This “Joker” is not there to put a smile on your face

“Is it just me, or it’s getting crazier out there?” is the opening statement by Arthur Fleck, also one of The Joker’s proverbial signature quotes. And it’s probably the sentence that captures the cultural moment better than anything else.

Spoilers ahead. Read at your own risk, or, you know.

 

I left the cinema profoundly touched by this movie. Stirred.

This is an Art film, capital A, where all the departments shine with technical mastery: direction, cinematography, soundtrack (another impressive and haunting score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (Arrival, Sicario, The Revenant, Chernobyl, wow!) and of course acting. Joaquin Phoenix stands out towering – the movie is literally made around him, camera glued to him as he literally gives flesh to the character with his voice, every muscle of his face, his teeth, his entire body – but all the performances are solid across the board.

It has been said that “Joker” takes more than one page from the early Scorsese‘s book, who was involved in earlier stages of the production. Parts are an open homage to “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” (with the interesting detail that De Niro is now in what was Jerry Lewis’ role).

And yet, this story is fully set in the world created by comics, it fully belongs in that universe and continuity. It’s Gotham City and its lore. I appreciated it as another step in affirming comics as a definite art form which can be a powerful mirror to look into our soul. It reminded me of “Logan, in that sense. And certainly not of Marvel’s cinecomics.

All the time I felt deep compassion and empathy for the main character, he is clearly a victim and despite all the evidence around him, he wants to keep carrying on, a simple mission in life, to bring a smile on people’s face.

It’s possible that as a (bad? the imposter syndrome is always lurking) comedian, this was even more personal for me. I grew up in the 80s, in a decaying metropolitan area. I was completely immersed in the story. And of course when Arthur finally reacted against all the wrong and oppression around him, I felt a strong emotional response. One that I am still processing. Was I rooting for the “hero”, or for violence? Was it because it felt justified? Was it because part of me identifies with the perpetrators, more than with the victim?

I appreciate a piece of art that is able to touch me so deep, where it’s uncomfortable. I am still unsure on some parts and I will need to watch it again, I can’t fully close in on how “society” is portrayed as the Big Enemy. The only bit I find potentially dangerous is to throw all the blame on “the system”. The “fuck the system” narrative has some nasty implications. What if people take it to the letter? Joker, for example?

But then again, this is just one particular story. Arthur Fleck really has the table rigged against him. He lies on the deep bottom, and without any form of support, probably that’s how the world can look like. Hostile and unaccessible.

All the promise of happiness out there? Not for him. “Joker” made me also reflect on privilege, how many layers are there, sometimes without me even acknowledging it.

And there is the other big topic in the background, mental illness. “The worst thing about having a mental condition is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t”, Arthur writes in his journal, it’s intended as a joke but of course people don’t find it funny at all.
How must it feel, not being able to trust one’s thoughts, memories, reflexes – in a world that always expects perfection, performance and predictability? It’s another layer in which this film moves, subtly (or not), but in interesting ways.

“Joker” brutally unmasks the hypocrisy we surround ourselves with, summarized by the lyrics of Smile:

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you

Except, for some people the sun never shines.

In the end, for Arthur it becomes clear that there is no other salvation possible than in the company of others like him: the rejects, the other faceless “clowns”, as Thomas Wayne described them. And as he goes down in his spiral, he finally accepts his fate as he turns into what he was maybe destined to be: the Clown Prince of Gotham. The only way to become “someone” and be seen will be to lead an army of faceless rejects. It’s the universal story of Lucifer: “better to reign in hell, than to serve in heaven“.

I found the ending perfect, satisfying, final. The long studio interview was so tense I was holding my breath the entire time. The entire sequence is perfect, right to the end. What a brilliant idea, to have Arthur mutate into The Joker and debut live on national television. It makes perfect sense, like “A star is born”, but evil! I was ecstatic.

I left the cinema really shook up, and it didn’t happen to me for a while, certainly not in a “comics movie”.

Something on the commentary and the cultural impact.

The movie is out, and the discussion got hot. Besides the Golden Lion and an 8-minutes standing ovation at Venice, critics got divided, while audiences seem to mostly love it – some for very different reasons than others, apparently. The New York police have issued warnings before the screenings, and apparently the story provides too much material to the alt-right trolls and incels who could find reasons to explode into violent acts.

