What is Joker about?
Before we begin, this post will have spoilers for Joker, 2019. If you prefer not to have it spoiled, then please come back when you have watched the movie.
So let me start this post off by saying, I enjoyed the Joker movie. From a casting perspective to the cinematography, the movie is well put together and quite a spectacle to watch. But I do not think Joker actually says much of anything. The purpose of this post is to talk about something I have been thinking about with regards to the movie. Specifically in terms of what the movie shows against what the movie implies and what is actually about. So join me as I meander my way through some elements of the movie and talk about how I think they could be read.
The movie opens with a newscaster informing the audience that the garbage workers of Gotham are on strike. Without knowing anything else, the movie sets up the idea that Gotham is going to be overflowing with trash and the reason is, the workers who collect it are formed into their union and are going on strike. Consequently, the Gotham depicted in the movie is a very different to what we normally see. Yes, there faded and out of place Gothic architecture can still be seen in places and yes, the city is bathed in a strange gloom that permits the most serious of brooding. However, Gotham is filthy. It is dirty in a way the movie wants to convey that runs very deeply into the society. The streets are paved with trash and by proxy, perhaps the people are too. I believe this is the most realistic depiction of Gotham that has been put to the screen so far. It represents the malaise of the city in a way that looming skyscrapers cannot. It brings the audience to the street level of city life, away from the towers of the wealthy like the Waynes, and focuses instead on a person who lives in the mire: Arthur Fleck.
Arthur Fleck is the Joker. Well, technically a Joker. The traditional Joker canon plays fast and loose with the identity of the character but this movie chooses to focus specifically on Arthur who, over the course of the film, will descend into insanity to don the clown make-up and grin. Except that, Arthur is a man with deep mental health issues. The movie does not attempt to hide this and the fact that Arthur has severe mental health problems and has to live with them, is one of the focal points of the movie.
Arthur is unfortunate enough to live in the era of Reaganomics. Arthur has very limited access to mental health services, and the practice of mental health study is so very limited that the help that he does get amounts to trying several different kinds of drugs that do not seem to help him. Even this pittance is taken from him as the city (and government) are cutting public funds for mental health leaving him (and presumably many others) to fend for themselves. To say things in Gotham are dire, is perhaps an understatement.
Things further spiral out of hand when Arthur comes into possession of a gun, that he uses to kill three businessmen on a subway train after they started harassing him. For Arthur, it starts to spell his downward spiral into the chaos that will eventually produce the Joker, but it also simultaneously catalyses protests by the poor, against the rich. Things are further complicated when Arthur comes to learn he might (emphasis on might) be the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne, the billionaire. Eventually, Arthur will go on to commit more violence, against the people who have wronged him where at the end of the movie, he is seemingly committed to a mental asylum.
So that was a rough outline of the progression of the movie as a whole. Obviously I have skipped over some major details but that is besides the point I want to make. Specifically, I want to discuss how this movie could be interpreted, and whether or not a number of readings could be made with some validity.
The first reading is one that I think got the most attention but actually has the least evidence, namely the Incel reading. We have all seen the memes about the Joker movie being a movie for incels to rally around, with police being put on active alert following its release because of the fear that it might inspire another incel rampage. I do not think anyone who actually watched the movie could come away with that message.
Arthur does have some problems with women. He might have stalked his female neighbour and dreamed up a fictional romantic relationship with her. However, he does this because he is desperately hoping for human connection and she is the closest surrogate for this connection. Arthur does not have any friends in any capacity, so it makes sense that, in a bid to grasp at some normalcy in his life, cling to that idea. Arthur also murders his mother but the reason for this, is him finding out his mother helped enable his horrific abuse as a child.
Arthur is definitely not well adjusted, and he is certainly not someone many people (women included) would feel comfortable around but he does not fundamentally view women as inferior to himself nor does he hate them for rejecting him. Arthur's wider problem, is his general alienation from society. In fact, the majority of his victims are people who would be considered to have great social power. Wealthy businessmen who harassed him, a contentious colleague and a successful talk show host that mocked him are hardly the traditional targets of misogynists.
