I heard and read plenty of negative reviews about Joker before finally attending a not yet sold-out, discounted Tuesday screening to actually watch it. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the film, whether fabricated for publicity or real, anyone coming out of the movie will have a lot to say about it. This is because it demands you to feel a lot about it.
At times this movie felt like a really bad joke. Occasionally, I would cringe and awkwardly look around at others’ reactions to estimate how I should react. At other times, it felt scary, but the worst kind—a rational anxiety that makes you question your own assumptions about human nature. It also has the power to make your supramarginal gyrus tingle (that is the weirdly-named part of our brain that helps us empathize and understand emotions in others).
Joker evokes empathy from beginning to end, in a way which some are calling superficial or even harmful, but either-way I find it ingenious. That is why when I saw the film, I realized that it fantastically represents something that most of our society struggles to cope with. Something that is real, and has created pain for many people.
In recent years, there have been many stories in the news that don’t veer too far off from this movie’s plot. Violent acts by incels or loners, school shootings, and other acts of hate. This movie tells a similar tale, but from the perpetrator’s perspective—a dangerous point of view that could lead sympathizers to idolize the actions of the anti-hero. This is why it has received the most criticism—not from a film perspective necessarily, but as a tool that is promoting sympathy for the ‘bad guys.’ This perspective proposes that the movie utilizes sympathy to justify the actions of someone who is evil by showing how society has wronged Arthur Fleck.
Although hard to deny, I would say that this criticism also misses one of the great opportunities film as a medium offers us. The ability to ignite discussions around a topic we have ignored for far too long. Joker presents the argument that many of the ‘villains’ in our society are victims before they are perpetrators. People who we have labeled as ‘outsiders’ or ‘weirdos’ can reach a nihilistic perspective on life, eventually leading to their immoral transgressions.
This is a serious issue which we need to address with proper diagnosis, more resources, and less stigmatization. ‘They’ are part of us—our society. We need to practice genuine empathy and understand their state of mind so we can move toward better addressing the complex social issues that inform their actions.
The powerful themes underlying Joker are applicable to the real world, like my own country, El Salvador.
I was born and raised in El Salvador, which at some point was ranked the most violent country in the world due to gang violence. I have always wanted to hear my country named in a list, but I was hoping it would be for something a little more positive. Gangs in my country are a dire issue, and although many gang members are perpetrators of violence, they turned to violence because of something sometimes beyond them.
Before joining a gang at the ages of 12 or 15, they were members of the poorest parts of our country, often forgotten and abandoned. Many came from broken homes, and they believed they had no other option than to join these violent groups. A social issue which many people in El Salvador, especially from the upper or middle social classes, call to fix by exercising no empathy but violence and extermination. People have completely ignoring what might have led to the wave of violence and initiation by these groups from the beginning, just like Thomas Wayne does after the subway scene in Joker with the stock brokers. This is much like the complex social violence in Gotham that is depicted at the end of the film. By the end of Joker, the people rioting in the streets have become disaffected from a society they believe has wronged them one too many times.
It is not until we turn around and look at the disaffected segment of our society that we can start to bring about peace. I wish more movies were made from this ‘other’ perspective to help people empathize and understand the pain and isolation of individuals. Even if they commit unjustifiable acts of violence, we can only solve it if we stop isolating and dividing ourselves.
This movie is a double-edged sword. On one side it may look like a shallow film with the potential to instigate violence and evoke sympathy towards violent individuals. However, the movie has been called by some professionals a great educational tool for understanding the causes of violence. I invite everyone who watched it or who will watch it to pay attention to the film’s second side, and the opportunity it offers.
Our ability to see the pain of an isolated man driven to violence—and all the missed opportunities throughout the movie for individuals to help him change his course—should be a wakeup call. Maybe we need to stop the blaming and division, and start paying attention to each other as individuals.
One thing is for sure: if you are someone’s boss, Joker will make you think twice about how to let go of that “weird guy” in your office.