Is it true? Does the film pander too much to the disenfranchised and the hopeless, providing too easy an excuse to justify their violence? Does such an argument even make sense? Is a movie (or comics, or videogame) the problem, or is the pressure that makes people snap? Should we expect so much from a film, after all a piece of art and entertainment, while clearly we don’t apply the same high moral standards for – say – our world leaders?

I have a number of issues with this reasoning and who cares anyway.

First of all, “Joker” is a movie about a victim. Arthur Fleck is a reject, he is the ultimate target of violence and abuse, physical, mental and emotional. To identify “victims” with the “alt-right” or even worse the “incels” only looks at one aspect of a bigger problem, and exposes a big blind spot that some commenters seem to have – to give for granted that these people are the only ones who will identify with the story. It also means to admit that these groups are victims of society, after all, so their frustration is right after all, but we are not willing to do much about it. We shouldn’t represent their situation, we shouldn’t even talk about it – lest they get angry, and god forbid that.

As my friend Ian put it in the comments, “All the people [Arthur] reaches out to – to receive love from or to receive acceptance and be validated by are the ones who then betray him, hurting him the most”. Exactly. This is not a story about a terrorist unleashed in society. This is a story about how to avoid to have more terrorists in society. Thanks, Ian.

The character’s ethnicity – let me say it at the beginning, so it’s out of the way. Yes, the man who becomes “The Joker” (an archetypal figure transcending ethnicity, age and gender) starts off as a white man. But, for me, that’s secondary. The fact is that he suffers from terrible violence, and all the perpetrators are white men in positions of power, who exercise their privilege forcing it down on him. Critics have different points of view on this and they are entitled to their opinion of course, but for me “Joker” is a universal story representing systemic violence of white men (think Thomas Wayne) against victims, all victims.

It’s an anti-capitalist cautionary tale if there ever is one: Fleck starts spiralling down when all forms of support are taken away from him, in the name of profit, budget cuts and social expectations.

Third and finally, Art is meant to provoke reflections on human nature, and sometimes to divide us. When we try to force our political expectations into a piece of art, we are limiting its scope, while just expressing our confirmation biases. Nobody gets elevated or enriched by that.

The violence.

Yes, “Joker” is a violent story (but no more than, say, “The Killing Joke“). Although not a lot of violence is represented, when it erupts, it’s inevitable, brutal and shocking. Which I think is precisely the point there. Take your average Avengers movie: in the final battle where superheroes fight thousands of aliens and entire cities get leveled down, you can assume a lot more death and devastation, but you don’t see it. You are not exposed to the blood spatters on the wall.

In “Joker”, you are. This is crucial, and it’s the reason why The Avengers is comforting and reassuring, while “Joker” is so disturbing. It’s meant to be.

It’s a journey into a very disturbed mind, that tries desperately to cling to sanity and hope but descends into chaos blow after blow. It’s not supposed to “make sense” – as anyone barely familiar with the character and its development would know. That’s the essence of The Joker: it’s the devil inside, it’s pure chaos, simple and twisted at the same time, innocent and pure evil. The more you try to define it, the more it defies definition.

This is not a story meant to reassure us and leave us comforted while we drive back to our safe home. On the contrary: it’s a brutal mirror pointed to our face, one that forces very uncomfortable questions.

Where are we positioned, in the story?

Are we Thomas Wayne? Or Alfred, here little more than hired muscle: busy protecting his master’s gate for a salary, too busy to wonder if what happens behind it is right or wrong? Are we Arthur’s mother, a victim herself, too weak and deluded to lift a finger to prevent more violence on an innocent child? The brutal impresario, a reject who bullies his employees to assert his position as first-of-the-last in the social order? Are we the innocent Bruce Wayne, who will grow up inevitably scarred by the violence he witnesses? Are we De Niro’s Murray Franklin, the star of the show, willing to tell other people’s stories and maybe to laugh at them, to gain status and success?

De Niro interprets Jerry Lewis who interpreted himself in “The King of Comedy”.

There are so many lenses through which to look at this film. I am grateful it was made and I don’t think I will forget it soon.

