Social Criticism in The Joker (2019)

Usually my articles are related to Japan and my book, but this time I'd like to dicuss a movie; namely, The Joker (2019). I mainly want to talk about the social criticism in the film. Are you very allergic to spoilers? Then it might be best not to read this until after you've seen the film 😉

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker

Anyway, first some words about the Joker himself...

Whether you're a fan or not, everybody's probably heard the name at least once. The Joker is Batman's nemesis and without a doubt the most popular villain of the DC universe. He's the "Clown Prince of Crime" and an enigma. There's a multitude of stories about his origin – one of which is treated in an amazing comic called The Killing Joke (1988) – and interpretations of his character. Those interpretations can say a lot about the underlying message of the film.

Sometimes that message is ideological, as is the case in The Dark Knight (2008) with Heath Ledger's iconic peformance as the Joker. Here the Joker is a kind of embodiment of chaos, the polar opposite of Batman's order. He's an advocate of anarchy and his battle with Batman primarily revolves around morality and ideals. Batman believes in the intrinsic good nature of humankind, while the Joker attempts to prove that everybody can become like him if they're pushed far enough. Their battle is almost completely ideological and eventually Batman appears to be right (with some nuance).

The Joker's role in the story doesn't have to be ideological, though. In The Joker that premiered this week, Joaquin Phoenix ventured to bring his version of the character to life (btw: Wow! What a peformance!) and he embodies the Joker as a person with a name, instead of the elusive enigma. In The Dark Knight he was also a well-rounded character, but in this film he's the protagonist instead of the antagonist. He's a man that suffers from psychological problems and using him as a lense the film offers some points of critique.

The Joker as a poor man

The first point is the wealth gap. The contrast between rich and poor is ubiquitous in the movie; from the beginning it's made clear that there are problems in the city and that people struggle with unemployment. Arthur (the Joker) is a poor man himself looking after his mother and working as a clown. During his job he is insulted and even beaten. When he makes his first victims (in his work clothes), it's seen as an act of a poor man taking out his anger on the rich. This prompts a movement of poor people dressing up as clowns and protesting.

The movie seems to make the argument that the poor are "invisible". They're neither seen nor heard. Arthur himself says that he's doubted whether he even existed. Consumed by frustration he shouts that rich men like Thomas Wayne (Batman's father) never put themselves in his shoes; that if he were to lie dead on the ground, others would simply walk over him; that society has turned its back on him. I think this is the biggest message of the movie. But the gap between the poor and the rich is not the only source of Arthur's words.

The Joker as a patient

That brings me to the second point: the cutbacks in the healthcare system. Joker's character in this film is in essence a man that doesn't get the help that he needs. He's abandoned by the system. At the start of the film he sees a psychologist whom he talks to about his problems, but not long after the psychologist announces that their sessions will stop. His help and medication will be taken from him as a result of the cutbacks. Here the movie, in my opninion, shows a very important problem. In the Netherlands there have also been cutbacks that led to people not receiving the help that they needed. Whether it's due to waitlists or lack of time, as is the case in the care of the elderly where a nurse needs to finish washing a person within 10 minutes, as a matter of speaking.

The Joker as a sensation

The third point of critique is aimed at the media and her love of sensation. Arthus expresses his displeasure with the people in the city. He thinks that they're indecent, impolite and basically barbaric. His first murder is aimed at such people (they harrassed a woman in the train and kicked Arthur). However, the media (that don't know what happened) turn it into a story of the poor taking revenge on the rich and of a killer clown. In that way an act that was hardly political, becomes political and unleashes a series of protests. In addition there's a comedy show that Arthur's a fan of, that's important to the story. Here the idol shows a video of Arthur doing stand-up comedy on stage, but he suffers from an episode of his condition (he has a neurological condition that causes him to laugh involuntarily at times, regardless of his emotional state). Arthur's idol mocks him and calls him a Joker, which Arthur decides to use as a stage name when he's invited to the show. This shows how the media contributes to the way in which the Joker's identity takes shape.

The Joker as a warning

Taking the points discussed above into consideration, the movie seems to give some kind of warning. What happens when you neglect the population? Or when the population at least feels neglected? The Joker is in a way "created" by his society. Of course his decline is partially due to internal factors, namely his loneliness and mental state, but it's the external factors that push him over the edge. And he even inspires others! The frustrations are apparently deeply rooted to the extent that groups of people in the movie idolize the Joker.

I'm personally very positive about this film, but not everyone agrees. Because the Joker is its protagonis, there are those who fear copy cat behavior, in the form of mass shootings, for example. Violent films and games are often accused of encouraging such behavior, but that line of thinking misses the point, if you ask me. If a movie is enough to make someone do something terrible, then there must have been something wrong with them before they watched it. And if people on a grand scale are "inspired" by movies to commit violent acts, what does that say about society? Mass shootings in the United States are a societal problem, apart from movies like The Joker. But that's just my opinion.

Anyway, the movie definitely provides food for thought! Have you seen it? What did you think? Do you agree with my interpretation or did you experience the movie in a different way? 🙂

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