The recently released controversial psychological thriller ‘Joker’ has perturbed movie critics who decry it as dangerous and irresponsible, yet its message has found almost universal acclaim among audiences. Gerard Stewart takes a look at the social commentary behind the origin story of fiction’s arch villain: Joker.
Set in 1981, Joker takes place amid a sanitation workers’ strike set against the backdrop of a gritty Gotham City (DC Comics’ equivalent of New York), where petty crime and unemployment are rife, and vast swathes of the city’s citizens are disenfranchised, impoverished, and “treated like trash.”
This sanitation strike is a homage to the real life New York City Sanitation Workers Strike in 1981, when 300,000 tons of garbage lay uncollected in streets filled with overflowing waste baskets and dumpsters—during a period where New York’s inner city working class communities were being decimated by gentrification and Regan-style neoliberalism, and a surge of homicides and street violence emerged as a result. Those supposedly tasked with dealing with this crime were themselves deeply implicated in criminality and corruption, famously illuminated in the Serpico Testimony to the Knapp Commission a decade earlier. It is telling, therefore, that writers Todd Phillips and Scott Silver chose this period to relate the origin story of one of fiction’s most famous villains.
It is within a similar context that we meet Arthur Fleck, Gotham’s troubled everyman; an aspiring stand-up comedian who enjoys little success. By day, Fleck makes ends meet by “spreading joy and laughter” as a precariously employed party clown at the city’s sick children’s hospital. By night, he personally cares for his infirmed mother whose community healthcare has presumably been cut, or was non-existent in the first place. Unlike those around him, however, Fleck struggles to keep up appearances as he endures a severe albeit unspecified mental health crisis. We learn he regularly attends counselling and is on seven different medications. Although he just about appears to maintain a semblance of sanity for the most part, consecutive challenging circumstances over the course of the movie tragically push him over the edge into criminal insanity. This constellation of factors combines to create the Joker, igniting a working class rebellion that leaves Gotham in embers.
Much has been made of the film’s underlying message at a time when high-profile mass killings by young white men of the far-right is on the rise. Indeed, many film critics and commentators are deriding the movie as dangerous and irresponsible—akin to far-right or even incel propaganda. It makes you wonder what film they were watching. In the decaying polity of Gotham City where an ever-widening gap between rich and poor is heightening tensions, Fleck does not fall prey to capitalism’s traditional scapegoats—ethnic minorities or women. In fact, ‘Joker’ is one of the most class-conscious films of this century so far.
This is particularly clear in a scene between Fleck and his counsellor when she informs him the city’s elected governors have decided to cut all funding to mental healthcare programmes. As Fleck faces life without support and his counsellor faces life without work, she reminds him in no uncertain terms that those who have abandoned them “don’t give a shit about people like you…and they really don’t give a shit about people like me either.” Few among contemporary audiences can miss the wider nod to the socialist anti-racism of Black Lives Matter inferred by this African American character. It is not the only insight into the intersection of race and social stratum in Gotham City. In an earlier scene, after Fleck is attacked by a group of young African American teenagers, his co-worker, enticing him with a gun for protection, writes off the “kids” in thinly-veiled racial terms as “animals”, echoing the real-life punitive politics of the era. In a later subway scene reminiscent of the 1984 racially-motivated shooting of young African Americans by Bernhard Goetz, Joker goes some way to fiercely turn the racial trope of the supposed dangers of Black youths on its head. Alongside the politics of race, the politics of feminism are also evident, if not more so.
Throughout the movie Fleck suffers a pathological laughter—known as the pseudobulbar affect—when trying to repress his true feelings of indignation during uncomfortable situations which challenge his core values. In a key scene that invokes the politics of #MeToo and catcalling culture, Fleck finds himself uncommonly overcome by a psychotic laughing fit when witnessing a working class woman commuter being harassed by three male Wall Street employees who are seemingly only using public transport because they are too drunk to drive. In this scene, Fleck is at his most uncomfortable and can barely control his repressed feelings, implying Fleck strongly identifies with subjugated women. Although he does not intervene, Fleck’s inability to stay silent thwarts any implied escalation of the attack on the woman. But Joker goes further in its social commentary on the abuse of women by dominant men. When Fleck confronts Wayne Enterprises’ CEO Thomas Wayne later in the movie, the subtext of the scene between them suggests Wayne abused his position of influence to take advantage of Fleck’s vulnerable working class mother when she was Wayne’s employee, before using his position of considerable wealth to silence her by tarnishing her reputation as a madwoman.
