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How the Joaquin Phoenix Joker Uses Film to Tackle Social Issues

I recently saw the Joaquin Phoenix Joker film in theaters. Let me just say, firstly, that I was totally blown away by JP’s performance.  An incredible level of artistic intensity was released onto the screen in this film.  Yet while the film is captivating it steers clear of being official ‘Batman’ material.

Let me reiterate on that claim.  This film is not ‘Batman’ because it strays far from the tone of what we consider ‘true’ Batman canon. Look, I’ll say it plain and simple.  While the Joker that we’ve all come to ‘love’ is a crazed, evil genius, the Joaquin Phoenix joker is not but there are many reasons for the director taking the film in that direction.

   The Joaquin Phoenix Joker is not the first ‘realistic’ comic book character

Christopher Nolan was the first to steer the Batman franchise into the waters of realism.  Batman films from before were campy and cartoony.  For the Joaquin Phoenix Joker the director, Todd Phillips tried to replicate that realism and take it to the next level.  From what I’ve read he set out to make ‘a film’ and not a ‘superhero film.’ While the growing attraction of Superhero “Marvel” type movies has drawn unparalleled box office acclaim the film industry has been taking a hit in regards to artistic integrity.  In this sense, movies have become more like carnival rides than pieces of art.

I believe Todd Phillips is using the acclaim and hype surrounding the comic book genre to tell a truly unique story.  It’s not a story about the Joker but a story that uses the Joker to tell it.  The reason I say that is because there were truly no derivatives of this film.  The Joaquin Phoenix joker holds its own regardless of Batman or the Superheroism period. The character development is great.  Inevitably, the character arch, leaves you feeling satisfied in the end.

With that being said, however, I don’t think that this story itself gives any great credence to the ‘Batman’ Universe as a whole.  In fact, I’d even venture to say that the Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie somewhat detracts from the overall character of ‘the Joker’ that we’ve come to (strangely) adore.

WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD!!

What is the origin of our modern ‘Cult of the Joker?’

For some strange reason, our society has had a growing obsession with the Joker.  He is a  devious character. The reason for this is that the Joker allows us to trade our inner villain for an onscreen representation. With growing civil unrest and political turmoil, the Joker lets us satisfy our inner demons.

There is a cult-like aura surrounding the joker.  I mean the film kicked off with a little controversy of its own.  A nationwide uproar ensued on the release of this film. It was A hysterical media scare. Incel attacks were on everybody’s mind and we all remembered the Dark Knight shooting that happened in Aurora Colorado. This lead to the U.S. military monitoring message boards for threats and many theaters posted security guards at the front door.

The new threats that emerged only heightened the Jokers’ villainous prestige.  With timid trepidation, I went to see the new Joaquin Phoenix joker movie.

A Quick Summary

First Act:

We are introduced to Arthur Fleck.  Arthur is a party clown and a self-professed comedian living in Gothan city.  At this time in the film, Gothan is infested with crime and rapid unemployment.  Many of Gotham’s people are disenfranchised and living in poverty.  Arthur (our main character) suffers from a disorder that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times.  However, through the help of social services, he’s able to keep his laughing attacks in check with medication and counseling.

Arthur is attacked by a gang of teenagers.  This event causes his co-worker to give him a gun.  While entertaining children at a hospital his gun falls out of his pocket and he is promptly fired. On the subway, still in full clown makeup, Arthur is bullied by three high-class Wayne Enterprise businessmen.

The scene ends with Arthur literally shooting all three of them with the gun.  People see him and he is sensationalized in the media as the “clown murder” on the subway becomes the rage all over the media.

 Second Act:

The growing poverty crisis leads to growing unrest throughout Gotham.  Protestors dawn clown masks in solidarity to demonstrate and the mysterious “clown murderer” on the subway becomes the symbol of a growing revolutionary spirit within the city.

Arthur has his first Comedy show and completely bombs. He just sits there and stutters which lends himself to his condition of uncontrollable laughter. Franklin Murry is a “tonight show-like” host played by Robert Dinero.  He picks up the clip of Arthur bombing and plays it live on his show.

Arthur intercepts a letter from his mother that is meant for the Mayoral Candidate Thomas Wayne.  In the letter, his mother reveals that Arthur is Thomas’ illegitimate son.  When Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne he finds out that his mom was actually insane.  After further investigation, it is revealed that his mom was, in fact, insane as well and had fabricated the story.

Eventually, funding cuts leave it so that Arthur cannot get his medication anymore and from there starts a series of snowballing chain reactions of devastation. He finally gets on stage as a comedian and completely bombs.

Third Act:

Subsequently, Arthur is invited to be on the Murray show due to the unexpected popularity of his clips.  In a fit of rage in his apartment, off his meds, he kills his former co-worker and spares the other.

Arthurs’s mother has a stroke and is rushed to the hospital.  Following the unsavory incident of finding out that his mother was insane, he smothers her in her sleep.