Incels are generally, in groups with other incels who help them formulate their ideology and hatred. Arthur is almost entirely alone for most of the movie with barely anyone to meaningfully engage with. His problems run much deeper than no woman wants to date him. I do not believe, in the text, Arthur is even so upset by this. The biggest single emotional connection Arthur yearns for is an emotional one with a father figure. He has a dream sequence in which Murry Franklin, the talk show host, warmly embraces him as father might a son and it is clear that this is the real emotional connection Arthur yearns for; not one with the neighbour woman he does not actually know.
So I think the Incel reading of the Joker is a weak one. It only looks at a surface level of the movie's content and makes connections between the specific violence Arthur does or is a party to, and draws parallels between very differently motivated violence under too broad an umbrella.
In looking at the Joker, we cannot ignore the influence that mental health, and mental health problems, have in the wider context of the film. The choice to make Arthur already suffering from mental health problems is a complex one. On the one hand, it can be a vehicle to relate the struggles of someone with mental health in society to the need for better treatment of the mentally ill. On the other, it can also leave the impression that the mentally ill are in a sense, ticking time bombs, waiting to explode violently onto others if pushed.
For the most part, I think it has to be said that Arthur at the start of the movie is generally a kind and considerate person (insofar as he can be). When he is mugged for his sign by some kids, he does not seem to hold them any real ill will despite the beating they gave him. He tries to make people (mostly children) smile whenever he can although this is always badly received and of course, he cares deeply for his mother despite their limited resources.
Arthur does not start the movie violently disturbed and close to exploding, but he does become this way over the course of the film. It is arguably debatable to what extent the removal of his limited medical help actually contributes to his descent into madness. It seems to be that his specific personal problems contribute more than the fact that he cannot get medicines (who by his own admission and that of his doctor do not seem to be helping) or the limited and unhelpful therapy which is more fixated on making sure he is presenting the right way, rather than actually dealing with his feelings.
Being rejected by Thomas Wayne, being lied to by his mother, being humiliated by Murry Franklin (his idol); these things catalyse his descent more so than any wider social pressure. As a person, Arthur is also completely divorced from the social discontent in the city. He does not engage with any of the protestors who are decrying the rich. He is on his own personal quest that becomes progressively more crazy. With no involvement from himself until the end, he becomes adopted as a symbol for these anti-rich protests who then rally around him. Of course, this might have been entirely imaginary but we can only do so much interpretation.
There is a big challenge in discussing the movie with a wider social context of the time. Despite all of their difficulties, the Fleck family still have relatively livable conditions in their apartment with things like a television. Despite losing his job, Arthur never seems too desperate for food or cigarettes either. You see, despite the fact that he is a victim of the Reaganomics of the time, the primary victims of these policies in real life, were people of colour. The poor conditions Arthur lives in, are still much better than the conditions of the urban ghettos. So in some sense, the movie does gloss over this reality. While Arthur is a legitimate victim, he is not the primary victim. There are far more, more less visible victims and the story would be largely incomplete without them.
So simply portraying the story as a single person's struggle with mental health is incomplete. Arthur is mentally ill, but at the same time, he lives in a society that treats the poor badly. These two factors blend together in disastrous ways until Arthur is eventually unchained onto the wider society at large. The audience are meant to feel something for Arthur as he falls down this pit, but at the same time, be horrified by it.
If you are a more involved game critic, you might sometimes use the phrase "ludonarrative dissonance" to describe a game's problem with how it gets played by you. The phrase essentially means the dissonance (or difference) between how the game is meant to be played and how the perceives you playing it. A simple example would a war game that keeps telling you that war is bad, and killing is wrong, but one that gives you more points for the more gruesome methods of killing and penalties if you do not kill. There is a disconnect in how the game is telling you to play, and how you are actually playing it.
