January 17, 2020

A Global Reaction to the movie "Joker"

Review by James C. Jones

The movie Joker was released last year in 2019, first premiering in August at the Venice Film Festival before coming to cinemas in North America on October 4. It is a standalone film about the famous Batman villain, taking place in 1981 in the fictional city of Gotham. The lack of a large budget, special effects, and fight scenes makes it quite different from most superhero movies. In fact, it is quite far from being a superhero movie as it doesn’t feature a morally righteous protagonist nor anyone with supernatural abilities.The main character, Arthur Fleck, is a middle aged man who suffers from depression and poverty. He lives in a crumbling apartment with his aging mother, taking on the role of caretaker while longing for a father figure. Class conflict is a theme in both the foreground and background of the movie, as austerity measures cause him to lose access to treatment while protests erupt in the city. Several black characters appear in the film, though most have minor roles. The star of the film himself is a mentally ill white man who becomes homicidal after being bullied and abused, a common narrative for mass shooters.

Many American news outlets warned the film could potentially incite mass shootings, similar to the 2012 Colorado attack in a cinema showing The Dark Knight Rises. Extra police and security were even stationed at screenings of Joker in the US, though no attempted shootings ever took place nor have any acts of gun violence been inspired by the film.

In other parts of the world, Joker impersonators donning clown make-up have appeared in anti-government demonstrations. In Lebanon, the street art collective known as Ashekman painted a mural of Joker holding a molotov cocktail. In Iraq, photos of protesters running through smoke with Joker photoshopped in them became viral. In Chile, where people are protesting against a neoliberal government, the words “we are all jokers” were spray painted on the base of a statue. A Joker cosplayer was even seen leading a march while carrying the flag of Chile’s indigenous Mapuches. British artist James Mylne drew Boris Johnson with his face painted like Joker in defiance against the Conservative Prime Minister and in France Joker has joined the Yellow Vests.

Chilean protestors with a Joker mask hold a Mapuche banner

Joker has been compared to V for Vendetta (2005), where the Guy Fawks mask was appropriated by Anonymous and used in protest movements like Occupy. Many people around the world see Joker as anti-establishment, with many saying it is a critique of neoliberalism.

Boots Riley, African-American communist who wrote and directed Sorry To Bother You, gave a more harsh review. “[I]t wasn’t flipping the superhero story on its head; it was doing the same exact thing that they all do, which is [say] ‘rebellion is crazy’,” he told Indiewire. “The ‘Joker’ movie reinforces that by telling you, not only are these folks there because of who they are, [but that] the poor folks are stupid,” adding that “in actuality, those that are rich got rich off of exploiting the workers.” Riley also lambasted the plot of The Dark Knight Rises for being a “cop movie” with an anti Occupy message.

So-called Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek commented that “the movie tries to give some sort of social-psychological genesis of Joker” and “this is precisely the wrong approach” since, in similar bad circumstances, “the majority of people don’t become Jokers.”

Is Joker a subversive film that accurately portrays the ugliness of American capitalism, seen through the personal struggles of its working class protagonist? Or is it another movie that glorifies violence and toxic masculinity by sympathetically portraying the Joker? Since the release, most responses to the movie have come from a desire for social justice.

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