If art reflects the time in which it’s made, then Joker may be one of the most timely films made in recent years. In an era of cynicism and hopelessness, Joker taps into deep-rooted anger that’s rapidly spreading all over the world as inequality and global upheaval seems to only be getting worse. The early 70s were a similar time, with America still entrenched in Vietnam and many left disillusioned after the Watergate Scandal. While the films that came out of the 70s were similar, there are key differences that set Joker apart.
The early to mid 70s were a very angry time for cinema. Films like Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver, and Death Wish captured a violent discontent with the American public. Their unflinching portrayals of violence provided a certain catharsis for moviegoers, sparking as much ticket sales as controversy. The unflinching feel of these films is similar to that of Joker, with one key change.
This is perhaps best shown in a scene that at a glance, appears identical. The original Death Wish followed a man named Paul Kersey as he embarks on a killing spree following the home invasion murder of his wife. In Death Wish, Kersey is assaulted by some muggers in the subway and retaliates by killing them. In Joker, Arthur similarly is assaulted and kills his assailants. There is one key difference. In Death Wish, the villains were minorities from a seedy part of town. In Joker, the villains are clean-cut office workers.
In films like Death Wish, the impoverished were portrayed as a problem. They were violent leaches who preyed on hard-working citizens like Kersey and they needed to be put in their place. The message was clear. The poor were to blame for their problems, and they deserved to be punished by the successful. This sentiment is the very thing that Joker rebukes. Arthur could have easily been cast as the villain in a film like Death Wish. Instead, the movie takes us along for the ride with him. We see Arthur’s poor living conditions, witness the cruelty of his co-workers and customers, and see him struggle day by day if only to achieve a modest dream.
Films like Dirty Harry and Death Wish approached poverty from the stance of someone who was outside looking in. Harry Callahan and Paul Kersey are both well off working men who are never shown struggling to get by. From the start of Joker, Arthur does nothing but struggle with everything from his job to his much needed psychiatric help. Rather than taking an outside looking in stance on poverty, Joker takes the same stance with wealth and security.
It’s a stance that’s not alien to many of these harder edged thrillers from the 70s. Both Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, both by Scorsese and both featuring Robert DeNiro in the leading role, had lead characters struggling to get by. These films however focused more on the mental instability of both characters. While Joker does the same, it also puts heavy emphasis on Arthur being in poverty, which worsens his problems.
Arthur initially views the upper class as potential saviors for his troubles. Both Murray Franklin and Thomas Wayne are viewed of as father figures by Arthur at one time or another in the film, showing Arthur is more longing for compassion and closeness with someone as opposed to monetary gain. Both Franklin and Wayne reject Arthur, with Franklin humiliating him on television and Wayne assaulting him when Arthur confronts him at an event. These are but a few examples of how the upper class torments Arthur in the film. Indirect attacks prove just as devastating.
Throughout the film, Arthur is harmed indirectly by people in authority. After he’s mugged and beaten, he loses his job because a sign was broken in the attack. His much needed mental help is lost when the programs he attends are cut from the city’s budget. His mother, who should have taken care of him, allowed him to be abused by a live in boyfriend. All of these incidents are beyond Arthur’s control, he’s still blamed for the state of his life. This Gotham is an apathetic city.
The city’s apathy towards Arthur is contrasted by the reaction to the killings on the subway. The three victims are portrayed as greedy, narcissistic, and abusive, harassing a stranger with unwanted sexual advances and verbal abuse. They’re later killed when they beat arthur for their amusement and he kills them in self defense. After the deaths, those in power like Wayne and Franklin lament on the deaths of these three fine working men. The message is clear. In this Gotham, you can get away with anything as long as you’re wearing a nice suit.
Ironically, this very sentiment is found in the original Death Wish. Paul Kersey is a serial killer who murders muggers at random, yet the film glorifies his actions, doing its utmost to dehumanize his victims. By the end of the movie, the police officer in charge of the investigation even lets Kersey go, allowing him to continue his killing spree in another city. This is in sharp contrast to how the city reacts to the subway killings, where Arthur, an impoverished, mentally ill man, is condemned without question.
Of all the figures in the film, it’s arguably Murray Franklin (played by DeNiro in a reference to his work on Taxi Driver and King of Comedy) that hurts Arthur the most. Arthur begins the film viewing Franklin as a father figure. As the story goes on, Franklin humiliates Arthur in front of the entire city, and brings him onto his show to humiliate him further. Franklin is the embodiment of everything wrong with the upper class in this film. He views the suffering of the impoverished with apathy and amusement. This, coupled with Arthur’s feelings of betrayal, makes the final set piece of the film that much more fitting.
Joker isn’t merely a repeat of these films that appeared in the cynical early 70s. It’s also a re-examination of the ideas they put forward. Initially, such films were as apathetic to the problems of people like Arthur as the very world Arthur is inhabiting in this film. Joker takes a new approach, instead of putting us in the shoes of a struggling, neglected lower class man, who only asks for the realization of a modest dream, and condemns those who don’t hear his cries for help.
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