Joker’s Wild: Reconsidering My Criticism of Joker

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Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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23 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird
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    says:

    One of the tweets I saw following Joker’s release said something to the effect of “Jeez… Batman would have to kill this Joker. He’d have no choice.”

    Which was completely, 100%, against my take on it. My take was “Jeez… Batman would have to keep this Joker alive. It’d make sense that he keeps plopping him in Arkham.”

    But the movies that have two completely different interpretations of the character by two people who saw the exact same movie and neither can imagine the other’s POV are the good ones.

    The thing about the movie is that it was not the movie I wanted to see. I wanted to see a movie where we saw Arthur close his eyes and Joker open them. I don’t know that we ever saw the Joker (as we understood him before this movie) in the film.

    We only saw maybe a couple of minutes of the chaosmancy that the Joker, as we understand him, is theoretically capable of creating (the scene on the subway, the “and I’m tired of pretending it’s not” line) and, instead, we got hours of Arthur trying to hold it together and then failing and then no longer caring and then leaning into it.

    What’s so wacky is that I remember the discussions about how dangerous and scary the movie was before the fact… how likely the movie was to cause violence.

    And it didn’t.

    Instead, the movie seemed to see June 2020 coming, didn’t it?Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      I thought the scene at the end was interesting.

      I felt it was implying that even locked up, what the Joker represented couldn’t be contained. He may have been in Arkham, but he was running free, leaving his “footsteps” behind him, and the guards couldn’t catch him. I thought that meant something.

      I also think that we’re being told it wouldn’t matter if he was killed. Because there’s a very large age discrepancy between Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne here – so much so that you have to ask “how did this guy even face off against Batman in the future”? I think the filmmakers are implying that while this may have been the first “Joker” that it wasn’t necessarily the only Joker, there may well have been other Jokers who came after, like the Dread Pirate Roberts. “The Joker” is maybe not just one man, but is an idea of a man that transcends an individual and becomes a movement. It very well may be that “The Joker” played by Heath Ledger is a protege or follower of Arthur Fleck’s movement, because you’re right, Arthur Fleck did not even seem capable of putting together the type of grandiose schemes that the comic books envision.

      Or, it may be that his followers were caretakers too, doing a lot of the heavy lifting of Jokerness and treating Arthur as more of a guru that they emulated and protected, not the guy pulling all the strings, per se. As elaborate as some of the Joker’s pranks have been over the years, it makes some sense that it’s actually a team putting them together rather than the machinations of one man.

      Or, it may be that none of this is true and that this is meant just as a straight parable and doesn’t have to make sense.

      Oh and yes it was chilling watching the movie here today knowing what had transpired. Very prescient.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to Jaybird
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      says:

      The media were afraid it would advocate the kind of violence they don’t approve of. Instead it advocated the kind of violence they approve of.Report

  2. Avatar North
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    says:

    Fascinating post. I found the Joker movie to be a depressing, grim slog but I would agree with you that it’s probably a good movie.
    I’m very curious as to how you would describe it as a conservative movie. Possibly this dark piece of work is a mirror that reflects what the viewer is back at them because I considered it a grim but rather moderate liberal movie.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to North
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      says:

      Because unlike most movies, where the weirdo is a wise man who has so much to teach us, and the authorities are the Actual Bad Guys, it dares to show the truth in which weirdos are often shunned for a good reason and did it without demonizing the people who are trying to stop the bad guy

      Even the “sins of past generations” were more of a turning of the wheel and not “our forefathers were like so totally evil, lucky we’re good now” while doing absolutely heinous things.

      There was nothing liberal about this movie. Nothing.Report

  3. Avatar InMD
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    says:

    Since we aren’t spending money on much other entertainment right now I’ve been on demanding movies far more freely than usual. Ended up renting Joker back in early covid. I found it interesting but also kind of self-indulgent. It would have been better without the comic book setting, which struck me as irrelevant to the plot. Like, can a movie not be made without using established property? Anyway I found it to be more derivative than subversive.

    Of course I am glad all the people freaking out about it were wrong. I have no proof of it but I got the sense a bunch of cultural critics were almost hoping for some kind of incident for political reasons.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to InMD
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      says:

      Because it was tied into Batman vast numbers more people saw the movie than otherwise would.