Far from Fleck epitomising the incel culture of narcissistic entitlement among misogynistic white men, it is in fact Wayne who represents this philosophy—with Joker underlining the point that a class system which presents social inequalities as natural also reproduces that dynamic of domination in other interpersonal relationships, whether they be between whites and people of colour or between men and women. Instead, Fleck’s affiliation is indisputably with the underdog, the outcast, the rejected, the bullied, the abused, and the exploited. The pivotal plot point wherein Fleck becomes the Joker is not necessarily when he, for the most part, somewhat unconsciously guns down three “Wall Street guys” but when he consciously accepts that Thomas Wayne’s slur against those “less fortunate” as “clowns” is how economic elites relate to the rest of us.
Although set in 1981, the parallels between Joker and today are uncanny. While the entire aesthetics of the film, make it feel like it could have been directed by Scorsese back in his heyday, Joker is very much a social commentary on contemporary US political culture no matter how much Phillips and Silver publicly deny it. When Wayne Enterprises’ CEO Thomas Wayne publicly announces his intention to run for Mayor of Gotham in the aftermath of Fleck’s crimes, there are striking similarities between CEO Thomas Wayne and property tycoon turned US President Donald Trump’s candidacy: both cross over from the business world—built from their father’s inheritance—into the political sphere on a ‘law and order’ ticket, promising to tackle rising rates of working class crime without ever addressing the root causes of crime itself. Reversing the traditional tale, Joker firmly puts Fleck as the protagonist and Wayne as the antagonist. It is hard to believe this unconventional representation of Wayne was unintended and that the multiple connections between Wayne and Trump are merely coincidental.
More obvious is that by building upon the early issues of DC Comics in such a way as to pay homage to two of Scorsese’s classics ‘Taxi Driver’ and the ‘King of Comedy’—the former about an inner city loner whose descent into madness leads him to plot a high-profile assassination, and the latter about a mentally unstable stand-up comedian whose frustrated attempts at his 15-minutes of fame lead him to commit an unsettling crime—Joker produces a critical commentary on modern psychosocial crisis. By contextualising Fleck’s breakdown within a sick society—carefully mentioning that the majority of Arkham Asylum patients are not there because they’ve committed crimes—this powerful character study conveys a ferocious condemnation of systemic neglect of those who deserve to be listened to.
In an otherwise resonating film, it is however the misdirection into individual terrorism that leaves Joker with a problematic punchline best understood as an examination rather than a validation. Indeed, only on one occasion does Fleck engage in collective class action. His participation is brief and, although it is clear that he is on side with the mass of assembled protesters donning clown masks and carrying placards reading “Kill the rich”, no amount of fist-raising detracts from the fact that ultimately his attendance is a ruse. When the protest erupts into a riot, Fleck uses the cloak of chaos to bypass lines of police protecting Wayne Hall in order to fulfil his real goal: to confront Gotham City’s bigwig. While the rebellion rumbles off-screen as Fleck and Wayne have out their personal dispute, Joker does not lose sight of its contemporary political message. Not only does the quarrel between the downtrodden Fleck and the omnipotent Wayne mirror the wider discontent felt by the city’s citizens against those who wield power, but it brings into sharp focus the culture of cruelty crudely epitomised by modern capitalism’s most powerful advocate, US President Donald Trump—a man who, like Wayne, believes his unmatched wisdom entitles him to run roughshod over his subordinates, whilst using his position to silence those who face up to him with uncomfortable truths. That this conflict takes place during an on-site screening of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’—a political satire wherein the protagonist both struggles to survive an economic depression and struggles to retain a semblance of sanity before having a breakdown that unintentionally leads to him becoming an instigator of working class outrage—augments the point that Joker is an inescapably political film, albeit one in which the title character’s alienation convinces him he is “not the kind of clown that could start a movement” and thereby omits from the screen a more salient point about working class power.