The 2019 film Joker was surrounded by controversy before it was even released. The film frames the comic character as an accidental icon of anti-rich riots, and its release in the autumn of a year marked by large and continued protests against corruption and inequality around the world has made the debate around it more charged, shaped by the concerns and contexts of its fans and critics. Some reviewers in the US called it a lone wolf manifesto, while the leftist Egyptian Facebook commentariat slammed it as a reactionary project in disguise. But one of my colleagues at Mada liked it so much she bought two Joker t-shirts. The film has made more than one billion US dollars worldwide. There were several efforts to ban screenings in different places.
I watched Joker in Cairo in early October, leaving behind a city on post-protest police lockdown to enter the IMAX and a marketing hall of mirrors. It began right at the ticket window when I handed over my 150 pounds to an employee wearing a Joker mask and wondered what percentage of his weekly salary the ticket price amounted to.
There was a lot that I disliked about the film, experientially and politically: I found the score overbearing, and the way it dealt with mental illness to be essentializing. But I kept circling back to it in my conversations for several weeks. Here are four people with very different takes, all from Cairo.
Step Aside, Boomer
I was about to walk out 30 minutes into it. All I could think of was my guilt about what I had done to my exes or lovers. I thought, God, Jaja, look at them, they’re on the edge, how could you? Apparently, this feeling was unique to me, to associate the Joker with at least two exes.
It’s an endless struggle for me, to think of these abusive boys who are so kind at heart. Feminists, we’d even say of them. Because of how much they love their mothers, and how much they despise the absent, abusive father. They never speak of him. But his scar is all over them, oozing out of every baby breath of fucking up in one way or another. The blubbery tears of this man-baby and you think, what a relief he’s in touch with his emotions. You think of how awful those fathers were and these innocent poor boys. What a relief I love this man who hates men, who hates power, who feels misogyny in his bones. How much he loves his mother. How much he wants to protect her pain. How much he feels hers as his own. How much that whole process kills him, kills his love for her too. Some double suicide at some point because the romance died long ago: The romance of a beautiful mother, the romance of a beautiful childhood, the romance of love, the romance of expression, the romance of having a life.
You meet those boys and you fall in love with their love of a woman. You love how much they, at last, have broken the idolatry of men. Until one day you realize they suckle on you, and fuck you, and want to possess you, and are repulsed by you in turn. And you want to hold them tighter because you know the synapses are all wound up and the only way to fix this is to protect them and soothe them, and heal them. The poor boy, it was not his fault. He had every intention. I watched the film and I was watching the precise thing that makes me romanticize this archetype, my obsession and lust for Oedipal mess. My awful desire to heal this poor, broken man. (My belief that these men are the ones).
I had intended on reading bell hooks on this. I haven’t yet. At some point I thought, fuck it. At the end of the day, the poor boy gets an entire nation sympathizing, and riots conjured at his feet, he captures the imagination. And so maybe he doesn’t quite need help from me. You get the shit kicked into you, or manipulated or abused by them enough you start think, well, looks like you don’t want to be loved, asshole. You never wanted to be a team.
Maybe other boys can help him, through their own observations, or because of their mothers who might know better. Mothers who walk out earlier, who say fuck you earlier, who don’t protect their boys from the truth, and tell their boys to grow the fuck up. And tell their boys to stop romanticizing their mothers. It’s a generational thing. Fuck being a healing girlfriend.
So I stayed through the film. And I didn’t text my ex to check if he was still alive, or doing ok since I walked out. Because you know damn well he is just fucking fine. I enjoyed the film. It’s my jam. But it’s old. We’ve got better riots to fill, and a new jam to make that goes beyond this one. This is the old world. Yes, RAGE, but we need to change this up. There’s a new rage coming and it doesn’t look like this. And god knows I’ve loved Joaquin Phoenix my whole life, but he is not the second coming, it’s not a boy like him. It’s something else altogether. And it comes from us saying, “I’ve loved you my whole life, and I’ve been tethered to your story. But now, boy, we’re changing the myth. It’s no longer about you and Batman. You’re both out.”
Fuck them boys, silly. Walk out on them. Break their balls. Do not feel the guilt even if every pore in your genetic makeup pulls you to that ancient maternal instinct. Excise it. Cut it out. A new rage is coming, it’s called not being traumatized by the breakup of the nuclear family. Joker, your big fuss is old news. STEP ASIDE, BOOMER.
There’s a new rage coming and it doesn’t look like this
This writing begins with an interest in subtracting the concept of the film from the film and using it as a tool for political imagination. Or maybe with a pressing desire to imagine a different political possibility.
I left the cinema house to find that thousands have filled the streets of Lebanon to demand the fall of the regime. The day after, they became thousands upon thousands. They took to the streets of Beirut, Maten, Baalbek, Ghaziyeh, Nabbatiyeh, Sidon, Tyre and more. Phenomenologically, it seems that nothing more than the sight of multitudes protesting their regimes flirts with political imagination; multitudes where the individual becomes unnoticeable, almost anonymous; the multitude as one body, enabling emotion, visualizing a new possibility that cannot be fathomed in our singular lonely bodies whose porous boundaries feel at times like prison bars: you see freedom but can’t walk to it, can’t touch it.
The Joker as a mask to hide behind and become anonymous:
Anonymity as a common collective identity, not a null identity. Think 0 in mathematics. Think 1,001 Nights in literature. Think of nameless tables and chairs in everyday life.
The Joker as a common collective identity:
A common unidentifiable identity as a subversive identity. Think of the hacktivists of Anonymous.
Collective and subversive are akin to the poetics of revolution; when the multitudes become one mass of unidentifiable bodies morphed into each other, “the sublimation of flesh,” an exposition that mobilizes vision, a vision that triggers imagination.
