What’s The Point
If you’ve seen JOKER (or even if you haven’t), you will be aware of the trillion articles, thinkpieces, tweets, statuses etc arguing about its point. I don’t think it’s unfair to say the reaction of the storytelling blogosphere and social media has been profoundly negative … Yet at the same time the movie has also reached dizzying heights of critical acclaim, also generating $290m in its first week. So what gives?
Myself, I’ve never been a fan of the Joker as a character. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the poster boy for the stigmatising ‘psycho-killer’ trope in storytelling and no amount of green hair makes up for that. I’m also very bored with the ‘white guy goes nuts and kills everyone’ story.
So to say I was ambivalent about the movie’s opening is an understatement. In fact, I was actively against it. I’ve suffered mental illness all my life, specifically psychosis and I am sick to death of people thinking I am a psychopath because of shit like The Joker.
Did we really need yet another movie about this character? What could it really give to cinema? In short, what is the frigging point??? Well, let’s take a look.
Character Versus Plot
I’ve seen many filmmaking friends claim there is ‘no plot’ to JOKER. They are right. There is no counteracting hero’s journey to the movie as we might expect. Instead the movie is a character study, focusing on the interior world of Arthur Fleck, who becomes Joker. That is his arc. Full stop.
Modern audiences don’t really know what character study is in 2019. We have been plot-heavy for so long. That is why it feels fresh. Only people who know cinema history well recognise character study for what it is. The first half of the movie is not even episodic, but a series of vignettes. Those vignettes depict a man both isolated and abandoned by society, rejected and continuously treated like crap by (he assumes) everyone around him.
So those who say JOKER is ‘just’ a rip-off of stuff like Taxi Driver are absolutely right. In the first half, I found Joker very slow and overwrought generally, especially as it had to be very on-the-nose thematically. What you lose in plotting cause/effect means you have to make subtext more obvious so the point of the story can land.
Nevertheless, contrary to various claims, JOKER is no ‘clapback’ to BATMAN, telling us Joker is a ‘good guy really’. Instead, the movie does invites us to empathise with his plight by reminding us Fleck is a product of his environment. The movie is also careful to remind us his vision of his plight is wrong. More on this, next.
Entitlement Versus Connection
In being rejected, Fleck also rejects others. He does not see any kindness in anyone. Fleck is constantly on the defensive with anyone in authority, placing a line in the sand between them. He is a martyr to his mother, facilitating her own delusions. He has no real connection with other people.
Fleck is also massively entitled. He assumes he can have whatever he wants … A comedy career; his medical records; his neighbour Sophie’s love. When he doesn’t get these things, the problem is that other person’s, never his own. He might as well have ‘woe is me’ tattooed on his forehead.
Yet the movie also makes the great point that there’s a vicious circle at work here. In rejecting guys like Fleck, society creates guys like Fleck — but it’s also not that simple. ‘The love of a good woman’ does not cure or prevent mental illness, psychopathy, or mass murder. Even if it did, since when is it Sophie’s job to take one for the team? She and her daughter are ‘collateral damage’ to society, like so many women and children.
Some commentators didn’t like that we don’t see them die, saying this means we ‘don’t care’ about their deaths. I disagree. Certain men have killed women for NOT going out with them in real life, even writing manifestos about it. I think the lack of bloodshed here in JOKER is ultimately respectful of this and makes a more powerful point.
Product of environment?
What’s more, the baked-on misogyny of society is visible in so many scenes of JOKER. It tells us how men like Fleck believe they are entitled to women’s bodies and attention. From the billboards that read stuff like ACE IN THE HOLE, juxtaposed over a faceless woman’s butt … Through to the ‘nice young men’ on the subway throwing french fries ‘He’s being nice to you!’ … To the jokes at the comedy club (“Women see sex like cars … Has it got a good body? Will it kill me?” /Men see sex like parking … ‘Oh, there’s a spot'”).
Racism and ableism also orbit JOKER’s world. Nearly every person with any kind of authority over Fleck is black or disabled, further enforcing his self-pity. He largely sees them as disinterested drones and jobsworths, even when they try and empathise with him. It cannot be an accident his boss Gary is a little person, or that Fleck literally pats him on the head after *that* scene. Gary might be in charge, but Fleck never takes him seriously. He is the one person Fleck is ‘bigger’ than.
