WARNING: The following contains spoilers for director Todd Phillips' Joker, in theaters now.
Despite trying to be a singularly unique comic adaptation, director Todd Phillips' Joker actually possesses similarities to some previous Batman films -- most notably Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. Both introduce a clash between the wealthy and the poor only to brush aside any real exploration of that them in favor of transforming the unhappy masses into faceless mobs.
Joker is entirely focused on showing that the world is just as angry as its protagonist, Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck. But, like 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, the new film sets up a brewing conflict between the haves and have-nots, only to use it as an excuse to unleash chaos. Neither film provides a genuine examination of the class divide; it serves merely as set dressing.
RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE
In Joker, sanitation strikes in Gotham have led to massive pileups of garbage, and rats swarm the streets. When Arthur Fleck murders three employees of Wayne Enterprises in a moment of panic, the crime inspires the hoi polloi to believe they possess the power to do something about their station in life. It's a grim take on the ideals Batman typically professes as the vigilante-protector of the crime-riddled city.
Wealthy mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne, only makes matters worse by speaking out against the growing protests. The civil unrest swiftly turns to rage, but there's no exploration of what is making the common people so angry; there's no indication of their specific needs.
As the film becomes more about Arthur descent into madness, many among the lower classes begin to wear Joker masks that aren't meant to symbolize hope, or even solidarity, but protest, which becomes an excuse for violence, and then, by the final act, murder (Thomas and Martha Wayne are among the victims, naturally). It transforms those who were once speaking out against income disparity into a murderous mass. It's a dark reading of social movements, suggesting that, at best, they could lead to mass violence, and, at worst, political protest is a mere precursor to violence.
A similar beat was used in The Dark Knight Rises, which depicts a growing social unrest in Gotham. While Catwoman schemes, and predicts the fall of the wealthy, Bane and Talia al Ghul use the growing agitation as a tool to target Bruce Wayne and destroy the city.
The wealthy are also targeted in the film, particularly once Bane cuts off the city from the rest of the country. Like Joker, The Dark Knight Rises up a potentially compelling question about the public responding to those in power committing crimes, only for a bad person to hijack the unrest, which then leads to chaos.
Like Joker, a social movement is transformed into a mob, with riots staged for the mere sake of rioting. Bane also increases the danger by installing bizarre institutions like Scarecrow's court and unleashing the criminals of Gotham. But any genuine complaint that Selina Kyle or the other marginalized people of Gotham could have levied against the wealthy are washed away in an unruly horde that pillages the city, and then hides for the rest of the film. There's no awareness of why these people are angry, it's simply an expression of outrage.
What makes this more disappointing is that there is a moment in Joker when Phillips seems to be pushing the narrative further down the path of a terrible man becoming an unlikely figurehead. Toward the end of the second act, Arthur confronts Thomas Wayne at a prestigious music hall, and uses the protest outside the venue as a distraction so he can sneak inside. There, he sees an audience of Gotham's wealthiest watching the 1936 classic Modern Times.
Directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin, the silent comedy centers on his Little Tramp character, who attempts to survive in a modern world in which workers are shunted around jobs, hired, fired and arrested, almost at random. It's a harsh critique of unfair work standards of the era, and a celebration of the common man. It's a film about how tough it is to be an average joe in an increasingly industrialized setting. But that message seems to be lost on the crowd of Gotham's rich, who laugh at Chaplin's antics but ignore the protest outside that's chanting the same message.
It's a genuinely inspired moment, but the last real thread of that theme in Joker. Like The Dark Knight Rises before it, Joker introduces the complicated (and compelling) question of how a franchise nominally about the super-wealthy deals with the issue of a class divide. Joker has a moment of exploration of that idea, but drops that in favor of chaos for the sake of chaos.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy and Brett Cullen.
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