Did we need it, and did we need it now? I think the answer is a yes. And besides, did we need “Clockwork Orange“, “Taxi Driver“, “Natural Born Killers“? Sometimes a story just investigates a darker area of our soul, one that (thankfully) we don’t get to explore in real life. I think that’s a very positive thing. And besides, was there ever a time when violence and marginalization were not present – and urgent – in society? The 70s were certainly not such a time.

Art has many functions, and one of them is to provoke us. As I said, I am happy “Joker” left me disturbed and unsettled. Guilty, even. People will react to it in different ways, sure. We can’t control it, and I think we shouldn’t. Even “The Matrix” has been culturally appropriated by the alt-right, with all their talk about red pills.

This is not a political movie, said director Todd Phillips, and it’s hard for us to believe him; but so says also The Joker himself while giving Murray Franklin his uh, final interview. It’s not political in the sense that it doesn’t take a stand. It shows a very uncomfortable story and leaves us alone to deal with it. How inconvenient, eh?

If we stop telling stories of demons and dragons, it won’t make them disappear. What leaves people unsettled about this particular story is that there is no positive resolution, no voice-over like in “Fight Club” or “The Wolf of Wall Street” with a moral lesson coming at the end.

To be fair, there is a spark of hope at the end of the tunnel: the movie suggests that in that very same night when The Joker is born, Batman is also created. Thesis and antithesis, poison and antidote. Only, who is who?

Batman is Joker
This was circulating on reddit. Interesting, isn’t it?

Will things get better, in the end? Please tell us that they will, we beg the storyteller. We feel so afraid and powerless.

But “Joker” leaves us hanging. There is no relief there. It suggests that things have to get worse, before they can (maybe) get better. Is it a political commentary about our present times? Does it make any sense at all? Or is it just trolling us?

Well guess what, sometimes that’s how things go.

And that’s life (end credits).

9 thoughts on “This “Joker” is not there to put a smile on your face

  1. You are right that there are many lenses to look through at this film. I think I took a slightly different take on it (only ever so slightly). I found this an interesting sentence “Was it because part of me identifies with the perpetrators, more than with the victim?” because I know what you mean from your perspective but I would suggest that there is in fact no 100% perpetrators nor 100% victims (or maybe Bruce Wayne at such a young age could be the only real 100% victim, the young boys who stole Jokers sign and beat him up also were arguably 100% perpetrators…we can always have “head canon” though about why they are like this and ultimately everyone is a product of society so then also they are victims…maybe I’m stretching here…?). This is the mature narrative the film presented me with as I interpreted it: that the world is not black and white. There is not much love going around but also no pure evil act- it is always based on some feeing of being wronged and then a build up of wrongs then eventually at some point people can snap. Especially if mental health is added complication. Everyone is both a victim and a perpetrator of various degrees. Some commit different crimes and some are the victims of different sorts of crimes. Everyone Joker kills has done a bad thing to him, as far as I can remember.

    I’m just gonna call him Joker. As does he need to be wearing make up to be The Joker? What is The Joker and who is Arthur? Aren’t they the same person but then isn’t calling him Joker de-humanising him? Can we call him Arthur all the time when humanising him also takes away any agency away from him and makes him completely a victim. Maybe it’s the other way around and dehumanising him calling him Joker is what takes away perception of him having agency?? When he “becomes” Joker he is still very much a bad person who decides to commit horrific crimes. He should not be 100% excused or forgiven. Understanding not excusing crime is what I think the film is about. It makes the character all the more frightening than just saying “here- this is a bad guy”. So what I’m trying to say here, in a very convoluted way, is whether to call him Arthur or Joker, if he is two different people (or not) and what it means to use one or the other is a whole discussion topic of its self so I’m just gonna call him Joker. It is the name of the film after all.

