“It seems to me Joker is this impactful not because of its superb quality, but that it’s a sort of political rorschach test for our time.” Christian O’Brien
After having seen the Joker for the first time, I’ve spent the night obsessing over it. Beyond the predictably unsettling peculiarity as well as the occasional mysteriousness of the main character, there was something sinister about the choice of themes explored by the director Todd Phillips, often presented as if no nuance needed to be detected, yet for some reason, filled with just enough details to make you wonder, and in my case, even obsess over — where the narrative most of the times seemed crystal clear, there was always something odd about the dynamics at play, that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on. But before I get into a few examples, I have to confess that I’m guilty of having done the thing that I’ll be criticizing in this article. Aside from being conditioned by the articles and reviews that came out up until that point, having read all I could come across including the media storm that surrounded the then-upcoming release; I’m guilty of doing what I’ve been very critical about before, that of primarily analyzing and filtering the picture with a political lens, searching in my mind for the hidden ideological motives.
In my defense, that was (as briefly mentioned above) mostly due to the unprecedented media hype around the movie, particularly in the United States where, shortly after it’s premiere at the 76th Venice Film Festival back in August, contrary to the immediate response from critics and industry alike, a swamp of negative and politically motivated reviews started pouring down on the director of the Hangover saga. From those who condemned the violence to those who criticized an impeccable performance by Joaquin Pheonix, all the way to those who “ingeniously” detected right-wing propaganda, Joker was suddenly all over the news, and everyone, and I mean everyone, was talking about it. As usual, exaggerated concerns about the potential dangers of copycat crimes inspired by the violence depicted began to surface (despite there being no scientific empirical data to support such concerns), followed by paranoid reports of supposed threats of mass-shootings at the premiere screenings.
Yet, despite what the Mainstream Media were so desperately trying to make us believe, some of them even to a point where they seemed be rooting for the occurrence of a horrible imitative crime just to provide an “I told you so moment”; the truth is, that to anyone closely following the current cultural and ideological wars, it was pretty clear from the start that what really sparked the sudden change of heart by the critics, was not an honest concern for citizen safety nor the social fabric in general, but an attempt to smear the director Todd Phillips, after he, prior to the international release of the movie in an interview for Vanity Fair, made negative comments on today’s left-wing “cancel culture” in the entertainment industry, blaming Political Correctness and (literally) “Wokeness” for his sudden change of style.
“There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore” he said, then continued: “I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.” As one would expect, the rage by left-wing progressivists came without delay. Because we all know that, in today’s tense cultural climate, and especially under Hollywood’s well-known dogmatic political umbrella, “Go try to be funny nowadays with this Woke culture”, isn’t the kind of statement that goes unpunished. It was, in fact, a matter of hours before the first angry responses masqueraded as honest criticism, promptly came from within the media industry and the artistic establishment. Although later on not exclusively, back then, all of them coming straight out of left-wing sources.
The most insane appeared perhaps on CNN, which, punctually, made insane parallels between the protagonist Arthur Fleck and President Trump. Accusing the movie of being, according to Jeff Yang, quote: “an insidious validation of the white-male resentment that helped bring President Donald Trump to power.” If one is reading this, has seen the movie, and has any sense at all, it should go without saying that to see such connections, one has to be delusional. The ridiculousness in Yang analysis doesn’t even begin to register, giving the fact that Joker, aside from being indeed white, apparently straight, and indeed a man, has literally nothing in common with traditional Conservatism nor modern Republican ideology, and much less with Donald Trump himself (aside maybe of being alienated and rejected by society, as many young men are today; same men who, if they had the chance, might consider voting for Trump? But you know, if we’re really pushing it).
But the sad part is, as usual, that regardless of the presence of valid political parallels or the lack thereof, nowadays, thanks to the dogma of intersectionality, the simple act of portraying a white male suffering from anything worthy of attention is enough to fabricate a political agenda out of thin air, and then blame it on whoever is “behind the curtains”. For example, one doesn’t have to express concerns about immigration, nor show any signs of patriotism, boast about his or her wealth, make a tiny sexist comment, nor do any other behaviour that can be reasonably attributed to Trump or a fan of his, to be accused of being under his same ideological spell. Now, thanks to identity-politics culture, having some of the same group characteristics of the elected President, such as his sexual orientation or skin color (just to name a couple) is for many, such as Yang, enough of a pattern to validate accusations of “political collusion” between the writers and a given political party. After all, a straight-white-man can’t possibly be a victim of society, right? Not with all of those inherent privileges no.
In a review for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw, analyzing the Joker’s motivations for his first violent acts perpetrated against three “Wall-Street types” (as Joker himself calls them) emphasizes the lack of racial allegories in the scene, and describing how he lost interest in the movie after noticing how, quote: “Phillips prudently makes the scene a non-racist attack”, further illustrates part of the same problem. Bradshaw’s observation, more than an honest criticism, sounds a lot like a disappointment for not seeing his ideological hopes validated in the plot. We can be sure that, if instead of three white rich men being killed, it would have been a group of kids of Hispanic origins like those who attack Arthur for no reason in the first scene of the movie (or any other marginalized groups one can come up for that matter) his review would have been totally different. Almost to say, that if a picture is made without any positive Social Justice message embedded, it can’t possibly be considered worthy of praise. If all of this sounds surprising to the reader, it shouldn’t be. Just another ordinary day in Hollywood, that’s all.
