|Not quite what Marx had in mind, but it's a start|
- Spoilers ahead, so stop here if you don't want me to ruin the surprise for you -
First off, Joker isn't a typical DC universe film, that's for certain. It's style and ambiance strongly recalls the works of Martin Scorsese from the late 1970s and early 80s - think Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy. Thematically, it's much more Fight Club, Falling Down or American Psycho in their explorations of the alienated male psyche than any of the raft of recent superhero films. It's themes are not new. Hell, you could trace them all the way back to Dostoevsky's Underground Man or Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean, if you felt so inclined. Fans looking for a showdown between Batman and the Joker will be disappointed. We see only a bit of Bruce Wayne, and then only as a child.
So with that out of the way, themes of class warfare do permeate the film. Sanitation workers are on strike, and presumably have been for some time. Government by and for the wealthy results in cut backs for the most vulnerable people across the board. "The system doesn't give a shit about people like you" Arthur's black female caseworker tells him, after advising him that he's been cut off of benefits. "It doesn't give a shit about people like me either."
And it shows. Gotham City - which is little more than New York in the early 1980s renamed - is in a wretched state of decay. We're shown people living in conditions scarcely fit for animals. Roving gangs of thugs and giant rats rule filthy and dilapidated streets. Corporate snobs such as the three goons that Arthur Fleck guns down harass and bully those less fortunate than themselves. Following Arthur's retaliation, he becomes a sort of symbol of Gotham City's frustration with out of touch elites, and clown-masked demonstrators begin protesting and rioting. Can you really blame them?
Much ado has been made about this film. Right and "left" alike have criticized its apparent wanton violence, and suggest it legitimizes white male incel rage, or something like that. It's defenders claim it's a genuinely revolutionary manifesto. The film of the rising tide of class realism long overdue.
It's neither of these. Not quite.
It's important to remember that Fleck ultimately becomes a comic book villain, not a revolutionary. In this film, he is completely marginalized, with only his mentally ill mother for companionship. He deals with conniving and backstabbing coworkers in his part time McJob as a party clown. His boss blames him for the loss of a sign after he gets beaten up by thugs, and deducts its cost from his pay, which we can safely assume isn't anything to write home about. He becomes the butt of the jokes of a popular late night television show host. His relationship with a young woman who's his neighbor turns out to all be in his head. It's hard not to feel sorry for the poor fella. Those who don't, because he's poor, mentally ill or because he's a white male, are showing their true colors here. Yet he does end up committing very real acts of brutality and violence, and this is not valorized in any way.
He's no revolutionary, nor the criminal mastermind we're familiar with. Not in this film leastwise. Arthur Fleck doesn't really become somebody until he guns down three goons on a subway, who turn out to be Wayne Enterprises employees. This sparks an uprising of rioters and protesters in clown masks, matching Fleck's own makeup. However, the rage we see is that of an alienated and nihilistic mob with a base of legitimate grievances but no means of channeling that rage into effective political action. We're not seeing V for Vendetta here. The rioters wear clown masks, not Guy Fawkes masks. This is very telling. They do not march on the halls of power, but riot in and destroy their own neighborhoods. Don't believe the hype: nihilism, not socialism nor white male resentment is the guiding outlook here. Fleck himself has zero political or social consciousness. "Kill the rich" has its superficial appeal, but will accomplish nothing even were it followed through on. "Challenge the productive relations that give rise to huge wealth disparities." That's harder and takes more work, and admittedly doesn't have the same ring to it.
For their part, the "leftists" who caterwaul about incels, white male rage and entitlement are as much a part of the fiddling while Rome burns classes as Thomas Wayne is. And Fleck's most poignant question "What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?" is as much for them as it is for Wall Street. As if there was any appreciable difference at this point. If the reviews this film received in much of the mainstream press are any indication, they've missed the point completely. If white males who've been dispossessed by social and economic changes wrought by neoliberalism turn to reactionary ideologies or outright nihilism because the so called progressives offer them only guilt and shame over their identity, well, they get what they f**king deserve, don't they?
|Truer Words ...|
That would be something to truly put on a happy face about.
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