    You say all the perpetrators are white men in positions of power but to be pedantic, that is not universally true. The main perpetrators apart from joker himself and his “followers” are people he loved or he desperately wanted to be loved by. His mother betrayed him (the worst most devastating crime against him in my opinion was that he was abused as a child and perhaps what has triggered his mental health condition), then he finds out his mother firstly doesn’t believe in him as “the man of the house”. Another reason he is a disadvantaged member of society is that he is a unpaid carer and he believes he is a successful protector of his mother- only to find out she does not feel this must be devastating to him as it’s the only thing in his mind he has been successful at. He loves his mother and protects her and is most proud of this. So much so that he fantasises that people make fun of him about this (the audience laughing at him when he says he lives with his mother)- then in his fantasy his hero applauds him for this and gives him public credit and approval. His mother wants Thomas Wayne to save them, then Joker finds out she was lying to him about Thomas Wayne being his father. His psychiatrist/social worker, who he is opening up to the most and being completely honest with about his thoughts and feelings, doesn’t listen to him, which is a crime of sorts, and she is a black woman- also in a position of power. Like I said earlier though the perpetrators are also victims. His mother has her own severe mental health condition and was also abused and beaten by her partner. Perhaps she was so controlled by an abusive partner that in fact she had no personal agency to protect her son. She did not know herself that Thomas Wayne did not have an affair with her as she was confused by her psychological condition. His psychiatrist is also a victim of society in that she has a poorly paid job “They don’t care about people like us” and is losing the job because of cuts. Joker desperately wants T Wayne to love him when he thinks he is his father but Thomas is a perpetrator in that he does not show empathy towards Joker and punches him which was unprovoked assault- though from his characters perspective he was protecting his family from a dangerous individual and was sending a message with his punch. Murray Franklin is also someone Joker sees as a hero figure and someone he wants to be loved by and then Murray uses the video of Joker failing at comedy and mocks him.

    All the people he reaches out to- to receive love from or to receive acceptance and be validated by are the ones who then betray him, hurting him the most. Even the other clown at first shows support giving him the gun (not the best support to give but it does show he is wanting to help as misguided as it is) then betrays him by ratting him out to the police. ( ?? to be honest I need clarity on this- I know the police found out he had a gun at the children’s hospital and was sacked because of this but they found this out by asking Jokers employers- the clown I’m talking about- did he tell the police Joker had a gun before they found out about the hospital incident?? I can’t remember this part clearly but that is why Joker killed him in his flat isn’t it? Hmm…)

    But I wanted mainly to talk more so about what was happening “in story” and what it all meant not so much all the themes and commentary/questions about society in our world. Firstly how much of the film is real and how much is in his mind? We see him fantasising about being in the audience of the chat show and being shown affection by the host. We think at first him dating the lady from his building is real then we see it was a fantasy too. Then at the very end of the film he says to the lady, interviewing him in what I’m guessing is the Asylum, that after laughing and being asked what is funny- he says he thought of a joke but she wouldn’t understand it. So did that indicate the whole thing might have been in his mind?? Or does the way the film is structured show us inside his mind and it is inside his mind he is humanised and a victim but the truth is what we only see in flashes- flashes of reality where he is simply a very evil person? Perhaps he is mentally unwell but his justifications for evil acts are all in his head and never really happened?

    I loved the scene where the music gets very tense and loud as he storms down a corridor with a mean angry face and the camera looks up at him from bellow- a cinema technique/camera angle that makes a character, here the Joker, look big and powerful…intimidating. It was an extremely exciting scene as you see the Joker finally taking his full evil form. On the train earlier he was defending himself then taking retribution on the attackers killing them even as they fled. Now he is to take revenge on the whole world!

    Also is the Joker of this film really the Joker that ends up being Batman’s nemesis? As far as I know – (and I’m about to look this up but I sort of don’t want to find a definitive answer as I like the mystery) Jokers name in most stories was Jack Napier not Arthur Fleck. The scene when Bruce Wayne’s parents are killed it isn’t Arthur but someone else who shoots them. So either the film is saying this really isn’t the Joker that becomes Batman’s nemesis but only the inspiration for the real Joker or that they are changing the story so it is not Joker who killed Batman’s parents. But then again he wears the traditional Joker clothes and has the trademark green hair. Hmm…

    On the uproar in America… I think banning guns would be more effective than banning one film.

