When Art is Dangerous
*What follows is a critical analysis of the film JOKER. It contains information that some may consider to be spoilers about the movie. You have thusly been warned.
The best iterations of art, are those that stir people up. Art that gets labeled dangerous, gets put on ban lists, and has people lined up to protest its showings. Art that takes up space in forums where its content and value are debated and argued over for pages and pages and hours and hours of intellectual battles of perspective, of opinion, of divisive dialogues where every party believes themselves to be the expert. It’s been a while since a work of art has garnered this much attention, but right now Todd Phillips seems to have set the world on fire with his tour de force film JOKER.
Make no mistake, JOKER is a masterpiece of cinema that itself comes to its audience disguised, a clever and insightful social commentary of a film that clothes itself in the clown mask of a comic book movie. When it debuted at film festivals, it received an overwhelmingly positive response. It was given standing ovations. The reviews hailed it as a stunning achievement. Movie of the decade. Immediate Oscar contender for best film and best actor. Perfect scores abound. Phillips had taken the concept of a comic book film, and turned it on its head. He had produced a serious work of art where previous attempts all seemed content to build franchises for marketing toys or were just happy pleasing the nerdy fanboy fanbase. This was a film made with a purpose, and that purpose was to disturb, to get under the skin of the contented malaise of American culture and make it see itself for what it is: a really horrible joke.
Somewhere along the line, the reactions to the film began to shift from those of admiration, to a backlash, a cautionary warning that suggested a movie like this would inspire “white incel culture” into acts of violence due to its depiction of a sad white man driven to gun-wielding vengeance. It was suggested that the use of the Joker character to tell such a story was unnecessary, that he was a character that didn’t need an origin, that it was wrong to garner empathy for such a cold-hearted killer. They were so vocal and so certain of their own opinions that an avalanche of media coverage began to issue similar warnings about the film. Everywhere you looked there were stories stating that people needed to be prepared for violence at the screenings. It was almost as if the media wanted this violence to take place, to prove themselves right about it, a sort of manifest destiny, something to lay the blame on and point the finger to a root cause for so much other violence that seemed to have none. It was almost as if they went in search of a reason to ban this film before it saw a wide release. But it didn’t happen. Why? Because madmen don’t need movies to inspire them.
During all of this media hoopla, Todd Phillips had to have been sitting back and smiling, because his film had done exactly what he set out for it to do. All the negative press and it still debuted at number one and broke the record for the largest October opening weekend in cinematic history. All the worry about potential violence, and the only people hurt are those folks who likely sprained their fingers arguing so fiercely online about a movie that they typed too hard. This is a film that ultimately is completely ambiguous, leaving the final result up to audience interpretation, and therefore acting as a mirror. Whatever the audience believes the true meaning to be is only showing the perspective and bias inherent in the viewer. The subjectivity of art is proven in the clashing perspectives, and only because of the expert craftsmanship that went into every facet of this movie’s production. What has happened is you now have factions of people decrying the film for racial reasons, which in turn shows their own racial bias. You have people decrying the film for not adhering to comic book canon, which shows their bias to comic books. You have people decrying the depiction of mental illness, which shows a bias toward social norms. And you have the people who see through it all, and praise art for being art.
The genius of Joker is its use of the current popularity of comic book movies as a gateway to tell a more important story, and indeed a necessary story for the current time and place in which we find ourselves. Those going into the film expecting another Batman vs Superman, another Shazam!, or another Aquaman, are going to be sorely disappointed. Those thinking this will be DC’s response to Deadpool from Marvel are also going to walk away at a loss. Todd Phillips has stated multiple times that this film was not based on the source material, that he wanted to tell his own story. And he told a story that is indeed a cautionary tale, but one different from the one the media has been so focused upon. This film works broadest as an allegory for the healthcare crisis, and in particular, the mental healthcare crisis. This is then layered upon the effect of classism, how the wealthy class have divided society and pushed us to a breaking point. This is the message that the media is truly afraid of. Phillips boldly asserts that the only way to break free from classism and overthrow the wealthy who rule society is through revolution. And he boldly asserts that this revolution will be violent.
