The Political Importance of Joker


Alana Campbell, Columnist

Prior to it’s release, Joker was slammed by film critics for its edgy subject matter, and many journalists warned audiences of the potential mass-violence that the film could incite. Of course, no actual violence occurred as a result of Joker. Despite all of its pre-release anxiety, the standalone DC film has had unprecedented box office success, breaking the record for highest-grossing rated-R film of all time in just its fourth week. The remarkable popularity of this film suggests that audiences aren’t just interested in watching the typical action blockbuster, and are willing — even eager — to watch films that challenge their assumptions.  

Although it wasn’t without flaws, some related to writing, most related to technical execution, Joker was an emotional roller-coaster with scenes ranging from exhilarating to unnerving to heart-breaking. The film has recently been nominated for several Golden Globes, and Joaquin Phoenix gives an impressive performance as protagonist Arthur Fleck that many are labeling Oscar-worthy.  But most impressively, Joker was unique in the ways it diverged from typical movies of its genre. For most superhero movies, the ending is extremely important; you watch to see who wins the war and who dies along the way, but, in Joker, if you’re at all familiar with the character, you already know the ending. You’re watching to figure out the why; what factors made that outcome inevitable? Director Todd Phillips and his co-screenwriter Scott Silver had the daunting task of trying to work backwards from a widely known character, creating a convincing backstory as well as providing an explanation for the monster he became. But this film didn’t just show one character’s development, it made audiences look at the role societal norms and politics play in the creation of real-life villains. 

Many critics labeled  the film “problematic” for encouraging audiences to have sympathy for a “bad guy”  in a time of ever-growing mass violence. But the suggestion that most of society’s “villains” are products of the very society they terrorize isn’t a defense of their actions; it helps us understand them — which can only be a good thing. These people, though they’ve done terrible things, deserve our sympathy not just for their sake but for ours. By refusing to understand why they are the way they are, we allow more people to fall victim to that self-destruction. No one’s born a villain, they become one, and if we did more to prevent that, we wouldn’t have a mass-violence problem.

Though Joker is blatantly political,  it’s by no means a right-wing film, which is made clear by its not-so-subtle criticism of  society’s treatment of those with mental illness and the lack of government services available for those groups. Even still, the film’s  political relevance goes deeper than individual issues or right vs left politics: through its chaos, it captures the zeitgeist of 2019 America. Joker illustrates the collective frustration felt by the working class at the disconnectedness of wealthy or corrupt politicians; the same type of frustration that (ironically) led to Donald Trump’s election and the growth of populism worldwide. Many Gotham City residents saw The Joker’s anti-elite violence as a heroic action and idolized him because they believed someone was finally standing up for them. These are the same people that gravitate towards Trump’s “drain the swamp”  rhetoric. This film doesn’t defend Trump or the alt-right or populism (which is, more often than not, detrimental to democracy), it instead presents his election as a culmination of frustrations from a particular group that felt ignored by the previous administration. In this respect, the movie acts as a mirror to the state of our own country, and forces us to look into our own reflection to determine where we’ve gone wrong. 

Phillips’ interpretation of Joker’s origin story diverges wildly from the original — so much so that it’s essentially a different character — which begs the question, why? The answer comes when the credits roll and the audience realizes that this movie is about much more than Joker. Phillips had an important message to share and an ingenious way to do it: draw audiences in with a big name; leave them with a new perspective. The film’s success suggests that this goal was successful on both fronts. Franchise films and Disney reboots tend to dominate the box office, and while there’s nothing wrong with entertainment, these aren’t the types of movies that have a lasting impact.  Just by its ability to dominate public discourse for as long as it did, Joker has proven that it is that kind of movie.