Joking Aside: ‘Joker’ Has a Stark Message For Us All

I went to see Joker the other day. Boyo, is that a film for our times. I left the cinema feeling physically shaken, and i can’t remember the last time that happened.

It wasn’t the violence that did it, nor the achingly raw portrayal of a man sliding into a homicidal rage, nudged along by everyone around him. Those were well done, but that sort of thing we’ve seen before. No, what did it was the lack of redemption in the story, and how precisely it diagnosed the current state of affairs within our society.

The genius of the film is to identify the main character with every oppressed group so that, no matter where you sit on the political landscape you’ll identify with him. He’s poor and suffers from mental illness so rails against the rich politicians who cut public services. So far so lefty. But he also – and this is where it gets really interesting – identifies strongly during his spotlight moment with the white working classes – the Brexiteers and Deplorables of the world – who have been beaten down repeatedly, then laughed at and beaten down some more when they try to pick themselves up.

The inevitable result is the unleashing of the forces of chaos into the world at large. By the end of the film Gotham is burning and Joker is laughing. It’s impossible not to overlay the blood currently running through the streets of Paris and Hong Kong onto the action during those moments, or, if you’re of a lefty persuasion, the extinction rebellion protests. Both share an almost maniacal desire simply to be heard at all costs.

In this respect, then, the film is almost prophetic; the message is clear: push too far in any direction and the result with be a chaotic insanity that sets the world alight. But it’s also highly problematic, because that’s where the film ends. There is no redemptive figure who can turn the world the right way up again. Bruce Wayne is still a young child, and there’s no one else who fits the bill.

This leaves two interpretations open to us:
1. It’s too late. Any hope we might have had is too small and immature (in the sense of not yet having come to fruition) to be able to make a difference when it matters, so we may as well lose ourselves to despair and join in the madness. That’s the Extinction Rebellion answer, and I think the one the filmmakers were going for (which is why it shook me up).

2. It’s never too late. No matter how bleak things look, there are always seeds of hope to be found, we just have to know where to look for them. Someone not conversant with the DC universe will have no idea that the boy Bruce Wayne is a significant character, but someone who is, knows that he will one day grow up to be that redeemer Gotham needs, and that what Gothemites need to do is hunker down against the bad times and wait.

Signs of our times are found everywhere, not least in our cinemas. We should read them. Personally, I think they should incline us to take option 2, even though, as in the film itself, the signs in it’s favour are currently the merest of hints.