Joker punches down. When it should be punching the ruling class. (No Spoilers)
Updated: Nov 19, 2019
Joker is a beautiful mess. Torn between pity and anti-hero idolization, the audience is guided to see crime as motivated by mental illness rather than economic distress. The character, the Joker, represents a manifestation of evil and brought about by psychosis. For a major corporatized film, it explores interesting ideas but doesn’t quite tap the pulse of an anarchic vein in a culturally fulfilling manner.
Opening with a background radio describing the horror and economic distress in Gotham, Joker has subtle economic rebellion ideas placed throughout but loses its way from the nobler causal motivation. It feels real and not all that fanciful. The setting and environment beautifully paint Gotham as a horrid and vile place for stratified people. It is interesting and invigorating to see visual setpieces contrast the usual Batman aesthetic.
Bruce Wayne never rode a Gotham subway or a Social Welfare center.
But Arthur Fleck’s economic situation gradually deteriorates at the hands of the corporate and political elite, yet this is not the major motivation behind his actions. Major narrative devices orient mental illness as the main destabilizing force. A character with a more normal outlook and motivations can be an empathetic bridge between the audience and the anti-hero, but Joker chose a different direction. As a result, the audience has no way to see him as anything but a dangerous, disturbing psychotic individual with no functional place in society. Boring. That movie has been done many times (Taxi Driver, American Psycho, Clockwork Orange).
The beauty of anti-heroes is the connection that each audience member feels on some uncontrollable, impulsive level. We try to reject feeling hopeful for Walter White’s escape (Breaking Bad) or feel regretfully charmed by Deadpool’s charisma and attitude. This impulsive empathy doesn’t happen much with Arthur Fleck in Joker, and if it does then the movie makes sure to shame you for these feelings.
(Fair warning: If you laugh when Joker laughs, then you look like a psychopath and everyone will look at you as if you just laughed at the death of an infant. It happened to me.)
Perhaps, if the ideas of environmental stress and mental illness were linked more causally, then there could be more empathy for the character rather than sheer pity. Nearly every audience member sacrifices mental health, relationships, and other critically functioning components of identity for work and more favorable participation in the marketplace machine. But instead, the narrative twists Arthur Fleck away from these ideas and towards more individualized motivations. Trauma, neuroses, mental health, and neurogenic elements disassociate the audience away from Arthur Fleck - or at least the most functional ones.
Maybe I am biased by my sympathetic tendencies, but Joaquin’s performance evolves slowly from a man pretending to be normal in an increasingly dysfunctional environment to eventually full-blown, animalistic physicality. He may not reach the horror and brutality of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but this film expands upon Batman canon so Ledger’s character is more progressed along that path of development than the Joker in this film.
Still, I do not believe audience pity is as connecting to audience members because it does not resonate with the idea of being personally frustrated in one’s place - realizing the system you’re told to be a member of is run by unsympathetic, greedy narcissists. These sentiments are global and culturally relevant. Perhaps, that is why I am especially disappointed that the mental illness string is callous to what a healthy portion of the audience feels daily.
It’s fine by me to tell a story which screams: "Eat, kill the rich". How often are films made which glorify wealthy materialism or their inherent narcissistic god-complex (Basically Batman in a nutshell)? Why can’t the Joker be born from societal and economic dysfunction instead of an exaggerated alienating mental illness? This motive seems unnatural and forced, so it must be co-opted by corporate motivations designed to steer the viewer away from ideas of systematic rebellion.
The message is clear: you’re crazy if you are not part of the system - which is working fine for the hardworking normies - and those who lead a rebellious charge are ruthless psychotics.
At the end of the day, the Joker villain has always been associated with Mental Illness. I get that. But, Joker is the first real expansion of the character's back story and I just feel as if it took the path of least resistance. You can read more about how media and culture influence the mental health stigma here on my blog.
Look. It’s a Warner Brothers movie, so I should not be surprised that it takes a road away from the more culturally rebellious, relevant ideas. Thomas Wayne's head doesn't end up at the end of a pike, so I was destined to be disappointed. Regardless of its narrative choices, the film is stunning and transcends the stale, comic book movie genre. It is likely just one step along the cultural path of media touchstones exploring the Shadow (Carl Jung) and the origins of counter system movements. I just worry that it does so in a direction that is dismissive and degenerative of mental illnesses to reinforce a negative stigma. Don't punch down. Punch up.