      The comic book setting was completely relevant because like it or no comic books are the fables of our time.

      It was subversive in the truest sense of the word because it took that comic book setting, with its good guy-bad guy dichotomy, often simple answers to hard questions, and knee jerk fascism, and showed the complexity of the real world instead.Report

  4. Avatar blake
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    says:

    They did make “Joker” without the comic book tie-in. It was called “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and it made about $600K.

    (I’m kidding, but serious movies with serial killer protagonists don’t make money.)Report

    • Avatar InMD in reply to blake
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      says:

      Funny, a friend and I were just talking about seriously hard to watch movies a couple weeks ago and that one came up. The French film ‘Man Bites Dog’ is similarly rough. I think a better parallel to Joker would probably be something like American Psycho.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to InMD
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        says:

        American Psycho has pizzaz. And that makes it watchable for many people. Henry… is different.Report

        • Avatar InMD in reply to Aaron David
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          says:

          One is stylized one is… not.Report

          • Avatar Aaron David in reply to InMD
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            says:

            A better way to put it, yes.Report

            • Avatar veronica d in reply to Aaron David
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              says:

              American Psycho has the business card scene, which is magnificent.

              Okay totally true story: I used to work at a gas station, back in the 80’s. Anyhow, we had this one customer who would come in. Drove a fancy car. Always in a suit. His first name was Angel. The first time he came in, I gave him the credit card form to sign, along with a pen. He took out his own pen. It was a fancy pen. He said, “I only sign with gold pens.”

              I was like, OMG! People like that exist!

              Anyhow, the business card scene worked for me. It was over the top, but people like that exist.Report

      • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to InMD
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        says:

        A lot of people idolize American Psycho. That’s kind of what I’m driving at here. It is past time for Hollywood to ask some hard questions rather than giving us a long string of supercool sociopaths for disaffected men to idolize.Report

  5. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    1. The movie is effectively narrated by Arthur/Joker himself. He is an unreliable narrator indeed, as we see in part with the romance B plot, and maybe a bunch of other things. Things which may be relevant to point 3. below. Normally I dig the unreliable narrator but here it’s very subtle; it’s difficult to be certain of what clues the filmmakers are leaving to tell us “This is in his head, not in the ‘reality’ of this universe.” Just as a for-instance, the OP points to what seems a thirty-year or more age difference between Bruce Wayne and Arthur Fleck. Is this just Arthur’s perception of Bruce as a child, a potential younger brother?

    2. The OP names the movie conservative for its insistence that Arthur alone is morally responsible for his evil deeds. We are not to blame his mother or society or his boss or even the a-hole rich boys on the subway. That’s true, but the movie also shows us an Arthur who is, perhaps not with supreme confidence or pleasure but some ability, able to navigate the world peacefully with the assistance of Gotham City’s social services network. When these services are removed, Arthur’s self-control diminishes and he begins to fall where before he only teetered near the edge of “sanity.” Arthur himself accuses, not wrongly, a society built and run by the elites for their own benefit and at the expense of smallfolk like himself. To the extent that his narration of the civic unrest is reliable, he finds an audience in Gotham for this argument. These seem very liberal to me.

    3. We are told that Arthur’s mother [SPOILER] was diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, and this is at the root of Arthur’s history of childhood abuse. I’m not so sure about this. As close as it comes is a scene where Arthur is bathing his elderly mothe, and it is portrayed as a loving, caring moment. It might have been filmable as a demanding, parasitical moment but at minimum, that’s not how Arthur saw it. The rest of the time we’re left to wonder if she’s delusional about Thomas Wayne or not. Mom is clearly off baseline but i’m not so sure she’s portrayed as a narcissist. She seems to have no outbursts of grandiose, no deflection or mirroring of faults, and she demonstrates empathy for Arthur. Other kinds of psychological factors might have let her allow a boyfriend to harm Arthur but NPD doesn’t ring true here. Again, if we’re being shown “the truth,” which is uncertain at nearly every turn.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      In the loving, caring moment, he confesses to her that he’d like to become a comedian and she asks him “don’t you have to be funny?”

