2007 - 2022

Joker: holding up a mirror to our disillusioned times



Helena Bassil-Morozow, Glasgow Caledonian University

Even though Joker is supposedly set in the 1970s, Todd Phillips’ arresting film could easily be read as a metaphorical dissection of the mass protest votes that swept the UK and the US back in 2016. Millions of disenfranchised citizens voiced their disillusionment on both sides of the Atlantic by voting for Britain to leave the EU and electing populist Donald Trump as President of the United States.

Several economic and cultural shifts contributed to that momentum. One was the popularity of neoliberal policy which has dominated Western economies for the past 40 years or so. Neoliberalism favours deregulation, cutting taxes, competition and free markets while devaluing community, reducing the burden on the state and placing the responsibility for survival entirely on the individual. As US commentator Stephen Metcalf puts it:

The free market produces a tiny cadre of winners and an enormous army of losers – and the losers, looking for revenge … turned to Brexit and Trump.

Then there were the austerity years after the 2008 financial crash in the UK and the decline of the “Rust Belt” in the US, once the cradle of American manufacturing. All have resulted in disillusionment with establishment politics. In this “survival of the fittest” society, large chunks of the population have felt marginalised, ignored and left behind.

Invisible man

In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Arthur Fleck aka Joker, is an archetypal “invisible man”. Abandoned by the state, forgotten by society and regularly suffering hostile treatment by his fellow human beings, he is left to his own devices in dealing with his mental health issues and social problems.

He feels, he tells his counsellor, like he does not exist. He loses his medication and free counselling sessions to austerity cuts, and is eventually left without a job and any meaningful human contact. He has nothing left to lose.

Arthur starts doubting the competence and motives of decision-makers. That doubt erupts into rage and violence which is sensationalised by the media, infecting the population. By the end of the film he has galvanised a movement of similarly disenfranchised individuals who renounce experts, the elites, the media, bankers and pretty much everyone else representing traditional power structures.

After his transformation into Joker, he announces on live TV that he is fed up with a system that unilaterally decides for everyone “what is right and what is wrong” and “what is funny and what is not”. Arthur Fleck becomes Joker just as the stagnating status quo is replaced by chaos and anarchy, when crowds of people dressed as clowns flood the streets, spreading violence and destruction.

Disillusionment in uncertain times

Sound familiar? Maybe not down to the detail, but in broad strokes Joker evokes the spirit of the times when the very foundations of Western democracy are in danger, when large swaths of the population refuse to trust establishment elites (who they believe have betrayed them), reject unilateral decision-makers and launch an incoherent, uninformed, self-destructive offensive – revolt without an end game; revolt as an extreme form of self-expression – a revolt for the sake of revolt.

The Phillips/Phoenix version of Joker stands apart from previous portrayals of the character because of its attention to detail. Their Joker is no longer a sketchy clown simply embodying the momentum of mass madness. He has a detailed back-story, and he is human to the point that the audience empathises with him. Phoenix is mesmerising and believable, channelling the anguish and pain of the character in the most exposing of close-ups. With or without the mask, Phoenix’s Joker is a multidimensional character where previously it had simply been a super-villain archetype.

Yet Phillips is also true to the original spirit of the Batman/Joker war: he digs deeper into the capitalist self-doubt which has always been embedded in the story. Bruce Wayne/Batman is a wealthy industrialist and Joker is his alter-ego, his guilt, conveniently split off and rejected, while Batman remains a hero in his own and the city’s eyes.

Just as Wayne (and his family) represent the capitalist system, Joker reflects its dark side, its exploitation, its neglect of the underprivileged and the weak. In 2019 Joker embodies the anger that comes with the realisation that capitalism does not work equally for everyone.

Phillips traces the guilt to the elites, and turns the mirror back on to society. He goes back to the genesis of the Batman/Joker war, making it into a class conflict that grows out of the repeated rejection of Arthur by Bruce’s wealthy family. Joker, Phillips implies, is part of Batman, and has to be acknowledged as such.

Inseperable: ‘You complete me,’ Heath Ledger’s Joker tells Batman in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Warner Bros

By adopting social realism instead of the usual bird’s-eye view of the superhero aesthetic with its uncomplicated morality, the film explores the usually “othered” Joker as someone who refuses to be disowned by society. Instead of an attention-seeking psychopath we see a human demanding that the system at the very least acknowledges his existence. The elites are not prepared to compromise, and neither is he. To get noticed, he simply burns down the city.

In many ways, Joker points to 2016 when the crack on the surface of the neoliberal society suddenly became a chasm. The film calls for a compromise, for a closer look at the “other”. If anything, the character of Joker is truly a spirit of our times.

Helena Bassil-Morozow, Lecturer in Media and Journalism, Glasgow Caledonian University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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  1. florian albert says:

    ‘The free market produces a tiny cache of winners and an enormous army of losers.’

    This is the left’s authorized version of the last 40 years. It does not stand up to scrutiny. Almost everybody in the UK is significantly better off materially than they were forty years ago. Far from being a tiny group, the winners are a huge section of our society; most of the middle class. That is why Trump failed to win a plurality of votes and why so much of UK voted against Brexit. In prosperous Edinburgh, there was a landslide if favour of the status quo. (Many of the winners class themselves as losers in the way that so many Scots, having left the working class behind decades ago, delude themselves that they remain working class.)

