In this column, I will dive into times, throughout superhero history, that comics got political. There seems to be a constant debate if political discussion has a place in the medium. I hope to show that politics and superhero comics go together. Today we are changing things up a bit, and discussing a comic book film, Joker.
Joker has recently been nominated for Best Picture (and 11 nominations in total at the Academy Awards). Joaquin Phoenix is even a front runner for Best Actor. Now, the film has been controversial since it first hit. Many people found the movie to be glorifying violence, or elevating and excusing white toxic masculinity. But after viewing the film, I feel, it is a very progressive piece that is deserving of its praise.
This film is a period piece, even though it is fictional, set in the early 80s. This just works for the film. It all surrounds a garbage strike in the grim and gritty Gotham (which seems to be a stand-in for New York) and helps tie everything together thematically. The reason so many people are ready to find the Joker inspirational is solely that their lives are figuratively and literally in the dumps. It is interesting that the garbage strike is never once blamed on the union, instead people find fault with the rich in control of everything. It is a visual representation of what can happen when we stop caring about our public and social services, as often in the film you see the streets covered in garbage and filth. Even Arthur’s only support system, a check-in with a social worker, is a victim of the government cuts. You can tell from the start that his social worker is overworked and underpaid. And even though she is only able to give a minimal amount of help her services are cut. Through this, the film suggests that if the city was willing to invest in the mental health, and care, of its citizens maybe the entire bloody film would not unfold. At the end of the film, it is an extremely violent cross between Occupy Wall Street and The Purge, which leads to some disturbing moral ambiguity in the viewers’ eyes. While in no way is it an excuse for violence, but it is an explanation for why things occurred the way they did. If Gotham was a little more progressive and caring Joker would not have become Joker. The real antagonist is the neo-liberal Gotham city itself.
People were worried about this film glorifying violence. I found every moment of violence visceral and upsetting. The violence is always an exclamation mark rather than the entire show. Starting with the young gang beating up Arthur. Interesting that these boys are non-white but Arthur seems to not place blame on them. In many ways, he sees them as acting out from their place in life. I was afraid this moment was going to turn to the “white hero” narrative. It didn’t at all. During the subway killings, Arthur kills 3 men. All are white and rich, and just before they are seen harassing a woman. It is the catalyst for the entire film as the general public looks at these jerks and thinks “who cares if they are dead.” The entire murder sequence is loud and abrupt. It doesn’t look like an action film or even a horror film. It seems very real. It shows that even when the victim is someone who is objectively a bad person, murder still looks worse. Eventually, Joker becomes more comfortable with his violence (even though I’d argue the viewers do not) and kills a former co-worker. This scene is brutal and bloody and the victim here is directly responsible for Arthur losing his job. In many ways, the character is seen as a bully. The other clown, played by a little person, is spared for being a decent person. Like Arthur, he is also considered a “freak.” It is more important who isn’t killed here than who is. Again the victim is someone who is part of the problem, another toxic male. While Arthur’s killing of him is unjustifiable, and a large part in him becoming a villain, it does tie in with the themes of the film. If people just looked out for each other more often and legitimately cared, many issues would resolve. Finally, Arthur kills the talk show host (played by Robert De Niro). Again this death is instant and brutal. But Arthur doesn’t hurt (at least as far as we know) any of the guests or audience members. His only victim is his bully.
So the violence is targeted and not at all something that emulates or glorifies the mass shootings of the United States. But many of the deaths do use a gun. And the way that gun is used shows a lot. First off it is one gun that causes the death of 4 people. The gunshots all are uncomfortably loud (like a real gun not softened in typical Hollywood fashion) and hit with real impact. Watching this in a theatre, or with a good sound system, each gunshot overtakes the audio track. It is like a giant uncomfortable exclamation point to each scene. This is not a film with “gun porn” instead you could look at it in the exact opposite way. A simple handgun is shown as disturbing and destructive. The gun is a mistake. He gets it for protection, and it is what leads him to lose his job and causing all the death and destruction. The film is arguing that carrying a gun is just a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. It is also interesting to note that the only other gun death is a cop shooting a protester (presumably unarmed). You do not have to stretch your imagination or think analytically, to tie fictional police brutality to what we see on the news daily.
The Joker film has been a hot button issue since it hit theaters. I feel like most of the critics, and some of the vocal supporters, missed the entire thematic messaging of the film. Joker can be seen as a very politically progressive film. Using a DC villain that everyone knows was just a smart decision. The character is an archetype that just works nicely for hooking an audience and getting a message across. Arthur Fleck is a product of his upbringing and society, but he is not a “hero,” (even though he is the protagonist). The creative team on the film was trying to say something with this; like the cutting of the social services, and maybe some minimal gun control, would solve most of the problems in the film.