck nonetheless experiences deep emotions and yearns for greater meaning and significance. It is this desire for more that propels his life forward and keeps his dream of being a stand-up comedian alive.
As the movie unfolds viewers are introduced to many of Fleck’s many personal problems – most of them, with varying levels of difficulty, out of his control: being born on the “wrong side of the tracks” to a single struggling mentally unstable mom in a god-forsaken crumbling city; being born with a not-so-pleasant face and physique and neurological disorder that makes him laugh uncontrollably.
In short, Fleck is your proverbial societal reject: dirt poor, unattractive, creepy. But his undeniable relatableness makes him all the more mysterious and weirdly attractive. We feel for him, and keenly aware of our own human frailty, can identify, even empathize, with his many hurts, weaknesses, and frustrations.
From the very beginning we shriek when he is pummeled with his own sign, sigh when he is told that his counseling sessions will be cut, feel vengeful when he is set up by a deceitful co-worker, cringe (but secretly hope for the best) when he summons the courage to do stand-up comedy.
We get glimpses into his internal angst and frustration from a little book he journals in – “I hope my death makes more cents than my life” and “The worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave like you DON’T.”
A man of many contradictions, personal secrets, and hidden desires, Fleck’s physically frail body, mentally disturbed mind, and emotionally battered soul eventually culminate into violent outbursts – first against attackers on a subway car, the mother who lied to him, then against the co-worker who betrayed him, and ultimately against the very “system” that both gave rise to and abandoned him.
Once on the fringes of society barely able to survive and function toward the end of the movie he begins to embody the system he once loathed. By the time he reaches the set of the show-host he once adored, too disenchanted and too aware of the pretentious nature of the elite class so far removed from him and others like him, he tells it like it is – again, to a too honest and disturbing degree: he shoots Murray Franklin (played by Robert DeNiro) in the head – sparking a riot and revolution among the disenchanted underclasses, also in clown attire. The once-forgotten, ridiculed, and despised “clowns” are now turning the tables and getting the greatest thrill and laugh of their lives: revenge.
Little did Fleck know that his life would play such a revolutionary role. In this new awakened state, experiencing a twisted serenity and closure – far from being incapacited by his lowly estate on the margins of society – Fleck (perhaps now, more aptly put, The Joker), the chief villain to be combated by the forces of good, forces viewers to question the very nature of what gives rise to his ilk among many other touchy things.
Although Joker takes place in the 70’s-80’s much of the movie feels very present and lifelike. For further talk and discussion, here is my take on the various social, economic, and political undertones of the movie.
Gig Economy, Servant Class, and Barely Making Ends Meet
The Joker’s part-time occupation of a clown-for-hire is the first thing that you are introduced to. No other social skills and professional background qualify him for any other work so he scrambles around town from location to location as a fully costumed clown either holding signs and dancing outside of struggling businesses, singing and dancing in children’s hospital rooms, etc. The work pays low, his co-workers think he is strange, and he is eventually set up by one of them–forcing him to lose his meager part-time gig.
I couldn’t help but feel his pain and disenchantment with a system so seemingly impenetrable. Try as he might, his inability to find his voice and land his place leaves him to wishful thinking and fantastical dreams: the courage to speak to his pretty neighbor, the dream to one day appear on stage with his much-idolized talk show host, and his ambition to finally be noticed and accepted socially and professionally.
The Joker’s place on the bottom of the pecking order brings to mind the millions of tech “workers” eeking out livings through part-time contract-based work so typical of today’s increasingly impersonal digitized world. In his wonderfully-worded hard-hitting New York Times opinion piece, Farhad Manjoo, calling out both sides of the political aisle for their hypocrisy and inaction, indicts the tech industry’s creation of a “vast digital underclass” as follows:
What worries me is that these laborers are invisible “ghost workers” hidden behind screens and apps and algorithms and digital tip jars, working for unpredictable, A.I.-dictated, sub-minimum wage, beckoned into furious action when you press this or that button on your $1,000 aluminum-and-glass happy machine.
Recently, Brietbart, a not-so-liberal publication, echoing something similar, talked about the fast-growing “servant class,” the dog trainers and sitters, chefs and personal trainers of the rich, who, too busy to do trivial things in today’s hyperconnected world, outsource such work in the name of “freedom,” “opportunity” and “flexibility.”