Before we get there, Phillips uses several techniques to develop his film and prime his audience for emotional turmoil. This film disturbs us. At its climax, I was made nearly physically ill, and left wondering why, what had made me so upset? The reason is simple: I was rooting for Arthur Fleck and his redemption. This is because the film’s narrative is setup in a way that is a common character arc we find in movies, the one of the character who overcomes the odds and proves everyone wrong in the end, the character who at first fails at his dreams, but then through hard work and perseverance, prevails. This arc is setup when Arthur reveals he wants to be a comedian. His first attempt at this is a brutal failure, and the audience is laughing AT HIM instead of WITH HIM. In the film’s final scenes, Arthur is brought to a much larger stage to try again. A traditional character arc would have had him succeed here and prove the world wrong, and this is what the audience is programmed to expect through conditioning of countless other movies that follow this familiar path. Of course, instead of that happening, Arthur has undergone a metamorphosis into the Joker, and things take the most unsettling of turns. The violence on display is not overbearing. It is not John Wick mowing down countless opponents like they’re inhuman target practice. It is not Michael Meyers slaughtering households of teenagers with a butcher knife. It is not the end of Watchmen, when entire cities of innocent people are wiped out to “save the world.” No, the pivotal violent moment in Joker is the shooting of one man on national television, which ignites riots and revolution against the wealthy class, against capitalism. The statement is made that you have ignored the people for too long, you have ignored the mentally ill, you have ignored the poor, you have made us suffer while you live your perfect lives built on the backs of the working class, you have created this crisis, and it will no longer be ignored, the people are tired and sick and coming for you.
The harshest critics of the movie have said that the character of Joker does not deserve to be placed on this mantle of becoming a revolutionary, due to the nature of who he is in the comic book canon, the fact that he goes on to be Batman’s nemesis, and a ruthless murderer of hundreds if not thousands of innocent people. This is a mistake in analytical thinking. Forget all you know about the character of Joker and just take what this movie is giving you. This character, Arthur Fleck, is most likely not the Joker from the Batman universe that we all know and love. The timeline does not add up. The narrative doesn’t align with how we know Joker is made. This is most likely a different character all together, either someone who inspired the actual Joker’s existence, or someone who admires that character and wants to be him. It is irrefutable and intrinsic to the narrative that the audience realize the story is being told by an unreliable narrator. Arthur Fleck is shown to have a mental illness, and is shown to have imagined interactions with other characters throughout the course of the movie, and the movie ends with him recounting events in an asylum, where he states that he’s laughing at a joke but “you wouldn’t get it.” It’s entirely possible that this has all been setup to provoke the audience into all these different reactions, and the final joke is that the audience is falling for it hook, line, and sinker. Or maybe the joke is that Arthur knows he has imagined a revolution that will never happen. On a more literal side, the joke is that Arthur just made up that whole story because he wanted to kill Thomas Wayne, or he knew he died and wanted to take the credit. On the flip side, much like Ledger’s Joker from the Dark Knight, this could just be another story Joker is telling his therapist to fill the time. Either way, it is open ended on purpose, so the audience can fight over what it means.
None of this would matter if the film hadn’t been properly executed. If Jaoquin Phoenix hadn’t delivered the performance of a lifetime. If Todd Phillips hadn’t masterfully directed his film with homages to Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Network, and Psycho, perfectly utilizing multiple metaphors and motifs. If the cinematography and musical score hadn’t been beautiful and emotive. So many elements, and so many artists had to combine their efforts to produce this work of art, and be led to success by the flawless vision of the director. This is a work of passion, of inspiration, and it shows.
