Social Problems in Joker
The film Joker by Todd Phillips reflects important problems existing in the contemporary society. Social inequality still exists and affects the life of people from less protected social categories. At the same time, the problem of social inequality is often hidden behind discourses of dominant ideology that reject the existence of social problems. The character of Joker in the film is used exactly to subvert this ideology and to show how the issues of inequality and discrimination generate other social problems, such as crimes and violence. In contrast, the classic film adaptations of the DC Universe can be rather considered as manifestations of this ideology.
Social Problems in Joker
The film Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, attempts to combine the features of superhero movies with the principles of psychological thriller. At the same time, it is interesting that this movie pays attention to important social problems, such as social inequality and discrimination. In fact, the film’s psychologism is a social psychologism revealing the dark sides of social relations. In this context, Joker is opposed to classic superhero movies as tools of dominant ideology that hide these sides.
The film highlights the personal development of Joker, one of the major supervillains in the DC Universe, who is famous as an antagonist of Batman. This aspect reflects the originality of the film, which, in contrast to other film adaptations of DC Comics, is fully focused on the story of a supervillain. However, it is not the only thing that makes the film Joker different from other superhero movies. Its contrast with Batman films serves to subvert the ideology of these films. The character of Joker in the film is associated with the personality of Arthur Fleck, who wants to become a successful stand-up comedian and whose failure in this makes him a villain. In contrast to classic Batman films, in which Joker is a clever king of the criminal world, Joker in Todd Phillips’ film is an average representative of less protected social classes. He is an ordinary middle-aged man, who lives with his mother. He is unable to protect himself against bullies. He is fired from his job after an unexpected incident with a gun, which he had bought for self-protection.
At the same time, it should be noted that his offenders in the film belong to upper classes. Their generalized nature is represented by the character of Thomas Wayne, who is known in the DC Universe as the father of Batman. Thomas Wayne despises people protesting against his company Wayne Enterprises and calls them “clowns” who envy more successful people. This attitude toward ordinary people can be considered as a manifestation of a class based discrimination. The concept of success is used by him to defend the privileged position of upper classes and despise all people outside these classes as losers.
The figure of Joker revolting against this discourse therefore symbolizes the subversion of an unjust social order. He embodies a “clown” who does not want to play this role in the system which is ruled by riches. Joker’s life is destroyed because a high bar for success is unattainable for poor people in the highly stratified society. Thus, Joker transforms into a villain, whose clown mask embodies the subversion of the social order, in which the ideology of success is used to hide the injustice existing in society. At the same time, he is not a revolutionary who carry about the needs of lower classes. Although rioters in the film admire him as a symbol of their protest, but actually he is thinking only about himself. Joker is a villain that embodies the dark sides of the social order which has created him. In this context, the film shows that the social reality of the DC Universe, which reflects actual reality of our world, is unjust itself and that its villains are not its enemies from the outside, but they are manifestations of its moral ills, who are created by this reality and depended on this reality.
In this context, the narrative of the film subverts the narratives of comic books and films. What could be its social purpose of doing this? The answer can be related to the criticism of ideology in cinema that was proposed by Slavoj Zizek. Zizek (2012) defines ideology as a way to mask the reality using appellation to human dreams and desires. Cinema as a form of entertainment is widely used for these purposes. It often is used to structure a people’s perception of reality. For example, the image of the giant shark is used in the film “Jaws” to conceptualize the fears of contemporary society, which include terrorism, social instability, crimes, and other kinds of fears (Zizek, 2012). This conceptualization substitutes the social reality that itself generates these social problems and makes them seeming external to society.
Similarly, in comics and films about Batman’s adventures, criminals seem to be external enemies of society. The criminals are maniacs and psychopaths which, similarly to the giant shark in the “Jaws,” symbolize the popular fears of modern society. In this light, the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman embodies the only force that is able to protect society against its external enemies. His parents have been killed by these enemies as well and hence he takes the role of Batman not only to revenge for their death, but also to protect society against criminals and prevent their atrocities. At the same time, Bruce Wayne is the chief of the Wayne Enterprises, which previously belonged to his father. In this context, the role of Bruce Wayne as a large capitalist is integrated in the DC Universe with the role of Batman as a protector of social order. The concepts of social order and social hierarchy therefore become interrelated in the classic Batman stories, which imply this ideology to readers of comics and viewers of films. All these aspects explain how the 2019 film Joker by Todd Phillips is subverting this ideology.
At the same time, it should be noted that the image of Joker in the DC Universe was related to such subversion even before this film. According to Peaslee and Weiner (2015, p. 95), Joker is an archetypical literary trickster, but in the social sphere he acts as a Marxist, who is opposed to Batman as to capitalist. For this purpose, Joker tries to convert more people to his way of thinking. Zizek (2012) also analyzes these traits of Joker and argues that the success of Joker is related to his intention to say truth that subverts the social order. According to Zizek, the elements of lie are immanent to any social orders. Moreover, the elements of lie usually legitimize the existence of a social order. In this context, Zizek (2012) emphasizes that in the 2008 film Dark Knight Batman, as well as people related to him, often must lie to save the social order in the city, while Joker’s truth is dangerous for it. In this context, the character of Joker actualizes social problems in the film of Todd Phillips not accidentally because the image of Joker itself in the DC Universe is deeply rooted in the archetype of revolutionary social order subversion. However, in Phillips’s film this subversion is also a subversion of the dominate ideology that masks the problems of social inequality and discrimination.
Thus, the film Joker by Todd Phillips is not an ordinary film adaptation of the DC comics. At the same time, this film is unusual not only because it is fully dedicated to the story of supervillain. Actually, the film Joker highlights such important social problems, as social inequality and the power of dominant ideology which masks it and justifies the social hierarchy that generates this inequality. The character of Joker in the film is used to subvert this ideology and to reveal the truth about injustice. At the same time, this role of Joker is not new because the archetype of Joker in the DC Universe is deeply rooted in the idea of the revolutionary subversion of the social order. However, in contrast to classic Batman comics and films, the film of Todd Phillips shows that this order not necessary is just. Using the character of Joker, the film therefore reflects important problems of actual social reality, in which the issues of inequality are often hidden by dominant ideology.
Peaslee, R.M., & Weiner, R.G. (2015). The Joker: A Serious Study of the Clown Prince of Crime. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
Phillips, T. (Director). (2019). Joker [Film]. Village Roadshow Pictures.
Zizek, S. (Director). (2012). The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology [Film]. Zeitgeist Films.