Joker is exceptional for the sparseness of the dialogue, yet every line and every scene drips with meaning. In movies of character transformation, such as this, the protagonist grows, and the community grows in response.
How they will grow and what the kingdom will look like when the chaos comes to an end is yet to be determined. This is an excellent example of a Virgin story that emphasizes the community’s need for transformation. The beats of a Virgin story are repeatedly hit, in continuously unexpected ways and sequence, reminiscent of Rachel and Monica’s lesson to Chandler on how to please a woman in Friends.
Joker is the story of an extremely hierarchical community where rich, white, educated, able-bodied men are at the top and everyone else is somehow deficient. In this patriarchy, unconditional love is non-existent; and everyone desperately tries to align themselves with the values of the dominant culture. Diversity and inclusion are laughable.
The tools of the privileged of Gotham City include bureaucracies, police force, wages, access to education, political power, and prejudice. Workers of Gotham City have taken to the streets in protest. When Thomas Wayne says “those of us who have made something of themselves look down on those who haven’t as nothing but clowns,” the protestors are galvanized! Wayne clearly believes that he is the saviour of people too stupid to see that he is trying to make their lives better. The protestors decide that the clown who killed three executives is their better option.
This is also a story of personal growth.
Arthur begins his life at the bottom of a very cold hierarchy. His father convinced his mother, Penny Fleck, to sign papers saying she adopted Arthur, to protect his career. Mother and child were exiled from privileged society. Penny was subjected to a lobotomy and Arthur was tortured as a child. As an adult he is the community scapegoat, jeered for his mental illness, isolated as weird and unlikeable, and beaten regularly as if it is his lot in life. He has not known a happy day in his entire life, yet his job is to be a clown and bring people joy.
Despite all this he believes he is entitled to a dream – he wants to be a stand-up comic. Arthur believes if he learns to be dominant-society funny, and accepts the cruelty of the dominant culture with timidity, someday his dreams will come true, kind of like Cinderella. But as he instead grows to accept his authentic emotions, and his mental illness, the community is forced to respond. The undervalued masses offer unconditional love, while the elite seek to preserve and protect the status quo. It’s a recipe for chaos.
It sounds like a lovely, perhaps heartwarming story.
The villain in Joker has the everyday values of many cities today. Values such as economic supremacy and political drivers that privilege some citizens over others. The audience struggles to figure out where they stand. The protagonist’s talent is to be a catalyst for social change. When Arthur gives up the belief that he has to be like the dominant culture in order to exist and be of value, he becomes a change catalyst. Each murder is a symbolic protest of a dysfunctional value system: the privilege of cruelty given to rich, educated, males (3 guys on the train); the manipulation of the mentally ill for personal gain (Randal and the people who cut social program funding), conditional love which gives power to the dominant culture and devalues diversity (Penny Fleck, Thomas Wayne, Murray Franklin).
There are several times when Arthur seems to be the only one who notices that the world is getting crazier out there. Then he realizes it is all about our beliefs. He didn’t know if he existed before, and now that he knows that he matters, people are starting to notice him. Discovering he is of value is what makes this a Virgin story.
Arthur is not trying to execute a plan to protect his village, like a hero. He has no place of belonging to preserve and protect. Even his mother sees little value in Arthur. He simply wants to not feel bad all the time. Arthur thinks he will find a measure of joy from making his death a comic statement on the Murray Franklin Show. He starts his final knock knock joke: “what do you get when you combine a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” The punch line was blowing his head off on tv, but when his idol tells him he is not funny, Arthur snaps and kills another defender of the status quo.
The warning of Joker
Likewise, the protestors don’t have a grand plan for how Gotham City must change. They are just giving expression to their feelings of being undervalued. Joker is eerily relevant. It questions the cultural values of today that are the invisible drivers of the protests, politics, climate crisis, and social unrest described every time we turn on the tv and radio these days.