Contrast the limited and transient nature of the toiling forgotten underclass workers with the permanence of wealth and privilege among the top and you have class restlessness like no other: entitled, well-connected elites doing whatever it takes (college admissions bribing, etc.) to stay firmly in their place, poor disenfranchised and middle classes working whatever “gig” they can.
Who or What is Good? Who Decides? Looks are Deceiving
The very nature of good and evil, and what gives rise to either, is at issue in Joker. Just who is really good and who is, in fact, evil is also probed deeply. Societal assumptions regarding people’s worthiness is yet another theme. Here are some of my observations.
Thomas Wayne, the pure untouchable elite, who feels its his duty to protect the rotting away Gotham, also feels an animus and disdain for the “clowns” he so easily reviles, even while never having lived among, nor been in any kind of contact with them. Is he – and, his son, Bruce (BATMAN), for the matter, truly virtuous when their aim appears to be geared more toward preserving order and stability for their own sake and/or avenging grisly deaths?
The subway trio, the well-dressed Wall Street guys – why is the city so enraged, and so quick to enact a fast and furious response against the clown clan, upon their death, and not at all moved by the horrific political and economic conditions of the underclasses? One group is clearly more visible and memorable; the other, like the real-life story of the four homeless men in a New York City alleyway beaten to death, not so much, appearing mostly as afterthoughts on social media feeds worldwide.
The System: Dark, Distrustful, and Disposable
There doesn’t seem to be any assurance anywhere or hope virtually anywhere. Betrayal, backstabbing, theft, and murder are as common to blood family members as they are to complete strangers. The world of the Joker–the world that created, nurtured, and disposed of him–is one gone mad.
The rich are mean and nasty and cause trouble with passerby in the subway; the poor struggling folks on city buses are no nicer, feeling distrust and disgust at the likes of the Joker; the well-heeled from the upper crust, the Thomas Waynes of the world, feel utter contempt for the underclasses mired in poverty; indeed, the “system,” as the social worker lady reminds Fleck, “doesn’t care about me and you.” Without a say otherwise, things just go on, unnoticed and unchallenged.
Entertainment, for both the rich and powerful and the poor underclass, is their only commonality. Truth Doesn’t Matter
In such a society crippled by joblessness and the resulting hopelessness that settles in, the crime, neglect, and decay that then begins to run rampant, entertainment – particularly comedy shows and late night talk shows – appears to be the only momentary escape in a world barely able to function. With no human touch and warmth anywhere, sitting by the television and vicariously living through the idealized funny world of elitist talk show hosts seems to be the next best thing to do.
Interestingly, of all people, only the Joker, unreliable as he was as a narrator for most of the movie given his paranoia and delusions, is able to tell the world what is really going on. The cold utter disregard of others; being used by the talk show host purely for amusement; concern only for the well-bred wealthy, and more. He knows it at all.
But what is it about reaching such a devastating low like he did that enables us to see the truth of what is going on? And what is it about modern life and entertainment that keeps us in a perpetual state of oblivion? Why the ease to plug in so readily – perhaps an escape from misery among the poor, from the moral obligation to take care of one’s neighbor for the rich?
Personal Willpower, Product of One’s Environment.
Like with most of life’s complex problems, one’s ability to rise and overcome is another’s tragic downfall. We all are at different places in life and, at one time or another, experience the full spectrum of life: the good, bad, and ugly, as they say. However, what if your life has only been the latter – ugly, dark, and painful? What does that say about one’s development as a human – and in the case of the Joker – one’s descent into madness and insanity?
One’s attempt to will things so doesn’t always translate into that desired outcome. The Joker certainly desired many good things in life – and, in his awkward, unstable way – went about them in an honest way. Wall after wall was erected in his way, preventing him from achieving such things. Who or what do you return to then? That is the great mystery and complexity of life – our individual, highly subjective experience that can lead to near-miraculous outcomes for the proverbial underdog or tragic horror stories too common on the news these days.
Some movies speak in low hushed tones; others, like Joker, speak quite loudly. It is this intensity that arouses strong emotions and very divergent interpretations of the film. That, again, is life: people being them, believing what they will, and speaking their version of the truth. For me, and for others willing to acknowledge the plight of our times, I think Joker has a lesson for us all.