The rage Fleck feels is in part to him feeling reduced from ‘his rightful’ place. He believes Thomas Wayne is his father … Because, obviously. Fleck is the prodigal son, a prince and heir, just waiting to be discovered. Being seen to be what he rightfully should be is everything to him. It is an inescapable truth that men like Fleck feel hard done by and JOKER nails this.
Mental Illness Vs. Psychopathy
Fleck’s poignant journal entry, ‘The bad thing about having a mental illness is that people expect you to behave as if you don’t’ is totally on point too. Anyone who has ever struggled with their mental health can recognise and relate to this, 100%. The fact is, society SAYS it is sympathetic … but this sympathy (if it even exists), only stretches so far. Life-saving services are cut and people drop friends and relatives rather than deal with them.
But here’s another point worth consideration: is Fleck even mentally ill? That is arguably up to interpretation, too. After all, JOKER becomes more coherent, the more he descends into supposed ‘madness’. At the beginning of the movie, Fleck’s incredulous social worker tells him he is on ‘seven types of medication … that must be doing something?’ But of course, if Fleck is not really mentally ill, then it wouldn’t.
Let’s not forget either how Fleck weaponises his laugh. He starts the movie saying it’s something he can’t help. This is called into question on whether this is even real throughout the movie. There’s another striking moment with Gary, when Fleck’s asshole work colleague Randall makes a cruel joke about mini-golf. Fleck laughs with Randall as he leaves the room; we assume because he can’t help it … Yet as soon as he is out of sight, Fleck switches off his laughter like a light.
Could Fleck be playing the system to his own advantage? Psychopaths sometimes do this, for attention-seeking reasons, or to get out of other trouble. The movie never answers this. Given that psychopathy is incredibly hard to diagnose (never mind treat), this story point is very authentic.
Good Versus Evil
No doubt about it, the movie JOKER is morally ambiguous. It holds a light up to society and tells us nothing happens in a vacuum. We all know deep down that people don’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘Hey, I am going to be evil’. But it’s more palatable to believe this is the case.
The Joker is not just a villain; he is not even an antihero. He is a bad guy. We have known he is a bad guy since his very first appearance on April 25th, 1940. Nearly eighty years of supervillainy. Wow. Yet at the same time, modern audiences don’t want comic book villains anymore … even when they originate in comic books.
Audiences both adore AND hate villains where we can SEE how they became villains. It goes against our ethics but it also means we can’t look away. Taxi Driver, Fight Club, Joker … Same debates, same controversies, years apart. This is why the movie has created such a furore. We know what he is, but we want his story anyway.
I’d venture 2019 is the time for a character study on what ‘makes’ a bad guy. The ground has been prepping for this moment for years. Recently, we all loved Erik Kilmonger in Black Panther … He is a complicated and nuanced villain. He is ultimately a psychopath too, the epitome of a bad guy. That said, he is right, he was abandoned by Wakanda. Everything Killmonger is was forged in fire by that initial rejection.
Some commentators might say Killmonger is different. They’re right. Killmonger was cast very obviously in the role of the antagonist in Black Panther, as we currently know it. His plight, though understandable, is clearly wrong every step of the way when contrast against T’Challa’s hero’s journey.
But what if you took T’Challa out of the equation? What if we saw the little boy Erik, alone in the United States, his father murdered? A boy abandoned by his homeland and his family. A boy cast into the military and then mercenary work … Where he learns to be a killer, isolated and lost, swearing bloody revenge on Wakanda?
Then we would have the JOKER-style re-telling of Killmonger’s origins. Story is a matter of perspective, after all. I predict that one day (not far off), we probably will see this re-telling … Especially if Joaquin Phoenix wins an Oscar. Marvel is obviously going to want a piece of that action.
The Point Is, There Is None
When society is sick, the mad are sane. Nothing can be done about guys like Fleck. Or that’s what ‘they’ would have us believe. Who ‘they’ are, is also up to interpretation. JOKER says the masses are a bunch of clowns and they are coming to get us. In a post-Trump/Brexit/Gilead-style world, this could well prove true.
My key takeaway From JOKER, then? ‘Society Breeds Entitled White Assholes Like Arthur Fleck’. Yup, based on my experience as both a woman and someone with mental illness, that tracks. I have had the misfortune to meet too many men just like Fleck. Very few of them have been crazy.
That’s why a movie like JOKER is absolutely terrifying … Because what is society going to do about it? Apparently, absolutely nothing.