FILM & TELEVISION
Why the most popular film of the year is more than just another superhero story
by Aniela Rybak
8th December 2019
The Joker has probably become the most talked about film of this year. Everyone around me has either just seen it, is about to see it, or swears they will never watch it. The profits of the film have already surpassed the billion-dollar mark. What is the reason behind its enormous popularity, and can it be more than the fact it is set in the well-known and beloved DC universe?
Illustration by Rebecca Marks
The film tells the story of Arthur Fleck’s/Joker’s (Joaquin Phoenix) madness and how he became the villain that triggered the revolution in Gotham. We learn about his life in a poor district of the city, where he lives in a small and dirty apartment shared with his mother, and has a badly-paid job as a dressed-up clown. All of this is presented with dark frames, which fit the gloomy atmosphere perfectly. Even though the scenes can hardly be called conventionally beautiful, there is a picturesque quality in them. The shots of shirtless Arthur bring to mind drawings of Egon Schiele, depicting the same vulnerable and unhealthy skinny bodies.
But to me, The Joker is more than just the story of an unhappy individual. It touches on a number of important and noticeable issues of modern society. First of all, the film addresses the culture of happiness and the imperative idea that everyone simply has to be happy. The film embodies this through the role of a clown who is supposed to trigger laughter but recently has been started to be associated with fear. Are we that scared of being forced to laugh that, as a result, we transformed the 'clown' into a monster? Additionally, it is ironic how Arthur is far from happy but yet, he is a clown. However, the question to ask here is whether Arthur knows about the irony or if the viewers are the only ones able to grasp it.
In the film, Arthur mentions how the strong connection between laughter and happiness has been induced by his mother, which leads us to another topic – how relationships between parents and children, as well as the atmosphere of a childhood home, might influence people for the rest of their lives. Many things have already been written on how a boy’s relationship with his mom can impact his future (Freud!), and the negative aspects are clearly visible in the plot. Arthur’s traumatic childhood experience and the way it has shaped his adulthood made me think about the classic Alfred Hitchcock film, Psycho. In Psycho, we also get to see a story of a man who never stopped being his mother’s small boy, and whose mother's thoughts and opinions projected onto her child so strongly. To me, The Joker could be considered a modern Psycho, as it also tells a story of a person affected by mental illness, who does not know how to find his own place in society. This leads us to the issue of mental health and the social injustice towards disadvantaged groups. Arthur encounters numerous people who do not know how to react to his odd uncontrollable laughter; the film seems to be pointing out how badly society treats people with mental disabilities. As the Joker writes in his diary, "The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave like you don’t."
Arthur’s poor life is contrasted with successful and wealthy characters, who either pity him (Murray Franklin, a talk show host played by Robert de Niro) or are repulsed by him (Thomas Wayne, the mayor candidate played by Brett Cullen). The viewers naturally sympathise with the main character, even though they have actually supported the Wayne family throughout the Batman franchise. The film strongly points out the social hierarchy and differences between the rich and the poor, exposing the dark side of the latter.
Touching on so many important social issues, The Joker leaves the viewers with a sense of anxiety and uncertainty. If this is supposed to mirror our world, does it mean we are doomed to failure and collapse? Or maybe we should read it as a warning? If society does not take care of pressing issues, such as support for the disadvantaged or social pressure, we can expect horrendous consequences. Maybe that is why The Joker has been so successful: it shows us all that is wrong with the modern world so that we can get our act together and prevent the approaching catastrophe.
Aniela is a second year BA student and is one of the staff writers on the Courtauldian. She will be writing about anything connected to her interests, which apart from art are books and films. One day she hopes to be a curator, so you can expect reviews of exhibitions, which focus on how the art has been presented and how it influences the way we, the viewers look at it. Coming from Warsaw to London has made her think about a lot of things in a fresh light, from everyday matters such as deciding when is the right time to turn the heating on in your house to more significant ones including being a foreigner in a new community.