WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Joker, in theaters now.
Todd Phillips' Joker attracted a high level of scrutiny before it even came out. Folks expected Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck to be sadistic, chaotic and overly violent, but instead we got an introverted mental health patient who only broke bad when he felt society didn't care for and then abandoned people like him anymore.
It's not a Joker raising hell for the fun of it. Instead, we've got someone meant to inspire sympathy -- outside of his murder spree. An Arthur Fleck we could even find ourselves rooting for under certain circumstances. With that in mind, it's worth thinking about whether or not it's easier to identify with this iteration of Joker in today's society over Batman. A question with a pretty simple answer: Yes. Not because anarchy should be endorsed but simply because, generally, we want symbols to stand up against the corruption the one percent partakes in.
This theme drives the film as we witness how capitalism exploits the lower-class so that the elite can feed off the fat of the land, draining society to the point the impoverished are left fighting for scraps. Arthur notices all this over decades, which is why, bit-by-bit, his sanity erodes. When he spews his final speech to Robert DeNiro's Murray Franklin, he makes it clear society looks down and spits on the downtrodden, not giving a damn about whether they live or die, as they're merely tools to make the rich even wealthier.
This incredibly relatable to our real world, where businessmen become billionaires while students remain in debt. Not to mention systems such as health care, insurance and education continue to work against the lower to middle class. This impacts on Arthur as he can't afford to look after a deranged mother, not to mention state funding gets cut for the mental health program he's enrolled in, once more proving when Thomas Wayne and his ilk go on TV talking about campaigns to be mayor, it's patronizing and nothing meaningful.
It's the kind of hardship a lot of people live with in the real world today, with so many crooked politicians doing the same and pitting the poor against the rich the way Thomas did. Hearing him calling common people "clowns" because he assumed one of them killed three bankers mirrors what so many businessmen think of the rest of us -- folks who'll probably never come close to that kind of money.
To them, they're not even the one percent, they're kings and queens in castles and ivory towers in gated communities like Wayne Manor, protected and taken care of, whose kids will enjoy Ivy League schools, all while benefitting off the backs of hardworking citizens. And again, Arthur's disenchanted; saddened to the point he admits he doesn't feel like "Happy" (his childhood nickname when he was innocent and didn't know better) anymore.
Admittedly, it's easier to side with someone who shows so much empathy and compassion for his fellow citizens but we'll never condone him using violence to express this frustration. Still, there's a reason Gotham connects with him and rises up in the Joker riots to celebrate him -- they see a rebel who fought the system and, in their eyes, won.
By doing so, Arthur is indeed the antithesis to Batman, who while representing a human ideal, comes from a place of privilege.
He didn't have to struggle or endure decades of servitude and grime like Arthur did. Now, we're not calling Bruce Wayne spoiled but he became his symbol of justice purely thanks to his extreme wealth, again something few of us, or Arthur, could experience. And in today's fractured world, where we see the male ego and toxic masculinity shouting at the top of the mountain, one has to wonder if powerful men like Bruce really are doing what they should with their money.
Thomas certainly didn't, merely paying lip service to charitable acts -- running media and propaganda sessions to hype his own political aspirations, reminding us they've got the means to fix society the civil way, they just choose not to. Arthur didn't have these tools and so, he has to force a way through, which is where the Joker comes in, not as a symbol of justice, but as one against injustice.
There's a stark difference there because he's not entitled, he doesn't come from a dynasty (though the film plays with this idea) and in terms of legacy, he's all alone. Most of us can relate to that, carving our path in the world without having anything or anyone like a Thomas, Alfred or Lucius Fox to hand us anything.
Sure, the Dark Knight works to make the world a better place at huge personal cost but without these tools, Arthur could only use the only instrument he knew: rage. And he always made it clear, he was "one bad day" away from snapping.
When we're in rush hour, on the clock, watching bosses racking up bonuses and buying mansions and yachts, we too often grow incensed, but it's about coping and overcoming peacefully. Don't do something you'll regret like Arthur, but still connect with his message of how society's forgotten ones remain just that: forgotten in the dark. That's why we identify with him more, he's one of us, as opposed to some philanthropist on a podium playing games in the public eye to sooth his inner narcissist.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham.