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Joker Holds up a Mirror to an Unequal Society
By Julian Drury
Todd Philips’ Joker is, perhaps, one of the most profound films of 2019. It is not a typical cookie cutter comic book movie. The film, while detailing the origin of the most iconic villain of all time, stands on its own as a piece of deep cinematic excellence. Within its two-hour runtime, we are given many themes that deal more with gripping, real world, traumas than with the traditional melee of an MCU or DCEU film. The audience is bombarded with the spiraling gut punches dealing with mental health, social alienation, collapse of self, as well as coping with the crushing reality of the unequal economic order of America.
If you expect this film to be a typical comic book adaptation, then this film may disappoint you. The film transcends the comics, telling a terrifyingly relatable story that anyone in America today can experience in real life.
The film focuses on Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, as he struggles to maintain his mental health in a society that increasingly ignores and mocks him. He suffers from a host of mental ailments, including a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably when he feels angered or scared. Laughter embodies pain for Arthur. While Arthur tries to remain stable, society around him picks away at his ability to do so bit by bit.
Arthur works as a clown-for-hire, likely making little money, though enjoying (on the surface) what he does. He lives in a run-down slum with his mother, trapped in a cycle of stagnant poverty and mental isolation. Then, through a series of unfortunate circumstances, he loses his job, and his mental health services are cut. He depended on getting his therapy and medications through a social mental health program that the city callously discards without any real explanation.
Without access to the help he wants and needs, Arthur slowly descends into his own madness, breaking apart piece by piece until he eventually becomes the clown prince of crime. His transformation, however, does not come out of pure nihilism. His mental decline is directly linked with the inequality of the capitalist system, that many today are all too familiar with.
A central theme of the film is the effect of the neoliberal economic order on those who are disadvantaged and left behind by its structural inequality. We see Gotham City circa 1980 (a clear stand-in for New York) rife with economic inequity. Stores closing, people struggling to find work, while social services are cut for those who need them most. Homelessness is rampant, infrastructure crumbling, and working-class people left without any direction or consolation.
While Gotham is clearly embroiled in an economic downturn for the working class, the rich and powerful seem to be doing quite well. The corporate media ignore the plight of the lower class, instead focusing on stories such as the mayoral race and giant “super rats” that have infected the streets. It reflects the state of a media that ignores the real issues of the society, seeking careful distractions, pretending as if things are fine when they clearly are not.
Thomas Wayne, head of Wayne Enterprise and father of Bruce, runs for mayor on a platform to “save” Gotham. His solutions, however, are never explicitly said. He blames Gotham’s woes on the lower class, whom he refers to as “clowns.” He calls them this out of spite, as the disadvantaged dared to question why people like him have so much wealth while people who can least afford it have to make sacrifices.
Wayne gives an all too familiar response, claiming that the lower class is just bitter at his success that he “worked for.” In effect, it’s poor people’s fault that they’re poor, not the structural nature of the system. Wayne lives in a gilded castle, cut off from the woes of the have-nots, while people (such as Arthur’s mother) who devoted years working for him are cast aside and wither away in poverty and despair.
Even Arthur's idol, talk show host Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro) belittles his self-worth. As Arthur attempts a career in stand-up comedy, he finds a clip of his failed routine airing on live TV, mocked by Murray. His hero punched down at him, making him feel like a twisted joke without any wider understanding of what Arthur was going through. It’s fitting that, in the film’s climax, Arthur asks whether Murray ever “leaves the studio.” He drives home point that the movers and shakers of society have no connection to people outside of their bubble. Even the "nice guy" like Murray feeds the inequality machine, mocking people who struggle every day, without even bothering to understand their pain.
One phrase in the film encapsulates the sick irony of Gotham (America); “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” This speaks true not for just mental illness in the literal sense, but also in a wider societal sense.
Neoliberal capitalist society is ill to its core. We see suffering and injustice every day. We watch legions of people go homeless and beg to survive, people go bankrupt or die without affordable healthcare, students crushed under debts they can’t find jobs to repay. Yet, the wealthy continue to grow wealthier and cut themselves off from the crushing realities they create. Meanwhile, corporate media and the wealthy expect us all to walk around as if everything is fine. We are expected to go about our days and pretend as if nothing is wrong, when reality clearly shows us otherwise.
The political nature of Joker is by far its most relevant theme. Many critics and movie-goers were concerned that the film would attempt to glorify incel culture, creating a how-to manual for the next potential mass shooter. The film does none of that. It doesn’t condone or glorify Arthur Fleck’s violence. The film is a warning, not a manifesto. It shows people not what should happen, but what can happen if people are pushed too far by the overbearing nature of an unequal economic/social order.
Joaquin Phoenix’s performance was truly mesmerizing. You could feel the pain in his eyes every time he laughed, the vibrations of his sorrow and mental decline latching onto you as you watched his performance. The score was incredibly haunting, perfecting the atmosphere that Todd Philips sought to create. This was also not a re-hash of Heath Ledger’s performance from The Dark Knight. Phoenix and Philips brought their own take to the Joker, one that stands apart from all others.
Joker manages to speak to different people through different themes that all come together as one. It can be seen through many different lenses, which truly makes it a form of art. Whether you relate to mental health, social anxiety, or economic despair, this movie speaks to those issues succinctly. It has a little bit of everything for people experiencing those traumas in life. It also holds up a mirror to those who cast aside those traumas, saying to them; this is what you ignore at your own peril.
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