In the case of film, ludonarrative dissonance is not quite present since as a film, you cannot play the movie through conscious activity, you can only experience it. However this does not mean that there are no points of dissonance. So with that in mind, I want to discuss my perception of the movie from the perspective I have as a leftist.
The message given by the movie is one that is ultimately drawing on too many different themes to produce a coherent philosophy. Now that is a bold take I know, but bear with me. Someone on the left might look at the state of Gotham and go, "see, I told you so!" The huge inequality, the crumbling public services, the destitution people have to endure whilst at the same time being told from the rich that there is not enough to go around. These things breed a resentment in the poor at the system that ultimately coalesces into class warfare. The rich hide behind the police who then suppress the poor.
And to some extent, this is the story going on in the film behind the scenes of Arthur descending into madness. However, the movie makes several choices that indicate this is not a leftist film. Quite the opposite. The people who protest the rich are never demonstrated to have an actual ideology behind hating the rich. What do they actually want? What are their goals? Do they even have any beyond attacking the rich? The fact that they very quickly adopt Arthur, a figure who neither cares about any ideology himself or about the movement, makes them out to be even more empty and nihilistic.
This is the impression produced by the movie. The rich are horrible and elitist, but the poor are angry and violent. The riots which occur are not done to do anything but attack the rich, and they ultimately descend into just simple looting and random violence. Chaos for the sake of chaos. The mob of people are upset by the social order, but have no desire to meaningfully change it. They simply want to remove the people in charge and revel in the chaos of it all.
And to a large extent, this is how the current media establishment views groups like antifa. Chaotic mobs of violent people who have no plans for social order, no plans for establishing a society but merely existing to destroy the old one, no matter how much harm the old society actually produces. The rich are presented as uncaring and callous towards the poor, but that without them, there are no alternatives. Society just crumbles apart into a violent mess without the rich to impose order down onto the poor.
And here is where the dissonance comes in. This is not a movie about the disenfranchised rising up to stop their oppression; this is about the morally nihilistic pit in which a capitalist society exists. A capitalist realism pervades the film. Society is broken, society is unfair, but any attempts to fix it, will destroy order and ultimately result in the poor and downtrodden rising up and violently killing everyone. The implication is clear. You cannot change the system, because trying to do helps no one. And how very convenient it is, that the movie implies then that it is the creation of Batman years later that will actually restore justice to the city of Gotham, when the criminals are still entirely the poor, and the rich still leave them out in the cold. Joker spends a lot of time dancing with the aesthetics of revolution, class struggle, mental illness and so on, but it never takes any opinions that are specifically against the way the world actually is. It dwells in the mire of moral nihilism that there are no good people, except of course for Batman.
Arthur, in seeking a community, has instead found nothing but violence and chaos, and in this, converts his alienation from society into anger and violence to that society. No change is enacted and he is removed from it, while the society keeps going on.
None of this ought to take away from the film really. Like I said, the movie was enjoyable to me, and suspenseful and on its own merits, it really does stand as a film. However, watching it, I can see that there is one primary reaction to the movie. The Joker movie is about the dangerous mentally ill who have to be pacified by society and they will destroy us in a violent rage.
To a person less left than I am, it might be a movie about how the mentally ill face challenges in society that require help from society, it might be about how society's unfair to the poor and the rich need to be better about it or it might be about how humans are all horrible to one another and your position in society dictates how and who you get to target.
To a leftist, the movie is about how society's structures harm people, and how it sets up all resistance to it, as barbaric and destructive. Capitalism is the system that keeps the order, regardless of the justice of it and that there is no way to change this, without destroying the social order. To a leftist, this is a reading you can do from the movie. It is hardly the only reading. Other authors better than I could do a feminist reading of the movie. I am sure that fascists will do their own horrible readings.
Joker is a movie that defies expectations in some ways and in others, it lives up to them exactly. And the whole world gets to laugh right to the bank.