Speaking of metaphors, a person could spend days discussing the different metaphors Phillips employs here to depict character transition. My favorites were his use of masks, and his use of the stairs. The mask is the most essential motif of this film. As Arthur transitions from himself into the Joker persona, he gradually adopts the mask as his true face. He moves from in the beginning of the film needing a skullcap and a green wig, to toward the end dying his hair green and wearing face paint full time. The application of his makeup is shown in various stages and levels of detail to depict his emotional state. At the end, after he has fully transformed into Joker, the makeup is running, messy, one eye has tracked a blue tear down his cheek. When the mouth makeup has faded, he uses his own blood to redraw the smile. On top of this transition, we are also shown others putting on clown masks to participate in the revolution. This is another level of metaphor, referencing ANTIFA, and Guy Fawkes. And then there is also the fact that this is the first version of JOKER we have seen that uses blue makeup on his face, making his mask a literal metaphor for America, and his descent into madness a literal metaphor for the decline of capitalism and the decline of America. The fact that it’s a mask means Joker can be anyone, means that Joker is everyone, and what happens to America is the burden of us all, not the individual.
The mask metaphor goes hand in hand with the stairway. Arthur is shown repeatedly climbing stairs, shoulders slumped, head down. He is Sisyphus, forced to climb his way out of hell every day. Climbing from his clown self, his true self, up to his pretend life, where he has to fake being normal. This is the crux of one of the iconic lines of the film: “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave like you don’t.” As Arthur shifts and accepts himself, he is then at the end shown dancing in elation down the steps in his Joker persona, finally free to be himself, finally accepting that he will never be normal, that he doesn’t have to pretend any longer.
On top of metaphors, there are the allegories, the social commentaries that make this movie great. Above all else, this is a film that puts the spotlight on mental illness, and how America is in the midst of a healthcare crisis. Arthur is shown to be in therapy, to be on medication, while living in extreme poverty in a city overrun with destitute trash. Arthur himself is treated like trash. He is ruthlessly bullied everywhere he goes. The city cuts funding to the healthcare program that gives Arthur his therapy and medication, much as the government today is cutting funding to healthcare, and denying people the coverage they require to get the help they need. This is what starts Arthur’s downward spiral. On top of this, a co-worker gives Arthur a gun, which then triggers Arthur’s first foray into violence. This works as a statement on gun control. Ease of access to firearms, either legally or through the black market, puts the country in another level of crisis, especially when those firearms can be accessed by the mentally ill. Does Arthur snap because he was bullied? Or does he snap because he no longer has his medication? Or is it because he now has access to a firearm? The answer is not that simple, it is a combination of all, and a level of nuance that most artworks dare not tackle.
The ideals of classism and power are handled in this movie in a racially sensitive manner. The villains are all white men. Thomas Wayne is Arthur’s main antagonist. And Arthur himself is of course a villain in the making. The two police officers that are questioning Arthur, and later, the officer that arrests him, are all white men. Everyone who treated Arthur with kindness in this film was either a person of color or another minority class. Accusations that this film has racist overtones or sexist overtones are therefore woefully misguided, again revealing the biases of the audience and not the actual content of the production. So does this movie inspire violence? Does it inspire “white incel culture”? Of course not. There is no way to watch this movie and not be unsettled, not feel disturbed, not feel a deep sense of revulsion at what takes place, because it goes against our nature to see people pushed to such extremes. We want the good guy to win. We don’t want to hand the world over to monsters. We don’t want to take part in a society that creates such monsters. If we allow it to continue, we are all accountable, all culpable, and that is the most disturbing fact of them all.
At the end, this is a work of provocation, meant to provoke thought, and to provoke action. It has already provoked much thought, in the myriad think pieces and criticisms and twitter storms it has garnered since its release. The question remains to be seen as to what actions it will inspire. The message is clear, that if we don’t change the world, the world will be forced to choose violence, because that is what happens when you back people into corners, when you take away all of their hope. A friend asked me the other day, “Why hasn’t this movie caused riots in the streets?” And the answer is simple, we aren’t to that point yet. We still have a chance to change the world peacefully. We still have a chance to turn the bus around, to pull the lever that stops the train before it dives from the cliff. But those chances diminish by the day. The question is, what are you going to do about it?
But of course, the truly great thing is this entire review, and all the opinions you just read, could be argued the exact opposite way, or just may be completely wrong. That’s art, baby.