    My only criticism of it is that I think it should probably be an 18 not a 15. Strange for me to say this as I always think less censorship is better and if any film has a strong “lesson” (in this case perhaps about where violence comes from and how society should try to prevent it) then the younger people learn/discuss this the better. However not all young children are privileged to have great father/mother figures to guide them on this. It is not because of how graphic the violence is in itself (and oh that scene where he stabs the other clown in his home was fantastically violent and also when he shot the chat show host – wow took me by surprise! Have to admit I loved it.) but because, there is no getting round it, it does glorify violence. We can discuss this as adults and why it does this in a mature and nuanced way. We can discuss how it is perhaps one point of the films narrative- part of “what its about”. There is in my opinion a danger that some younger viewers may not think about this too deeply and will justify violent acts or mistakes they might then make themselves. I always think that there are always a year or two under the age certificate that will see any film. I know I did. Parents always see there own children as angles and think they as parents have the choice, which they kind of do and should, to decide for themselves if their child a year or two younger can watch something. Also children themselves are intrigued to see something that is a year or two above there age but I don’t think so if it is much above. Maybe I’m wrong but I believe a 12 year old tends not to want to see something that, being aimed at 18 or over will not really entertain them with jokes or themes that go right over there heads or with scenes that will frighten them. As a 15 film I think a lot of 12, 13 and 14 year olds will see this but if it was an 18 we would be looking at 15, 16 and 17 year olds seeing it who are a bit more mature and would understand more why the violence is glorified rather than just seeing the violence and assuming wrongly it is saying violence is good or should be celebrated.

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    1. wow, Ian, thanks a lot for this! So many valid points.
      First of all, thanks for expanding on Arthur’s relationship with his mother, it’s a key feature I overlooked a bit. And also for making a point in a very clear way:

      “All the people he reaches out to- to receive love from or to receive acceptance and be validated by are the ones who then betray him, hurting him the most”.

      With your permission, I include it in my post (with your name). That’s exactly one of the focal points of the story.

      As for the rest, so many aspects to discuss, I will choose the “continuity” aspects. Jack Napier is not the only name Joker had – it’s the one Tim Burton chose for his 1989 movie, so it kinda stayed. Also, Bruce’s parents are not murdered by Joker, it’s a small-time criminal (Joe Chill) who kills them originally. But then, different versions of the story created alternative timelines. I think you are referring to Tim Burton’s movie again.
      In this one in particular some details don’t add up, if Thomas and Martha Wayne are assassinated when Joker is “born” (it’s 1981 – the year “Zorro, the Gay Blade” was released as we see in the overhead billboard), then Joker must be at least 20 years older than Batman. According to the lore, Bruce Wayne is 8 when his parents are murdered, and Arthur in his 30ies maybe.
      Which is at odds with the most traditional timeline in which Batman starts fighting Joker immediately, even at the very moment of his creation (as in Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke”).
      Again, definitely check “The Killing Joke” if you are interested in what is considered THE origin story of Joker. Interestingly, his real name pre-transformation is never mentioned. As if his human identity doesn’t matter, and he only acquires a meaning, becomes “someone” after he turns into Joker.

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    2. Last note about the rating, I was also surprised by the 15+. I actually recommended a friend not to take his boy to watch it. “The Dark Knight” was 16+ and in retrospective I find it less violent than “Joker”.
      But then again, it’s not about the violence per se, it’s how it’s represented. The few killings are described in a very graphic, brutal, shocking fashion. Blood spills and spatters everywhere. And there are many other levels of violence: mental, emotional, societal – that are maybe less visible but can plant am unconscious seed.
      In conclusion, this movie may appear “less violent” than an ordinary shooter videogame session, but its violence operates at a deeper level. This is definitely an adult movie and there are aspects I wouldn’t know how to introduce to a 15-years-old.

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  2. I left the movie feeling idcwstched only a slightly more ‘cinemised’ version of the society we live in….so felt profoundly also stirred by it but haven’t quite absorbed it either. Just one point you I felt to mention about the ending was that I didn’t so much feel that joker had resigned himself to lead other faceless rejects as I believe the final part where he is taken out of the car is a fabrication also and I’m inclined to believe that he was intensly lonely right to the end….what a powerful portrayal of mental illness though…the mannerisms, the bodily movement, the ability to detach….absolute art….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And even more than that, there is the possibility that the entire story, or parts of it, happen only in Arthur’s mind. Even the ending, once we accept the premise that the narrator is unreliable, is open to different interpretations (“you wouldn’t get the joke”). What is real?

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