With Todd Philip’s new film in cinemas, there’s been a lot of concern that the film may inspire people, who for some reason or another, see themselves in the protagonist to act out in violence. There are fears that Joker will essentially become a manifesto for incels and other unfortunate people who seek to lash out at the world. So, with that in mind, let’s talk about Joker.
The film at it’s very core is a tragedy. Which is not something fans of the character didn’t know before going into the theatre. The Joker’s origin, for which there are many, will often depict a man gradually decline into madness as his life falls apart all around him. But instead of wallowing in his grief and misfortune, he seeks to share this pain through means of violence.
See, the Joker is a nihilist. He believes that life in and of itself is meaningless and to prove it to others he seeks to destroy all that is around him. The only reason we can muster as to why this miserable bastard doesn’t just off himself is his relationship to Batman. If the Joker is to represent the meaningless chaos of life, Batman represents order. To Batman life is important, inherently meaningful and therefore needs protection at all cost.
It’s this world view that Joker wishes to destroy. Every atrocity he commits is so that he can finally get Batman to snap and break his no-killing rule. Because if Batman were to cross the line, he would be abandoning everything he ever stood for. Order would be abandoned and the value of life would be diminished. The Joker would be right.
The film follows a man, Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill man struggling in Gotham City. He’s constantly belittled, disrespected, assaulted- broken down as far as a man could be. He has no friends. No relatives outside of his mother. He’s on several different forms of medication and on top of all of that he suffers from the Pseudobulbar affect; a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably.
Due to the loss of his livelihood, spouts of delusion and his mother falling ill Arthur begins engaging in violent outbursts. Seeing that his criminal acts grant him more of a sense of control over his own life than any form of medication or therapy ever could, Arthur begins his downward spiral into madness; later becoming the Joker.
From the sound of it, you might be able to understand how this film might glorify or at the very least inspire like minded individuals to engage in acts of violence. But this type of movie, in fact this type of character, isn’t out of the ordinary.
There are people who relate to Travis from Taxi Driver, a neurotic and lonely Veteran working in the seedy parts of New York city as a Taxi driver, who would later go on a killing spree at the end of the movie. Or if you want an earlier archetype of the deluded, mentally ill loner with psychotic tendencies, you don’t have to look much farther than Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. A lower middle class university student driven to murder by his resentment towards a money lender.
These type of people, these type of characters, they’re not special or uncommon. In fact they’re depressingly otherwise. They’re disenfranchised, unconnected, volatile loners who are drawn not to movies or video games for their influences, but rather political or religious ideologies that give them a sense of purpose. A cause to fight for, a them to combat a we.
The argument that violent media somehow instigates violent actions is an old, worn out argument to muddy the waters just enough so that no real social or political issues that cause an environment for this type of behaviour to flourish is ever treated and thus never resolved.
While some viewers may see themselves in Arthur Fleck and feel their worldview validated, the film Joker goes out of its way to point out that the protagonist is a bad guy. You can excuse some behaviours away due to mental illness, but his state of delusion causes him to harass his neighbours and other citizens. He’s a creepy little dude who seeks fulfilment down the barrel of a gun.
At the end of the film the idea that Joker stands for, that this is a sick world and everyone is awful so therefore everyone deserves to die, is put to the test. He’s criticised for his self pity, states of delusion and pessimistic attitude. We get what was ultimately the crux of one of the most iconic comics ever; the Killing Joke.
In this story, the Joker escapes from Arkham and engages in one of his most gruesome acts of cruelty yet. He abducts Commissioner Gordon, crippling an possibly raping his daughter and would later torture the Commissioner by parading him through a circus carnival ride by showing him naked pictures of her injured body.
All the while we are presented with flashbacks to who Joker may have been, a struggling comedian called Jack who struggles to provide for his pregnant wife. In his state of desperation, he turns to crime in order to make ends meet, making a deal with some gangsters to escort them through a chemical production factory he used to work in. But upon agreeing to this deal, Jack learns that his wife had died in a freak accident back home.
So now the pressure to provide for her is lifted, but he’s already committed himself to the crime so he has to go through with it. During the crime, Jack and the Gangsters are caught by police. They run through the factory but later run into Batman. A standoff occurs and Jack falls into a vat of chemicals, which in turn severely burns him, dying his hair green and his skin white. When he emerges from the river and sees what he has become, he starts laughing hysterically, his descent into madness is complete.
That’s the Joker’s origin. Or at least that’s what he would have us believe. The Joker is an unreliable narrator, even he doesn’t know how he came to be, saying that “if I’m going to have a past I’d prefer it to be multiple choice“. The point of his most recent horrific crime was to prove a point; that all it would take to drive the sanest man alive to where he stands is one bad day.
That’s why he psychologically tortured Commissioner Gordon, to prove that there’s no difference between him and anybody else. The problem of course with his thesis is that Commissioner Gordon wasn’t driven insane. Sure, he may have been extremely traumatised but upon being rescued the Commissioner commands Batman to bring in the Joker “by the book” in order to prove him wrong.
So the Joker is wrong. Not everyone turns into a psychotic maniac after having a bad day, it was just him.
You may be able to pity the character, but you can never excuse his actions. At least a rational member of the audience wouldn’t. But then again that’s the problem with art. People would like to think that media is flat, simple and direct- its message is simple and can change the viewers mind. Like being shot in the head with a magic bullet, but instead of killing you the bullet expands an idea in your head that alters your world view.
If it were that simple, marketers would have a lot easier job. The reality of the situation is that when an audience sees a piece of media, each viewer emits their own interpretation upon it. Your life experiences, your economic background, your home situation, sexual orientation, gender, mental health status- everything that makes you you has an effect on how you perceive the world around you. It determines how you would make sense of things that you see and digest, like a book or a movie.
For example, someone whose quite racist might not pick up on the anti-segregation message in the Beatles’ song Blackbird. In the same way, a troubled person might find a character story such as Nightcrawler to be inspirational or would reaffirm their already toxic world view. In this sense, the media you digest is meaningless until you ascribe a meaning to it.
We’d like to think people are tied down to their ways, but the reality is so much more complex. People’s behaviours are ultimately dependant on their genetics and the environment they were raised in. Whether or not you start screaming at a cashier might be dependant on whether or not you had a bitter argument with your partner. We’re all just bags of juice mixed together, crashing into one another now and again.
It kind of saddens me that so many people seem so focused on whether or not the Joker might instigate violence that they ignore the many different conversations that can be spanned out of this movie.
If you observe this film with a Marxist lens, you can clearly see the anti-austerity messages throughout the film. With direct commentary on the increasing wealth gap and the incitement of a violent riot driven by economic purposes. Hell, you could even go Meta and say that the stairway scene was a callback to Battleship Potempkin.
With a Sociological lens you can see how lack of funding in health care systems, particularly those regarding mental health, can cause an environment for erratic and violent behaviour to thrive. With the film being set in 1980’s America, it can be interpreted as a critique of the Reagan administration.
In the end Joker successfully achieves what it set out to do; to depict the disturbing and tragic origins one of the most vile and evil villains in all of fiction. It will probably be referred to as this generation’s Taxi Driver but it’s a little more special than that. It’s success goes to show that mainstream audiences finally understand what comic book fans have understood for years and that this might be a gateway for more mature, more exciting projects later down the line. Hopefully some of this stuff will be worth talking about.