June 26, 2022

What's really scary about Joker?

5 min read

THE movie Joker ignited controversy and sparked debates well before the movie was launched. I haven’t read all of the debates and reviews, so can’t deign to engage with the movie on that level.

The following is instead a personal reflection on what I found to be a thought-provoking movie.

I will start with perhaps my most controversial view: I think this Joker makes Heath Ledger’s Joker look like a cartoon character.

This is in no way a snipe at Ledger’s performance – a performance that represents the very best of his craft, in much the same way Joaquin Phoenix’s does.

That’s probably the last comment I have about acting. My personal interest is much more in the narrative. (Warning: Major spoilers ahead.)

Coming back to the cartoon comparison: Christopher Nolan’s Joker killed 23 people on screen; Todd Phillips’ Arthur Fleck killed six for sure, the rest being ambiguous.

I found Nolan’s Joker disturbing and chilling, and the story around him thematically interesting. How is Arthur scarier then, with only a quarter of the body count?

The short answer is: because Arthur is so much more plausible.

I remember Nolan’s The Dark Knight as being a groundbreaking film (even with none of the ninjas that made Batman Begins entertaining). After Phillip’s film though, The Dark Knight seemed (in memory at least) so much less ambitious, and more importantly: so firmly a piece of fantasy.

While relatively devoid of the full blown fantastical elements of other superhero movies, The Dark Knight is still ultimately an implausible story – at least in terms of seeing what we saw in the movie happening in the real world.

We don’t have those kind of supervillains, running organisations subject to improbable management strategies, and we probably never will.

Doing what Arthur Fleck did, however? That seems more than plausible. The film made it seem even probable.

The closest analogy is likely the increasing number of mass shootings and similarly random-seeming acts of violence that we read about more and more.

These things are real. They happen.

The violence and madness of the previous Jokers did not lack on the disturbing front. But I don’t think any of them scared me as much as that moment when we didn’t know if Arthur was going to kill Gary, after he killed fellow clown Randall with the scissors.

A man who “just wants to watch the world burn” is scary, but at least it’s clear what we need to do with such a man. What would we do with Arthur Fleck?

How many of them are out there, trembling at the brink between salvation and uncontrollable violence? Do we have the resources to treat mental health as well as we need to?

I don’t fear the rise of a criminal organisation, such as the one in The Dark Knight. As for what happened in Joker, it is no longer a question of fearing whether something might happen; it is a question of how to deal with what is already happening to us.

The sequel to The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises looked like it took a visibly reactionary, right wing stance regarding public uprisings. The supporters of the ever entertaining Bane seemed to reference the Occupy movement that was popular worldwide at the time – and not in a positive way.

Either way, once again, I don’t think any of us walk in fear of Manhattan being taken over by protestors and shut off from the rest of the world. That remains fairly firmly in the familiar territory of fantasy.

In Joker however, the infectiousness and spillover effect of public rage that morphs into violence seemed considerably more visceral and real – not least because of what is unfolding in Hong Kong and Chile.

Indeed Chileans seem to be protesting the exact same thing that the citizens of Gotham were: inequality.

I pondered for quite a while the narrative intent of director Todd Phillips, whose best known previous work was the Hangover Trilogy, and who helped to write Borat.

I have yet to settle on answers. Indeed, ambiguity was a running theme of the movie.

Was Thomas Wayne Arthur’s father? (perhaps a nod to the theme of powerful people institutionalising inconvenient women) Did Arthur kill his neighbour and her daughter? How does Phillips really feel about inequality and protests?

It seems fairly obvious that Phillips did not want there to be obvious answers to these questions. I suppose in this case, art imitates the multiple ambiguities of life.

Coloured perhaps by my own work and preoccupations, one angle of the film that intrigued me was how narratives can manipulate emotion, sentiment and inclinations to act.

A scene that brought this home to me was when Arthur fired his first shot on the subway. The shot took me completely by surprise, and was fired without buildup.

I wonder about the immediate reactions people had. Shock? Vindication? Relief? The men assaulting Arthur were bad guys, beating brutally on a man we were clearly meant to pity.

As the film continued, I kept thinking about how easy it is becoming to manipulate people to feel one way or another, to root for one side or another.

I thought about how the subway shootings resembled to some small extent how Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia in 2011, and (literally, sadly) sparked off protests not in his town or country, but across the Arab World.

The outpouring of rage that followed could not have happened without the pre-existing crises and festering sores of widening gaps between haves and have nots.

In Gotham, the rage transformed into violence. In Hong Kong, massive peaceful protests are peppered with outbreaks of violence. Given the trajectory of the Hong Kong conflict, violence as a means of purposeful escalation seemed inevitable.

I suppose the film took some pains to avoid being pedantic about social injustice. I’m not sure, but it might even be to filmmaker’s credit that left wingers may read the film as a critique against inequality, while right wingers may read it as a critique against how protests lead to mob violence.

Perhaps both will agree that growing income gaps is bad for everyone.

I only watched the movie a day ago, and I don’t expect the various ambiguities in the movie will become any less ambiguous over time. I do expect it will stay with me a while though.

Whatever else can or should be said about the film, I suppose we must at least give it credit for having the quality of being memorable.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant who specialises in identifying the right goals, and the right tools for achieving that job. He can be reached at nat@engage.my.

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