Joker, the long awaited stand alone origin story that director Todd Phillips consistently refers to as ‘a real movie’ (like making a superhero film is akin to making bombs for ISIS), premieres this week. The Scorsese influenced character piece turned heads from the moment it premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has only become more reviled since. One critic referred to it as ‘a dangerous movie,’ suggesting that the level of violence combined with a (vaguely) realistic depiction of mental deterioration and most crucially the political uprising of the downcast working class might encourage the more small minded of the IRL population to take their all-too-available guns out of the closet and rise up.
Joker indeed touches on issues of class and suppression and there’s absolutely a Marxist reading of the text, albeit a superficial one. The root of Gotham’s issues are at best merely hinted at and the civil discourse exists purely as a) a narrative culmination of the discovery of purpose in Fleck’s warped mind, b) the introduction the Wayne family in a semi-organic way (this is still a bat-film after all), and perhaps most pressingly c) the creation of an anarchistic and fabulously chaotic set piece for an explosive finale. Despite water cooler levels of political depth, what is clear is that Joker presents neither an incitement of revolution or a romanticism of graphic violence. What the public (and disturbingly, the allegedly ‘professionally trained film critics’) fail to understand is the distinction between the process of character alignment and the active approval of said character’s actions.
As we watch Walter White’s family life crumble, do we approve of his insistence on cooking more meth? Of course not. We do, however, understand his motivations and empathise with him because of the perspective of which the story is told, i.e: his own. In the same vein, Arthur Fleck’s story (however unreliable the narration may be) shows a downtrodden man beaten by his society in the worst ways possible. By our very nature as empathetic beings, we feel for him because at our core, we fundamentally don’t like to see another living creature be harmed. I’ve therefore no doubt that where these self important, ‘woke’ critics made their minds up about Joker was during the ‘yuppie scene.’
As Arthur (still not yet Joker) guns down three sexually and psychically abusive upper class blokes, we get a thrill. Of course we do; he’s the protagonist and it feels warranted; it’s self defence, right? This feeling scares people. People who don’t like to think that they’re siding with a violent psychopath and instead write hyperbolised propaganda suggesting that the film is ‘psychologically harmful’ (all while raking in thousands of outraged views and comments for the profit of their sites). This pretentious and reflex outlook bares a strikingly worrying similarity to the censorship of early American Cinema, where local authorities aimed to ban any film containing content that might seduce the ‘uneducated masses’ into committing acts of ‘volatile behaviour.’
It also brings back the long debated and incredibly tiresome conversation that’s persisted over the last few decades; ‘violent video games and films incite violent behaviour.’ This ludicrously unproven argument remains a knee jerk reaction whenever an inevitably American shooting tragedy occurs as young Tommy purchases an AK-47 before he can even legally try a Corona. It’s very boring to discuss this topic as the answer is so obvious that it barely warrants the effort it takes to type. So, all I’ll say is that this ‘argument’ shows a profound misunderstanding of gaming and filmic culture and moreover suggests a disconnect with reality on par with The Joker himself. It actively avoids addressing the true problem and is damaging to the artistic experimentation and variety of the industry. The same controversy occurred with the release of American Psycho in 2000. Guess what? Modern society didn’t erupt with a surge of sadistic serial killers, because anybody can see that our protagonist is not someone to be admired or canonised. Even The Dark Knight was deemed ‘too disturbing for public consumption’ by concerned UK parental groups. It’s a monotonous, never ending tirade of ill-thought out, predictable reactions by groups with no understanding of the medium and sensationalist journalists looking for an easy angle.
If you truly want to discuss what Joker addresses in terms of society’s failings, please instead write about our woefully inadequate public understanding of mental health. Now, clearly it’s unrealistically stereotypical to craft a narrative where an abusive family and mental health disorder turns you into a disturbed maniac (hello Halloween 2007) but at the end of the day we’re still dealing with a comic book property. Looking beneath surface level criticism though, the undercurrent of commentary on mental health services and the volatile, dismissive, and universally abusive reactions of the public towards a man with obvious issues, raises important societal questions that deserve recognition.
While the attitude of Arthur’s therapist, (‘nobody gives a shit about people like you’), remains on the nose, the point stands. Mental health consistently remains the subject of mockery, bullying, and misunderstanding. You may hate Joker for its blatant stylistic derivations of a better filmmaker, its warping of the Batman mythos, or its overly bleak and depressing tone. What you cannot hate it for is its recognition of society’s very real derogation of the mentally ill. This secret ingredient creates an interpretation of The Joker like no other; as a product of our own society. He’s let down consistently by all around him when he ultimately wants nothing more than compassion, as do we all. Phillips doesn’t advise you to rise up and take from the rich like a hipster Robin Hood in clown make up, nor does his film celebrate the disgusting massacres of its serial killer lead. What it does do is present an empathetic protagonist, ironically exponentially more damaged than the preceding Joker, who had the same word tattooed on his forehead. What Joker presents is a mirror to our world; one that berates the most vulnerable of our society, and through our carelessness creates people who are desperate, warped, and demented. That’s no joke.
Oh, and my review is ★★★★★