***The following article contains spoilers.***
The new movie Joker has certainly resonated with audiences. It has done so not because of the current obsession with comic book-based films, nor simply because it is a good movie. Instead, the film has resonated on a deeper level because people see themselves reflected in the tragic character of Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliant portrayal of the legendary DC villain provides a sort of mirror for moviegoers, one in which they can see their own struggles, failures, fears, and anger reflected in their rawest forms. In fact, there may be numerous reasons as to why a person may feel that the character of Joker speaks to him/her. In the same way, there are arguably many valid interpretations of Joker’s central message, and this may especially be the case when it comes to interpreting the movie’s politics. While many perhaps see in Joker an argument for anarchism, or perhaps socialism, it was hard for me to not feel as if the movie was to some degree a dramatization of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s famous political slogan in defence of exploitative capitalism: “There is no alternative,” or simply “TINA.” Thatcher’s argument was that even though capitalism may not be “ideal,” there was simply no viable alternative to the market economy. This is the same message given in Joker.
Joker is set in Gotham City, a place where poverty, unemployment, and crime is rampant—a city reminiscent of many of the big cities throughout the world. Joker, whose real name in the film is Arthur Fleck, is a struggling party clown, who lives in a rundown apartment with his elderly mother Penny, whom he takes care of. Life for Arthur is a struggle on every level. He is barely able to find even low-paying employment, which at times involves degrading elements. To make matters worse, he is constantly unable to hold down any job for long. He dreams of being a stand-up comedian, and we see him giving an extremely poor performance at a comedy club, which is partially due to a neurological disorder that causes him to laugh uncontrollably at inopportune times.
However, we witness Arthur change throughout the movie. A striking turning point in his life takes place when he is riding the subway home after one of his firings. Still in clown makeup from his latest failed gig, Arthur witnesses three Wall Street suits abusing a woman on the train. The future Joker, who is disturbed by the situation, begins to laugh uncontrollably, eventually attracting the three men’s attention. The men soon violently attack him, but Arthur, who had earlier been assaulted by a group of teenagers and had been given a handgun from a fellow worker, pulls the gun, killing all three of the assailants. The triple homicide sends shock waves through the city. While the authorities, who are desperately searching for the perpetrator, and some citizens are deeply disturbed by the murders, many from among the poor begin to don clown masks, rioting in order to show solidarity with the man willing to shoot the rich dead.
Nevertheless, in Arthur’s personal life, things begin to deteriorate further. He had been attending government-funded therapy, which, while it provided him with subpar counseling, at least was able to get Arthur his needed medications in order to help him deal with his psychological issues. However, his therapy, and thus his ability to receive his medications, comes to a sudden halt, when his therapist informs him that the government is removing funding for the program, while also telling the already distraught Arthur that the system simply does not care about anyone.
Yet, perhaps the great irony in all of this is the fact that Arthur’s financial struggles should not be necessary even in a capitalist society, since as we are later led to believe, Arthur’s estranged father is billionaire Thomas Wayne. We see throughout the movie Arthur’s mom, who used to work for Thomas Wayne until he apparently impregnated her, writing letter after letter to him, looking for help for her and Arthur—pleas which tragically fall upon deaf ears. Moreover, Penny Fleck’s poverty as a single mother is undoubtedly the cause of Arthur’s psychological trauma. For example, we discover that as a boy Arthur had been brutally abused by his mother’s boyfriend, while his mother did nothing but sink further into psychosis. Sadly, had Thomas Wayne or the state provided the help needed for the single mother and her child, she would have been far less likely to have exposed herself and Arthur to an abusive man, who was probably at the time her only means of support.
Thomas Wayne has another role in the movie besides being Arthur’s probable father: he is also running for mayor of Gotham City. Thomas in this role is portrayed as a Trump-like figure. He is rich—the founder and head of Wayne Enterprises—he is full of rhetoric, and he receives a lot of negative backlash from the average person. Even the signs depicted at a protest against Thomas are clearly inspired by the current Trump era, since they read such slogans as, “Resist” and “F*** Wayne.” It is clear that the suffering people of Gotham do not believe that Thomas intends to represent anyone or anything except his own class and its interests.
However, in spite of the movie’s portrayal of many of the evils of capitalism, it seems that the spirit of Thatcher’s “TINA” dominants the film’s conclusion. While it is clear that capitalism has caused Arthur and his mother to suffer for decades, and that the same system is the reason why the masses are crying out in the streets, it is also apparent that a potential proletarian revolution would unleash hell upon the city. So much so that Thomas Wayne is to be preferred over the son he had allowed to suffer egregiously.
By the end of the movie, Arthur has murdered a number of times more, including that of his own mother. He even murders the egotistical talk show host Murray Franklin live on air, causing riots against the rich to begin anew, rocking the city to its core. Thousands of people wearing clown masks loot and burn Gotham. Emerging from a theatre in the midst of this chaos is Thomas Wayne, his wife, and his young son Bruce, who had all just finished watching Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. As the three attempt to escape the violence, they are confronted in an alley by one of the “clowns,” who shoots Thomas and his wife dead. Later we are shown a scene of the young Bruce Wayne standing tall and defiant between the bodies of his murdered parents. The heir to Wayne Enterprises, the boy Bruce, who will later become Batman, is meant to represent the desperately needed hero, who we should assume will save Gotham from Joker and his followers, restoring status quo to the city.
And there it is, the concept of “There is no alternative.” For as bad as Gotham City is, for as much as Arthur and the people have suffered under the exploitation of the rich through capitalism, the alternative presented by the rebellious poor is portrayed as far worse, as a sort of mix between bloodthirsty vengeance and mindless anarchy. This to me is the political message of Joker, namely, that any attempt to truly change the system, which is admittedly far from perfect, will be disastrous, since in the end, any semblance of order can only be maintained by our “betters”—the rich.