Joker, the 2019 comic book film directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy, Starsky and Hutch) about the undiscovered origin of the iconic Batman villain, was surrounded by controversy not only when it was released, but every single day since its trailer was released on April 3rd, 2019. The media, mostly gathering posts from social media, labeled the film as “dangerous” and possibly encouraging people to start a theater shooting similar to that of when The Dark Knight Rises was released in 2012. After all, the film wants you to sympathize with Joker, a man with an extensive comic book history of theft, murder, and at least molestation (The Killing Joke). It wants us to sympathize not because he’s actually a good person, but because society made him who he is and it could happen to anyone.
Just like the theater shootings. It could happen to anyone at any theater. Even to you in your own small-town cineplex. At least, that’s what the buzz around the film’s release was.
In response to media outlets labeling Joker as a dangerous film, Warner Bros. released a statement claiming that the film does not intentionally hold Joker up as a hero, nor does it endorse real-world violence. However, in defense of the film starring a villain, “Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues.”
Which, as a writer of fiction and film myself, I believe this to be true. Sure, you have those Scorsese-dubbed rollercoaster films that are there just to entertain you or be a form of escapism, but film, or any art of any medium, is mostly used to express a view the artists in question have of the world. What vices and virtues stand out to them, what they think others could learn from their own lives, or maybe even a visual trip into the human psyche. Martin Scorsese himself understands this in his own work, notably Taxi Driver (which I will touch on later).
What I’m trying to say is that art is about expression. What are you expressing, to whom are you expressing, where are you expressing from, why are you expressing it, and how are you expressing it? (When you are expressing it is obvious: It’s when the art is released.)
Which begs the question: What is Joker expressing and how is it expressing it?
On the surface, it’s talking about some heavy things. Mental illness, separation of class, ableism, and what happens when the world collectively treats a man like Arthur Fleck (the Joker) ever so poorly. The state cuts funding for his psychiatric therapy, the rich spit on the poor, and the night show host Arthur looks up to mock him by blasting footage of his failed stand-up routine across the airwaves. On top of it all is the red herring with Arthur’s mother, who believes Arthur is the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne (yes, the Thomas Wayne, toying with the idea that Batman and the Joker could be brothers), and the other red herring of Sophie, who was Arthur’s girlfriend that ended up being, in a twist, imaginary.
In the end, Arthur says to hell with society and its codes, conducts, and political correctness and shoots the night show host on live television. This, of course, spreads across the media like wildfire and unintentionally starts an anarchist movement. As Arthur takes a ride in the backseat of a cop car, he sees all the destruction, fires, upturned cars, but, this time, the Waynes walk out of a theater and get shot in a random act of violence. Then the cop car Arthur is in gets hit by a truck steered by anarchists, letting Arthur escape, free to dance on the cars as the city of destruction surrounds him with worship and praise.
Then we get to the (at least, to me) surprisingly divisive final scene, where Arthur is in Arkham Asylum speaking to a psychiatric therapist, laughing. When the therapist asks what he thinks is so funny, he replies with, “Nothing. It’s a joke. You probably wouldn’t get it.” Then we cut to a slow-motion shot of Arthur running through the halls of Arkham, leaving behind bloody footprints to imply that he killed the therapist.
This final scene is divisive because it makes the film open to almost any interpretation. And though one may think, “Yeah, art is subjective and the intention of the art is always going to be perceived differently,” I mean that, thanks to the ending, viewers can cherry-pick what moments throughout the film might have been real and what wasn’t. The entirety of his origin could have been his imagination and he’s just a crazy guy, or maybe it all happened and led to this moment, or maybe only some of it happened and Arthur is an unreliable narrator. Whatever the answer you may think it is, I believe it to be that it all happened, mostly because we already have a plotline of “it wasn’t real” when Sophie was revealed to not actually be Arthur’s girlfriend. There’s no way Todd Phillips would be foolish enough to pull a double-whammy get-out-of-jail-free card like that.
Or, you know, maybe he saw the first instance as foreshadowing.