But despite the obvious still worth mentioning, there was something that personally, as I said, didn’t make too much sense. As I was falling asleep, I kept asking myself: what if there is something to the notion that Phillips meant to do a little more than artistically address today’s cultural issues? What if he wasn’t simply trying to re-create a realistic and contemporary environment for the rise of the Joker, but perhaps send a message to us, the viewers, and them, the obsessive ideological commentators? What if the same people who promptly jumped on the blaming bandwagon at the first sign of political gunfire were wrong about their specific interpretations, but right about their initial suspicions? What if Phillips was, after all, trying to sacrifice the artistic aspect, to make indeed a political point? Those questions kept bothering me from the moment I left the theater till the moment I fell asleep — and it wasn’t until I came across a video review from Jonathan Pageau’s “Symbolic World” a few days later, that my obsessions were put to rest.
It turned out, that the act of trying to pinpoint a consistent and one-sided modern political narrative on the movie-plot was, in and of itself, what was blocking me from understanding it in the first place. In the video called “How the Joker Smashes Our Political Narratives”, Jonathan Pageau explains how the movie stops making sense if you try to examine it with a political lens, especially, if you try to use identity-politics. In other words, what I got wrong, as well as most of the people who tried to do the exact same thing with their own ideological cultural preconceptions (whether from a liberal standpoint or a conservative one), was that the only way to make sense of the narrative from a political perspective, was to stop trying to make sense of the narrative from a political perspective altogether. Because during the entirety of the movie, every-time one tries to apply one of the one-sided political framework that we’re all used to these days, it gets almost purposefully contradicted by a following, or a previous scene.
Let’s briefly take a couple of the most obvious examples. The gun used by Arthur Fleck to commit his first murders, was given to him as a gift by a tall white overweight man, a bully-like character that perfectly fits the left fantasy of a stereotypical irresponsible gun owner, making them think (just in case they were looking for it) that the plot is “on their side” — just to have their perceptions challenged when Joker uses the gun not only in self-defense, but also (as already mentioned) against three more of the left’s favorite stereotypical “bad guys”; the likes of Wall-Street or, as Pageau describes them, “Covington kids types”. All of which is made even worse by the fact that they were harassing a woman on the train. Therefore, the fact that not only there weren’t any racial, “homophobic”, or sexist motivation in the Joker’s actions, but that he’s also a victim of bullying, combined with the lack of bad intent, contradicts the idea that gun owners are likely to be the ones to perpetuate “hate crimes” and rarely need to defend themselves. A left-wing progressive might have preferred seeing the Joker joining those three white guys in harassing the woman, confirming the notion that gun owners are racists, misogynistic bullies, rather than victims of the latter out to defend themselves — while a conservative might have rathered not having the gun owner been negatively stereotyped in the first place, nor seeing the three white privileged young men behaving as bullies being the cause of the problem.
Another political narrative being smashed in the movie is represented by the relationship between the character of Thomas Wayne (Bruce’s father) and Artur Fleck’s mother. According to her story, she was taken advantage by Wayne many years prior, had a relationship and a child (Joker) with him, only to then being abandoned and left on her own. The story, the way it seems, can’t help but make the viewer blame a rich, dislikable, powerful white man like Wayne, and making them think that not only is the real villain, but also the cause of Arthur’s mental illness, and future derangement. This modern framework gets once again destroyed, this time quite blatantly, when Joker finds out that his mother suffers from delusions, made up the whole story (having had no relationship with Wayne in the first place), is the one who allowed the abuse on him when he was a kid, and also kept the fact that he was adopted a secret. So the story that seemed to fit the type of behavior often condemned by feminists and progressives alike, that of a powerful white man taking advantage of a woman, again dissolves into dust, leaving everyone only partly, or not satisfied at all. If you also take into account that Joker’s love interest is a black woman and that the movement inspired by his crimes is a revolt against income inequality, you inevitably start to get the point. However you look at the big picture politically, you’ll remain disappointed.
The most brilliant part of Joker is that during the whole time it makes you think it doesn’t want you to know what is happening, just so when you think you do, he can instill more doubt than before. The reason why the “critics” were going crazy with the movie, wasn’t because of its many revealing messages, but because those who were getting revealed, were disproven in one or another scene. As Pageau points out, at the beginning of the film, when garbage in the city is piling up and the Joker is holding a sign which says: “Everything must go”, most people in the theatre have probably thought or even wished that they, in a way, were the ones holding the sign. But the rest of the movie plays with that notion, confusing anyone who thought that the world’s most infamous comic book villain of all time, can actually be on anyone’s side — and takes a mockery out of the idea that the Joker’s motivation, a nihilistic mentally ill murderer, can ever make any sense at all.