A few months ago when I first saw the trailer for ‘Joker’ starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips, my knee-jerk reaction was to be super excited. The Batman movies were all released in the prime of my teenage years, and I have always loved the Joker as one of the most iconic villains of all time. After watching the trailer a few times, I began to think a bit more critically about the actually message that the film would be sending and grew increasingly skeptical about whether or not I wanted to support the film.
In the current political climate, where mass shootings are far too commonplace and gun violence is one of the most pressing issues of our time, there is something that doesn’t quite sit right about an origin story that justifies why a white man would be driven to violence.
These mass shootings are most frequently perpetrated by white men, and news articles often portray these men as victims of a system and deem their actions to be as a result of mental illness. If the exact same crime was committed by a black man the focus would be on gang violence and the shooter would be demonized to the fullest extent. If a middle eastern man shot masses of people it would be deemed an act of terrorism. The hypocrisy and racism with how these stories are told is alarming, and I was very concerned that ‘Joker’ would only be reinforcing these racist stereotypes.
The last thing we need is an entire movie intended to make us feel bad for this kind of person. I was also very skeptical about how the movie would handle the discussion about mental health issues. It’s no secret that the stigma around mental health issues is a major issue, and representation of how various conditions actually exist is heavily skewed in media representations.
There are many people with a whole slew of mental health issues that never act out violently, and there are many criminals who do not have any sort of personality disorder. Whenever massive acts of violence take place, and the one perpetrating the act is a white male, conservative media loves to blame the violence on mental health, while largely ignoring the greater conversation about mental heath systems otherwise.
*WARNING: Spoilers for ‘Joker’ ahead
When my family suggested seeing ‘Joker’ the other day, I was very reluctant. However, by the time the credits rolled I found myself to be simultaneously impressed with the movie as well as concerned about how other people would interpret it.
Before I even get in to my thoughts about the film as a whole, I must acknowledge that Joaquin Phoenix was absolutely incredible. Seriously, one of the best acting performances I have seen in a very long time if not ever. Regardless of your thoughts about the movie as a whole, his awesome performance simply can’t be ignored.
I was quite surprised with how focused the movie was on class and the flaws within society. The trauma that Arthur (the Joker’s real name) endured served as a mirror to the greater issues that plague Gotham as a whole.
Many times throughout the film, Arthur repeats that he did not kill those men on the subway as an act of revolution and denies showing up on the Murray Franklin show in clown makeup as any sort of political statement. He says himself that he is not political, rather just focused on his personal trauma and how awful he feels.
This is actually quite poignant, as the people who are experiencing oppression do not feel like it is politics. It is just their life. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to not care about politics because that means you have enough privilege that politics don’t impact your daily life.
When Arthur commits his first murder of the three rich men on the Subway, he incites an entire political uprising. In Gotham inequality between the upper and lower class is staggering, which mirrors many parts of the present-day United States.
This class struggle becomes the backdrop for which the entire story takes place. When Arthur gives his monologue on the Murray Franklin show he makes the comment that everyone cares when rich people die, but no one would care if someone like him dies. Albeit morbid, this is very true.
When a prominent person or a privileged person dies or has tragedy strike, the news coverage and outpouring of love and support is everywhere, meanwhile poor people or minorities face tragedy every day and the upper class doesn’t bat an eye.
When Arthur finally confronts Thomas Wayne he makes a comment about how the world is so mean and rude and no one is nice. Thomas Wayne seems surprised by this declaration, which goes to show that people with privilege are blind to the harsh realities of life since bad things aren’t directly happening to them. They have no concept of how life is for someone who isn’t in their shoes.
The film also brought light to the way that current systems of mental healthcare are failing us. When the social services office shuts down, Arthur is unable to get his medication any longer which is when his downward spiral intensifies. Even when some sort of mental healthcare system was in place, Arthur’s therapist was relatively disengaged and he wasn’t really being helped.
When these systems are underfunded, it does a disservice to anyone struggling, especially those who come from a poor socioeconomic background. Access to medication is imperative. The stigma around mental health was also furthered by the hypocrisy of Thomas Wayne saying that all of his former and current employees were like family. Of course this doesn’t apply to Arthur’s mother who also suffered from mental illness.
People often react this way and distance themselves from this who are mentally ill rather than being for them in a desperate time.
Arthur is also constantly told by his mother to put on a happy face. He never really can talk about his emotions and continues to try to ignore them. This expectation of people by family and society is very damaging, and I found it important that the movie touched on this aspect of mental illness.
The topic of lax gun laws is also broached in the film when Arthur obtains a gun from one of his coworkers. His coworker gives him the gun at work, and this later becomes the murder weapon when he kills the men on the subway, and Murray Franklin.
The irony is that Arthur ends up later killing the same man that gave him a gun when his mental state spirals out of control. This reflects how the same people that are against stricter gun laws ultimately are just as vulnerable as anyone else when weapons get in to the hands of the wrong people. I didn’t find the film to be overly sympathetic to Arthur’s character.
I think whenever a story is being told from a particular perspective there is inevitably a certain amount of empathy that the audience feels, but I didn’t find it overdone in a way that justified his actions. The viewer sees him slowly unraveling, and sees how a variety of factors contributed to why he turns into a villain, without fully justifying this. It still is slightly problematic that the character we are watching is a white male, and I don’t know if this insight would be given toward a black criminal.
Overall ‘Joker’ drew attention to some glaring flaws in our society. Although staggering class inequality was depicted, it could also be perceived through the lens of viewing the lower class protestors as “crazy”. This potential interpretation was most striking in the end scene of the film when all the protestors are rioting in the streets.
On one hand there is the triumphant victory of the oppressed uniting and demanding change, but on the flip side these people are seen burning the city and destroying things. This makes them look “crazy” or like they destroy things when they use their voice to speak up.
Depending on your privilege and world view the film can be seen two very different ways. Coming from the perspective of someone who wants social justice and class equality, the film did an excellent job solidifying my perspective that society has many issues.
However, if I were someone with a different world view, it could be interpreted that the lower class completely destroyed the city and made things worse which is why they shouldn’t begin any type of revolution. This possible interpretation is terrifying.
I am not really sure which of these two messages the film was trying to send, but maybe that itself is the message. Everything we observe is tainted by our experiences and beliefs and there is never a universal answer of what we can all agree is “right” by our individual moral compass.
We still need to fight for equality and societal improvement, but there is the chance that the oppressors will just use the same things we see as issues as reasons to continue oppressing others.
Also published on Medium.