Either way, Joker is a film that doesn’t understand how to properly use subtext and it hurts itself the further you go below the surface. Though on the surface it speaks on liberal ideals, the intentions and motivations behind the ideals are from a very heavy conservative viewpoint, such as not really understanding what is considered politics and blaming others, notably women, for the biggest moments that went wrong in Arthur’s life. There are also a few elements in the film that show Todd Phillips went to film school to learn some of the terminology film critics use, but ultimately misunderstands them and hurts his credibility as a director, inadvertently creating a propaganda piece very different from what was intended.
Propaganda tends to appeal more to emotion than logic, typically using the reader’s fear to motivate them to pursue whatever purpose the piece is suggesting. Such as America in World War II, Americans were encouraged to join the army, buy war bonds, or, using the famous We Can Do It poster by J. Howard Miller pictured below, have women work in factories while the husbands were away at war.
This poster is sometimes portrayed as a symbol of feminism, but was, unfortunately, derived from the works of propaganda and economics. While more and more men were being drafted overseas, there were less and less workers in the factories. To fix the issue, factories allowed women to work for them to keep things moving along. At the time (1942), this was seen as a huge step for women’s rights. However, once the war ended, the working women were forced to give up their jobs for the returning veterans. (Smithsonian)
Plus you have the phrase “Chinese Coronavirus”, but that’s a whole story itself.
This, of course, puts propaganda in a bad light, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Propaganda is also used to promote peace, love, and random acts of kindness. After all, those messages don’t really have that much of a supporting argument outside of “We should do it because it’s nice for everyone.” Taika Waititi’s 2019 film, Jojo Rabbit, about a young German boy near the end of World War II that wants to be a Nazi, serves as a commentary on the effects of propaganda and how susceptible children are to the media they consume due to their vivid imagination and lack of understanding of the real world (which is why advertisements in children’s programming is extremely limited on live TV and almost non-existant in online streaming). (COPPA) Jojo, the protagonist, believes Jews aren’t human and Hitler is a hero because he’s constantly been surrounded by media that says so since Jojo’s developing years, similar to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
I like to think of films as a Wizard of Oz scenario, where the films are the presence of the great and powerful Oz himself. Except, behind the spectacle, there’s a curtain. And behind that curtain is a man pushing buttons, turning dials, and pulling strings. This man represents those who have the final say in the creation of the film, be it the director, producer, or (my favorite) the hyphenate writer-director-producer (I especially love it when “editor” is added to the list). Is the spectacle supposed to wow you or teach you a lesson? Is it being honest or purposely deceiving you? That’s where critical thinking comes in.
With that out of the way, I feel it is important to talk about dramatic irony before truly diving in. Dramatic irony is a storytelling device where the audience knows more of what’s happening than the characters in the story, notably what the future holds for such characters. It’s used a lot in thrillers where the audience knows who the killer is and the protagonist doesn’t, but they are alone in a room (the NBC show Hannibal expertly crafts this for the first 2 seasons). Infamously, you have the Star Wars prequels that show the “development” of Anakin Skywalker and his path to becoming Darth Vader. That all being said, the dramatic irony of Joker is that we know what kind of person Arthur Fleck becomes.
Spoiler Alert: It’s the Joker. But what does that really mean? Is Joker sincere in its messages about mental health and class inequality? Arthur himself claims to not be political yet thinks the rich should help the poor, yet this is portrayed as a serious belief and not a case of irony (socialism, anyone?). And if it is sincere, is there critical thinking applied to the argument or is it purely emotional to rouse a response from the audience? Is there representation of a counterargument outside of a few throwaway lines?
We, as the audience, know Joker as the clown prince of crime, the antithetical chaos to Batman’s order. He becomes a person who kills just because it’s fun, who molests and psychologically abuses women to get what he wants, and views his time with Batman as a twisted relationship. He is chaotic evil incarnate who doesn’t need to justify his actions because, in his eyes, he doesn’t believe in anything except for living in the moment. And if we’re choosing to take a crack at the origins of someone like this and justify his actions, what is the film itself saying?
Which brings us to the questionable choices made in creating Joker.
The first instance I want to discuss is the use of liberal topics as props to emotionally stir its audience, the most prominent one being about mental health and how society and the governing system treats it. Arthur is a clown for hire diagnosed with a disorder that causes him to laugh at seemingly random and inappropriate situations (below that are implications of schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder). Throughout the film, Arthur experiences several of life's setbacks such as the state cutting funding for his therapy, getting jumped and beaten on the street (quite a few times), and struggles to even finish a joke when he gets a set at a comedy club.
