Joker (2019) is not an ordinary superhero film. Rather than reinforcing the familiar dualism of the previous Batman films, Joker breaks down the hero/villain paradigm and replaces it with something more multifaceted and uncomfortable.
Dominant characterization and normative categories are reduced to chaos, as the chief protagonists waver back and forth between polarities of moral justice. In turn, the viewer is forced to adopt an open, more complex perception of the relationship between an individual and a specific context. So too, through the art-medium of an unreliable narrative, the film maker confronts us with the inadequacy of objective truth in explaining the story and as the line between reality and fantasy becomes blurry, we are offered multiple possibilities in the interpretation of events. Joker is undeniably an inquiry into the first person, lived-experience of psychic vulnerability, but foremostly it challenges our own perception.
At the bottom of the pile
The film follows the life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comedian, working as a clown to pay his way in a society focused on self-resilience. With no safety net for the vulnerable, Gotham city hangs precariously on the edge of anarchy and systemic decay. Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) (the father of the future Batman), CEO of Wayne Enterprise, is symbolically portrayed as the embodiment of the neoliberal ethos. Powerful and charismatic, he presents himself as a self-proclaimed, top-down hero and savior of the city. Arthur, on the other hand, – the very antithesis of Thomas Wayne – is an impoverished psychiatric patient, who cares for his needy mother (Frances Conroy), and ekes out his meager existence at the bottom of the pile. Afflicted by an intense laughing condition, Arthurs behavior doesn’t always match how he feels and this creates confusion and awkwardness in public places. Arthur’s differentness attracts angry responses and places him in danger of violence.
“What are you laughing at?”
Life is precarious
As the city reels under the strain of social divide and public cutbacks, Arthur finds his medication and psychic support structure axed. Horrifying flashbacks of having been institutionalized – banging his head against a padded cell – haunt him as his social worker explains that his weekly counseling sessions have also been cancelled.
“They don’t care about people like you and me”.
As Arthur returns to his aging mother’s apartment, the rain beats down on him – as if ominously – as he painfully drags himself up a steep flight of stairs. Life is precarious at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Poverty and violence plague the streets of Gotham city, held seemingly helpless to the fate of a failing trickle-down economy. After being robbed and beaten, Arthur is coerced into buying a gun from one of his colleagues.
“You have to protect yourself, it is a crazy world out there.”
A break in perception
Arthur’s Mother, formerly a staff member in the Wayne mansion, believes that Arthur is the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne. She finds self-importance in this knowledge, vigilantly awaiting the reply – which never comes – to the letters she sends to Thomas Wayne. She orientates her life around these feelings, sharing her stories with Arthur, filling him with longing. In the evenings mother and son find escape in their favorite tv show That’s Life, presented by Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro), a live show which gives a nostalgic feeling of past better times. It is here that we experience the first of many breaks in perception between reality and fantasy, as the film cuts to the TV studio and Arthur finds himself as a favorite person in the studio audience. Arthur glows with warmth, as he shares an affectionate paternal embrace on stage with Murray Franklin.
“I would do anything to have a son like you.”
It is no small fact, that this moment occurs on live television and is witnessed by millions of people. Back in his chair, the fantasy concludes with Arthur smiling contentedly, his social invisibility momentarily suspended, his fatherless longings swept away by Murray’s grandiose gesture of recognition.
From chaos to bottom-up hero
The film Joker goes beyond being a poignant political criticism. It raises deep ontological questions regarding the nature of perception and most specifically in the context of psychic vulnerability. The cinematography serves as a vehicle which shares with the audience the confusion of Arthur’s lived-experience. The narrative mirrors the fusion of reality with the imagined, as our protagonist’s psychic episode progressively intensifies and his life descends into chaos. Targeted out for his laughing condition, whilst in the subway, Arthur ends up shooting dead three rich, young employees of Thomas Wayne. Emboldened, he then confronts Thomas Wayne who denies being his father. Confused and with his dreams shattered, he then murders his own mother, and continues on to what will become a killing spree.
“You always told me that I have a condition, but there is nothing wrong with me, this is my real me. I haven’t been happy for a moment in my life. I always thought my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it is a comedy”.
In contrast to these disastrous ‘real’ life-events, over the following scenes Arthur’s (fantasy?) life seems to be going very well. He becomes a successful stand-up comedian and engages in a romantic relationship. His subway killings are championed by a “Kill the Rich” political movement, where in imitation of Arthur’s crime the activists wear clown masks. Arthur’s neo-liberalistic ‘self-image’ is thus elevated to that of a bottom-up hero of the people and the symbolic nemesis to Thomas Wayne.
From clown to joker
The film gives shared importance to both the real and the fantastical realms of Arthur’s experience. Cinematographically, the differences are subtle; his hair and clothing appear more styled; the background music swings between the exhilarating and the foreboding; color tones in the décor go from dreary to bright, and his persona progressively shifts as he re-identifies his own story in the guise of a late-modern, ‘authentic self’. Arthur’s narrative can no longer be easily understood as true or false, and it exposes the futility or reducing complex understanding to simple black/white categorization.
With each crime his old life slowly dissolves. His identity as ‘the clown’ – the target of laughter – merges with the fantastical as he transcends to become Joker ‘the comedian’, no longer the target of jokes; he is now the master of Jokes. In discarding his removable wig and dying his own hair permanently green, the archetype of the clown is embodied into his corporeality. He re-emerges emotionally fulfilled wearing a tailored suit, his stage prop, a loaded handgun. Triumphant rock music plays, as Joker dances down the same stairs that Arthur had pulled himself up earlier in the film. Now in control, and top of the town, he’s off to the TV studio to appear as a guest artist on the Murray Franklin’s show.
“I’ve got a joke for you Murray, What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fucking deserve…”
Symbols for emotions and longings
This film reminds us of the power that Art holds in expressing the experience of psychic vulnerability. By dispensing with the necessity of a true/false paradigm, the Joker narrative enables us an open mode of perception. For instance, after Joker kills Murray Franklin on live TV, the story line becomes increasingly abstract. Joker is freed from police captivity after a car crash and in a climax of events he stands triumphantly above his countless clown-masked supporters. But then, the film cuts straight to a new scene – very reminiscent of Arthur’s flashback earlier in the film – we see him back as a patient in a psychiatric hospital. One could wonder: What have we perceived?
After seeing the film for the second time, it suddenly struck me that my initial belief in this chronology was based on my own confirmation bias rather than my perception. Formed by countless American superhero films, my expectation of an archetypal story was so strong, that I had missed the many big gaps in the narrative. How much of Arthur’s story should we believe? What was fantasy and what was real? These are not questions that require answers; they are rather an inquiry into the lived-experience of a psychiatric episode. In fact, crucial details of the storyline seem to be rather a question of multiple choice depending on the subjective perception of the viewer. Was Thomas Wayne Arthur’s father? What if not only Arthur’s expressed fantasies were imagined, but also the entire 120-minute film was a fantasy? What if murder, pain and rain, and even a clown, are just strong symbols for Arthur Fleck’s emotions and his longings for human contact and recognition? Maybe, he never even left the hospital, maybe it was all just a product of his imagination.
Images copyright: 2020 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.