This is a Web Extra article written for the Freedom Socialist newspaper
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If you read almost any mainstream review of Joker, you’ll get the sense that it is a shallow, indulgent, perverse, and even dangerous film that is utterly devoid of real meaning or value.
However, see it for yourself and you will discover that this couldn’t be further from the truth. This movie is a stunningly honest indictment of capitalist society and how it creates awful material conditions for the working class and causes staggering inequality. It shows how this society mistreats and abandons people in need.
A raw reflection of reality. The horrific darkness of Joker is what so many working-class people constantly experience under capitalism, especially those of us who struggle with mental illness. It powerfully highlights how material conditions are the most crucial factor in psychological and social issues, as well as how this ties into class conflict.
It is the origin story of the Joker, the classic “villain” of the Batman series who has been re-imagined numerous times over the years. This version of the Joker began as Arthur Fleck, a deeply alienated worker grappling with mental illness. On top of his material poverty, he is constantly misunderstood, attacked, and deprived of vital resources. These brutal conditions are what lead Arthur to transform into the Joker.
Joker’s chaotic, decaying urban setting poignantly conveys the nasty, infuriating feeling of living in an extremely harsh, gritty, hectic, and heartless world that relentlessly beats down working people. Just like our own, this world does a hell of a lot more to create and exacerbate mental illness than care for it.
A subversive narrative sparks capitalist controversy. The capitalist media has reacted to Joker with revulsion and fear. They have warned us to stay away from it because it might inspire “lone wolf” mass murder. They sensationalize the film’s violence as a pathetic excuse to trash it, even though its violence is really no more extreme than an average R-rated movie.
Looking past this obvious distraction, it is clear that the capitalist media is actually put off by Joker’s honest depiction of the serious harm inflicted by capitalist society and the fact that this must inevitably lead to a mass uprising. The usual hero/villain dynamic we are so used to seeing in Batman films is dismantled in a way that boldly challenges the entire class hierarchy of the system.
Bruce Wayne only appears in the movie briefly as a child, long before he became Batman. However, his father (Thomas Wayne) is featured as a crooked billionaire running for Mayor of Gotham City. By helping to expose Thomas Wayne and the whole Wayne family as enemies of Gotham’s working class, Arthur galvanizes a mass movement against them and the rich in general. Thus, contrary to the tradition of the Batman franchise, the Waynes and their whole class are the villains, whereas the Joker is an unconventional and complicated protagonist.
The bourgeoisie cannot accept the prospect of this oppressed character who gets violent revenge on his oppressors and inspires revolt being regarded as a working-class hero. No wonder they desperately tried to smear the film and discourage people from seeing it, lest it inspires revolt in the real world.
What about the role of women and people of color? Joker centers squarely on a white male character; the entire movie follows his perspective. Arthur lives with his mother in a large, multi-racial, working-class city. Besides his mother, there are only a few other female characters, all of whom are black.
In the beginning, there is a woman sitting in front of him on the bus with her son. He makes a positive, playful connection with the child, but she doesn’t trust him and tells him to knock it off, turning the interaction sour. There is also his female therapist at the state hospital, who he sees until his mental health services are cut, which affects them both. Finally, there is his neighbor down the hall, with whom he imagines having a relationship.
There is a distinct pattern to who Arthur decides to kill and who he spares; he kills only those who have hurt him and never those who have at least tried to be good to him. His mother, who it turns out had severely abused him as a child and betrayed him, is the only woman he kills. Otherwise, all of his targets are white men with higher economic status than him.
He deliberately chooses to spare his former coworker, an immigrant man with a disability (dwarfism) who he says was always good to him. He also spares his neighbor and her daughter; even though his relationship with her was only in his head, she was understanding and kind to him in their brief interactions in reality. Some have speculated that he actually kills her too, but this is not the case, as confirmed by director Todd Phillips. It just wouldn’t make sense.
All of this goes to show that as a working-class person living with mental illness, Arthur has a special connection with and affinity for others who also experience multiple oppressions.
But is it too nihilistic? In Arthur’s world, it seems that nothing can ever go right. He is essentially invisible and cannot get what he needs. He loses his job and his mental healthcare, just like countless people in the real world have experienced as funding for social services has been slashed and redirected into the police state and the war machine. Meanwhile, workers’ rights are decimated and the capitalist bosses are given huge breaks.
With its lack of resources and kindness, the harsh reality depicted in Joker does unfortunately breed a lot of nihilism and hopelessness. But that is far from the whole story.
Still a cause for revolutionary optimism. Although Gotham’s harsh conditions are depressing, they also increasingly inspire mass revolt against the system and the ruling class that controls it.
The movie is set during a sanitation workers’ strike in Gotham City, and as the story progresses, this swells to a full-blown protest movement, inspired by Arthur’s acts of revenge. Huge numbers of working-class people who are fed up with the terrible injustice and inequality of the capitalist world they live in hit the streets wearing clown masks and wielding picket signs reading “Kill the Rich.”
Unlike typical mainstream reviewers, I do not see this as a nihilistic glorification of individual acts of violence, which are not constructive toward collective liberation. Instead, I imagine that beyond the end of the film, this movement against the rich ultimately evolves into a successful revolutionary socialist insurrection.
I also view Joker with optimism because I see how it has, in fact, inspired people around the world, just as the bourgeois critics feared it would.
In the current mass uprisings around the world in places like Chile, Lebanon, and Hong Kong, many protesters have painted their faces like the Joker. “We are all Jokers” has become a popular slogan for their picket signs. This is hard proof that Arthur Fleck’s struggles and his impetus to fight back are supremely relatable.
Go see it! If you are a working-class person who has experienced hardship, oppression, and alienation — especially if you or a loved one has endured mental illness — this movie will surely resonate with you and it may even inspire you to stand up and fight for a more humane world.