Arthur then goes on live for the Murray show and has Murray introduce him as “Joker” (to reference Murray’s previous mockery. On air, in front of a live audience, Arthur admits that he killed the men in the subway and then he kills Murray live on television.  The final scenes are of Arthur being taken away, broken out and then continuing on to Arkham Asylum.

Gotham City & the expression of ‘class struggle’

We all know that Gotham city in this film is meant to be a metaphor for America.  It has always represented New York City.  In this adaptation, however, it seems more alive than ever, complete with the spirit of the American ethos as a whole.  That is to say that there is a clear and distinct class struggle that is going on between the wealthy elites and the dreary peasants of the city. 

The clash of classes is spurred on by the shooting of the Wayne Enterprise employees in the subway.  However, it wouldn’t be the first time that class struggle leads to a revolution.  Think back to the storming of the bastille during the French revolution and the overthrowing of the Czar in Russia.

Grass-Roots Movements and Protestors are a bunch of Clowns

like I’d said earlier.  Whether you belong to Maga or if you belong to Antifa you’re just putting on a mask (or a hat) and acting like a clown. There is no real gumption to your outrage.  You’re just a sheep, parading about like some juiced up idiot.

The ‘leader’ of the revolutionary Anarchy is purely A-political

When Arthur finally becomes the Joker after being introduced on Murrays talk show there is a protest at City Hall.  The protestors are back and they are regaled in their clown masks and makeup.  When Murray sees Arthur in the make-up he sees his guest as only being a part of the growing unrest and not as the fundamental source. He’s just another demonstrater.  It’s like how the Hollywood cronies and News pundits get behind grassroots movements.  Like MAGA for example or Antifa.  Media people adorn the symbols to show their solidarity with the crowd but only use it for public relations and virtue signaling.

The Joker, however, has no political intentions whatsoever.  He is the pure representation of what comes at the heels of what anarchy brings.  Without anarchy there can be no revolution. As the rest of the demonstrators use this clown symbol to show their strength and consistency of will and meaning.  Like, for example, to show how smaller units beget a larger movement.  On the other hand, we have the Joker who is the heart of the movement.  A revolutionary himself he is the prime mover, but his revolution is not political.  In fact, there is no intention behind Arthur, to begin with.  He is pure madness.

This begs us to question notions about this new ‘movement’ culture that’s become the core of American politics these past years.  In the past 10 years, we’ve seen: Occupy Wall Street, The Tea Party Patriots, The Women’s March, Black Lives Matter and many more.  Yet it seems that all of these movements serve no real purpose.  There are no clear attainable goals and the incessant need to repeat them ritualistically lends them to very castrated meaningless aimlessness.

  The Joker represents the core of modern ‘revolutionary’ movements.  At their core they are a-political neutral madness.  Truly apathetic Anarchists.   

How the Joker addresses the mental health crisis

Funding for mental health has not only been cut in Gotham but it has also been cut in the United States as well.  As a result, we are now seeing a growing number of mentally ill people roaming our streets.  The homeless population has been growing steadily for the past decades.  Arthur Fleck seems to have caught the ripe beginnings of the decline of Mental Health Facilities.   

Thomas Wayne Mayoral Candidate (Bruce Waynes Father) Represents Donald Trump

It’s clear from the beginning of the film that Arthur is starved for a strong male role model. I mean in one of his delusions we see him dreaming about being on the Murray show. He gets on stage and tells Murray “you’ve always been like a father to me.”  For me, there is clearly something strange going on. That is, that this media figure is the inspiration behind the Joker.  It suggests here that there is a strong connection behind the madness and the media.  Not only that, but also that the Media itself fuels the madness.

When we fast forward to the scene where Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne the truth comes out.  We, like Arthur, are meant to believe that our purpose can be found in these political leaders.  I mean the metaphor of Thomas Wayne as the father of the joker can’t make that any more clear.

Political leaders come to represent for us historical givers of meaning.  Their job is not all diplomatic but also representational.  They come to be purveyors of different substantial social meanings.  For example, people are all too gung-ho in blaming politicians for practically everything.  When we see white supremacy on the rise we look to Trump, when we see Antifa or Socialist uprisings we look at Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez.  But the truth of the matter is that these politicians are not the “fathers” of our internal madness at all.

There is no politics, there is no “father” behind the clown mask. Chaos is the only meaning behind the madness and there is no politics in pure anarchy. 

 Conclusions

Ideas for this film were drawn from “The Killing Joke” by Alan Moore who is one of my favorite comic book writers of all time.  Overall I think that the Joaquin Phoenix Joker was an incredibly well-made film.  The filmmaking was on point and not to mention the acting.  Although I wasn’t too bought on this character being in true Batman/Joker canon.  Joker is always a deviant mastermind genius. In this version, however, he is pretty much invalid.

Honestly, I don’t think I could ever see this joker being a formidable opponent to Batman.  Although if you take this film out of the DC Batman Universe and let it stand on its own two feet it has plenty of merit in artistic expression.

Written by Emilie Wasser

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