    With regard to ‘Joker’, it is likely to be classed alongside ‘Network’, the 1976 film which attempted to personalize the feelings of anger at the political dispensation of the time.
    Overall, I found its message unconvincing. It may be consoling to believe that there is a corrupt and malign elite which is responsible for all our ills. The thought that selfishness runs through our society is less comfortable but closer to the truth.

    1. Wul says:

      “..Almost everybody in the UK is significantly better off materially than they were forty years ago. ”

      Forty years ago my uncle bought his first house. With hard cash that he had saved from working in the local Co-op as Grocery Manager. He then got married and he and my aunt raised three children to adulthood on his salary alone, from his job as a travelling sales rep for a soft-drinks company.

      How many store managers could do that today Florian?

      Besides, the social contract, employment rights and economic regulation that benefitted working people in the last few decades has been well and truly shredded since one M. Thatcher created the “economic miracle” that left my children with no decent, affordable housing and no secure job.

      I suspect you’ve made your pile Florian, drawbridge safely raised and are now very out of touch with the reality of raising a family on a working wage in today’s Great Britain.

      1. Wul says:

        Sorry, it was sixty years ago “my uncle bought his first house…” etc.

      2. florian albert says:

        You have a point about the capacity of one adult sixty years ago to provide for a family. My father did likewise. However, when I went to school we had no TV, no car, no phone, no fridge, no central heating and no washing machine. All our neighbours were the same. It was a more secure environment but also a (materially) poorer one. I think that, overall, it was a better society but I am sure I could not persuade young people to day to adapt to it.

        I have no problem accepting your comment about insecurity but that does not alter the fact that the post-industrial dispensation has created a huge amount of material – repeat – material wealth and a population which is determined to hang on to what it has recently acquired. Thatcherism was a two edged sword.
        No political party has seriously tried to undo most of what she did. Attempts by Michael Foot and Tony Benn to go down that road proved electorally disastrous.

        I have not, so far, made my pile.

    2. Some facts to bring to the discussion Florian:

      Child homelessness has jumped by 73% since Tories took power.

      More than 120,000 children will be homeless this Christmas, official Government statistics have revealed. The new data shows the number of children living in temporary accommodation is at its highest point for 12 years. When David Cameron took power in 2010, the number of homeless minors was at 71,460.

      *There were 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2017-18. That’s 30 per cent of children, or nine in a classroom of 30.1
      *There are expected to be 5.2 million children living in poverty in the UK by 2022.
      *47% of children living in lone-parent families are in poverty. Lone parents face a higher risk of poverty due to the lack of an additional earner, low rates of maintenance payments, gender inequality in employment and pay, and childcare costs.
      * Children from Black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty: 45 per cent are now in poverty, compared with 26 per cent of children in White British families.
      * London has the highest rate of child poverty in the country.
      * Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK. 70 per cent of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one person works.
      * Childcare and housing are two of the costs that take the biggest toll on families’ budgets. When you account for childcare costs, an extra 130,000 children are pushed into poverty.

      We’ll be publishing more about skyrocketing levels of poverty and inequality in the next few weeks

      1. florian albert says:

        ‘There were 4.1 million children living in poverty’
        ‘47% of children in one parent families are in poverty’

        You have to ask why – despite such statistics – poverty has not been an important issue in any election in the UK or Scotland in the past 25 years ?

        One important factor is that you are talking about relative poverty. If some benign deity doubled the real income of everyone in the UK this evening, the figures would be the same tomorrow.

        The issue is better understood as one of inequality. To deal with inequality, political action is needed. In Scotland, there is no pool of untaxed wealth. (London is probably different.) Tackling inequality would require the prosperous to pay more in tax. Alex Salmond tried that in 1999. He lost. He learned from this and, in 2007, he agreed to freeze Council Tax; a huge financial boost for the already well off. This continued for a decade; a decade of political triumph for Alex Salmond. That is where we are and where we must start from.

        I would like to see a more equal society but I see little or no political will to achieve this, either with the main political parties or with voters.

        1. Jo says:

          Your point about tax rates is valid.

          When I started work in 1975 the basic rate was 35%. Thatcher’s dream was to create a low taxation economy, especially for the rich and it was the really wealthy who gained most when her project took off in 1979. The higher rate bands were to vanish eventually leaving only one, a top rate of 40% while the basic rate eventually was reduced to 20%.

          To even hint at raising it – even by a penny – brings squeals of outrage as you say. I can’t see that changing and yet we can’t change very much without raising more money.

          1. Jo says:

            PS The Thatcher low taxation project continued through the Major years and was embraced by New Labour too when the BR got to 20% with even a lower 10% rate at one point.

  2. Jo says:

    Well, it’s a different sort of “review”. I’ve read a few now. This one slots the movie into a particular political narrative and I’m not sure it works or even if it’s reasonable.

    For me, Trump got elected because Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate.

    Anyway, by sheer chance, I just came across this in the Guardian. It’s a very different approach to the same movie.

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