      It isn’t a funny joke between two people who love each other. Would that it were.Report

      • Avatar Aaron David in reply to Jaybird
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        says:

        The Joker staring as Rupert Pupkin.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird
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        says:

        Okay, maybe it wasn’t so loving, or it stopped being that way at that point.

        But is that narcissism?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko
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          says:

          Well, the medical file itself says “narcissistic personality disorder”. (Jump ahead to 1:59… CW if you keep watching: contains descriptions of abuse and shows Arthur’s final interaction with his mother.)

          So if we want to avoid armchair diagnosis, we can look at the file and see that, yep, officially she was diagnosed with the disorder.

          With that in mind, we can look at their interactions and how she seemed obsessed with Thomas Wayne and was casually and thoughtlessly cruel in interactions that didn’t center on her.

          I suppose we could fall back on how there were a lot of unreliable narrator scenes in the film and we don’t know that he actually got his hands on the file, let alone read it, let alone it said what he thought he saw… but if we concede that he saw the file and that, in that moment, we were seeing something that was actually happening and actually existed, then she had the clinical diagnosis.

          And, from there, we can look at her actions and see if they are consistent within the diagnosis and, as far as I can tell, they are.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      1) That’s an interesting take. Others have said (and this makes some sense to me) that just because this guy is A Joker doesn’t mean he is necessarily THE Joker; as in, Arthur Fleck may have become a kind of guru to that army of men wandering the streets and like the Dread Pirate Roberts passed the mantle on to one of them at some point.

      2) I know that the mantra on this site is that “conservatives don’t believe in helping the poor” but of course charitable organizations that care for the mentally ill and destitute have existed for centuries and a huge amount of money is donated by conservatives to organizations that help the poor. Any conservative who skews Christian, helping the poor is actually in their rules and regs, right from Christ himself.

      For many of us, myself very much included, the reason why we despise government programs to help the poor and mentally ill, is because they are corrupt, badly run, and do not serve the people they purport to help, in essence dumping them on the streets. Government does a terrible job serving these people and in my opinion creates a good number of them by continuing to fight reform of the public school system in which people like Arthur are imprisoned to face days of abuse and learn nothing whatsoever that could help them live a better life.

      And, because people have already “given at the office” in terms of their tax dollars, many are less likely to extend a helping hand or open their wallet to the private charities that are doing a good job. “Not my problem, someone is already taking care of that because I’m a liberal and I care about people and I voted Democrat” has gotten us exactly where we are today, in all these municipalities that have been run by the Democrats for the better part of 100 years. Government help is akin to no help at all for a huge number of folks.

      In short, while I chose not to cover that for the sake of the flow of the piece, I found all that extremely conservative as well.

      3. That was such a jarring disconnect that I concluded it could not have been accidental on the part of the filmmaker. It may be that the abuse happened during some kind of psychotic break and she got counseling/medication. It may be she had mellowed with age or because she was unwell. Some believe Thomas Wayne really did have her records falsified. Or, it may be (and this is where I lean) that we are supposed to see the complexity of mental illness. If you’ve ever known a person who had NPD they can be incredibly loving most of the time and then they periodically go completely insane. You can live with this person and even be parented by them lovingly for months, even years, till you cross them, and then all hell breaks loose. A person with NPD is not always or even usually going around raging at you, that’s why it can be so hard to remove yourself from their influence.

      This, I felt, was the reason why the filmmakers showed Arthur meeting Sophie in the elevator, her lighthearted attempt at humor by pretending to shoot herself when her little girl rambled on and on, and then Arthur following her. He saw nothing more than her being a good and loving mother, but in his mind he thought he knew – she didn’t like being a mother, she thought suicide was a better option than listening to her little girl talk, and even though she was loving most of the time, that wasn’t enough. That’s why he went back to her apartment (once he realized she wasn’t real and didn’t actually love him) because he saw her as a bad mother who didn’t deserve a child like that.Report

  6. Avatar Gabriel Conroy
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    says:

    Sometimes the Misunderstood Guy is in fact an Actual Bad Guy and must be treated as such, even if we can understand, to some extent, how he got where he is.

    I agree, and yet, when we do treat him as such, we should remember that he’s a human being capable of suffering. (Not that you’re saying anything different.)Report

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