All this is used to make us sympathize with Arthur, since all he really wants is to be seen and praised. Even in the opening minutes of the film, Arthur is holding a plastic business sign out on the street for his job when a group of teenagers take the sign from him. Arthur attempts to get the sign back, but the teens use it to knock him to the ground, shattering it, and then proceed to beat Arthur in an alleyway. The scene ends with a shot eye-level with Arthur as he lies on the ground, dollying in to get closer and more intimate as he cries into the ground, surrounded by pieces of the broken sign. Later on, after a couple scenes, Arthur is called into his boss’s office where he is blamed for the sign’s disappearance and that the money for the business is getting cut from Arthur’s check, not even believing Arthur getting harassed. This is just the beginning, but it lays the groundwork of what’s to come: That this world exists to dump on Arthur.
Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver, which Joker takes a lot of elements (and even scenes) from, handles the sense of loneliness and downward spiral with, I believe, a better subtextual understanding than Joker. The world operates independently of Travis, the messed-up protagonist of Taxi Driver, and we even get scenes of outsiders reacting to Travis’s actions and behavior. On the surface it may seem like a bad film since we’re so focused on a bad person, but Scorsese provides a subtext with his use of cinematography and editing to critique this individual and explain why this man is so lonely. For example, take this shot of when Travis calls his date from the previous night to apologize for bringing her to an adult flick and trying to win her back. There’s a point where the camera looks away from Travis to down the hall, wanting to look at anything other than Travis, this pitiful, lonely man, trying to fight for something he has already lost.
In short, Taxi Driver critiques the bad behavior.
And not only does the film critique bad behavior, but it also, despite how immoral and uncomfortable everything is preceding it, leads to a random act of kindness when he saves a young prostitute. On top of it’s critique, it shows the good that anybody is capable of.
Joker… doesn’t, and I don’t think I need to go into much more detail about the ending monologue than what’s already there. Sure, the filmmakers attempt to cover their rear ends by having Murray, the talk show host, state that not all people are bad, but Arthur is our protagonist that we have been sympathizing with and is used to showcase how rotten this society is towards class disparity and mental health. We’re supposed to back this guy up because of how mistreated he is, plus with how his monologue mirrors Todd Phillip’s own words against political correctness in comedy. The director, as many other great filmmakers and storytellers do, is injecting his own opinion with this speech.
But this is also the speech of a madman.
This is where dramatic irony comes in: Should we agree with Joker? Better yet, is Todd Phillips making Joker someone who should be believed? After all, this is the comic book symbolism of chaos to Batman’s order. The very nature of the debate of whether or not Joker is a good film is chaotic in itself because of how the film represents its ideas and themes, harkening back to the use of liberal topics as props mentioned earlier.
It’s not that the film is good or bad either. Films and stories in general don’t have an obligation to do so since they can also be used as a form of entertainment or escapism. However, we as viewers should still hold films accountable for what it’s trying to say and how it’s saying it. Is it morally ambiguous to tell its story like American Psycho, which commentates the fragility of masculinity, or just to be cool or aesthetic? It’s clear the film disagrees with killing, but what smaller anecdotes feel more like blurred lines with how they are crafted?
In conclusion, I don’t think it’s a purposely immoral film, just uneducated. It’s a film that thinks it’s about everything when, after you boil it down, it’s actually about nothing. It’s strongest argument is speaking against political correctness in comedy, which, as the kids say, is a “big oof” in itself (and Arthur forms this opinion despite the main reason he’s not a successful comedian is his illness keeping him from completing a joke. It was never about his content). There’s almost no logical sense in the film subtextually even down to the use of intertextuality, where a work of art references another work of art to help audiences better understand the themes and ideas presented, with the mention of Zorro: The Gay Blade (Think about how season 1 of Stranger Things references Poltergeist before Will Byers communicates through lights).
I think we as viewers should try to think more critically about what we watch to understand the truth behind the media, even if the great and powerful Oz himself is just a dude behind a curtain. But what is the dude behind the curtain trying to do? Is he conning you, entertaining you, or teaching you a lesson? Is he doing it for you or for himself? And, finally, does he know what he’s doing?
There’s only one way to find out.
SPECIAL THANKS TO Tiffany McLaughlin and Guillermo Pineda