But poetics aside, we are also talking of the multitude of the disenfranchised, the poor, the mentally struggling, the outlaws. There is less poetry here and a more difficult image to reckon with. The image of the revolt of the poor, hegemonically constructed as an urban legend. It is perhaps time to depart from the urban legend, and reckon with another possible unfolding of the revolution of the poor, not as a romantic fetish of the brave diehards, but perhaps as a more truthful expression of anger — one which is not polite, one which is not seeking public acquiescence, one which is not homogenous, coherent or an easy subject of mediation.
Lina’s and Jaja’s readings directly look into the film for its political messages and its political potentials. They take from it and project a wider political reaction (fuck them boys, silly).
Joker very clearly uses and reflects contemporary social crises, so it’s not surprising that critiques of the film have been so charged. Filmmaker Philip Rizk and artist Basma al-Sharif watched the film without having read any reviews or even seen a trailer. Below is an edited conversation between them.
When the credits rolled, there was clapping all around; the audience nearly cheered. We drove home talking obsessively about it, eager to see what the critics had to say, totally naive to the overwhelmingly negative responses we would find.
B- In my opinion, a good film doesn’t spoon-feed its audience an easy moral code but rather proposes questions. With Joker, the question is how we determine what is victimhood and who is the aggressor. It also opens up a lot of questions about the limits of our empathy — in who it is politically correct to empathize with. When the hero of a film falls into a gray zone, like Arthur Fleck does, and his actions become aligned with anti-capitalist ideology, we are left with a film that complicates our ability to empathize.
P– I agree. I think one of the main critiques waged against the film comes from what we could call progressive circles, where Joker is critiqued with a different degree of political weight than other Hollywood productions because it touches on the current political reality of hyper class divisions, crumbling state institutions and raging discontent against the status quo, but without providing a clear moral directive. What I think is politically most powerful — as well as deeply enjoyable — about the film is that director Todd Philips does the best thing one can do with such a genre: he breaks the rules, turning the form on itself and leaving the audience out in the cold by not providing a simple moral microcosm. So rather than placing the expectation of an ideological message on the film, we should recognize that its greatest value lies in its form. By subverting the framework of the Good vs Evil narrative of the Batman franchise — practically one of the USA’s founding myths — the film forces us as spectators into a position of displacement from the usual theater-watching experience: we must decide for ourselves.
Murray Franklin, the star TV host, has not committed any serious crime towards Arthur Fleck as far as is revealed to us. All he has done is belittle him and mock him from his position of power. Joker has no actual justification to kill him; this is the kind of behavior I believe most politically oriented viewers condone. We might identify in the person of Murray a representation of the systematic class-based violence that is endemic in society. Murray represents a ruling elite — after all, he defends the innocent Wall Street men much like Thomas Wayne does. Arthur Fleck carries out vengeance on the Murrays of his world. While they certainly don’t deserve to live as they do, we are faced with the dilemma of, if they will live only as they do, then, do they deserve to live? While the viewer who might sympathize with Arthur’s situation or recognize the anti-establishment sentiment on the streets of Joker’s Gotham, the best course of action is not easy to determine. Isn’t this exactly the crisis the opposition, the underclass, the exploited around the world find themselves in? While we might know where we identify various problems in the systems that oppress us, we have no strategy to overcome them. And in that situation, the lines of right and wrong are not easy to identify. Hollywood was designed to give us a moral compass; that is what we have come to expect of it. Joker wipes out that crutch of classical cinema with a morally unsound protagonist that the viewer may or may not identify with or support fully, partially or at all.
A bit more on violence. We live in a time when the police’s hate crimes against innocent citizens — whether in Cairo, Hong Kong or Rio — should be expected to prompt not just an outcry but a violent one. Egypt’s 2011 moment started with unplanned violent attacks on police stations — the face of the regime’s rule — where both protesters and police were killed, members of the police fled in sheer fear and protesters set their stations ablaze. This night of January 28, 2011 opened the door for the January 25 revolution. Violence made the revolution that followed possible, even if a majority of those that participated wouldn’t condone it personally. While violence is not proposed as a solution in Joker, we are confronted with the dilemma of having to decide for ourselves what we make of it. Arthur claims on live TV that his actions are not political; do we take that statement at face value?
B- One of the only things we disagreed about was the final scene, in which the Joker is paraded around and celebrated by violent rioters in a 1980s-era setting similar to Times Square. You felt this was doing a disservice to actual riots and political movements.
P- I’ve had a hard time articulating what it is exactly that leaves me uncomfortable. One of the things this film does well is its reflection on the way that images work on a society that obsessively engages them. We see the impact of how the killing of the three Wall Street men spreads like wildfire and the killer’s masked face becomes an emblem.
The influential role of Murray Franklin is evident in how Arthur and his mother idolize his program and Arthur’s unrelenting desire to appear on it. It is there that Fleck shocks not only the show’s audience by killing Murray on camera but more critically us, the innocent spectators in the cinema, who suddenly become implicated as he finally turns on us as he speaks his final message into the studio’s cameras:
“What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fuckin’ deserve.”
The film’s engagement with spectacle comes to a head with the scene of the riots where we see masked rioters violently taking over the streets and, in the scene’s climax, cheering on Fleck as he emerges out of his captivity in a police car. Gone is the self-reflexive narrative that dominates most of Joker and instead we have a staged simulacrum of moments of protest that many of us have participated in over the past years around the world. In Joker, justified, urgent and often violent uproar becomes the dramatized exaggerated image that we have come to expect from quintessential Hollywood image production.
B- I agree, the riot scene has a very cliché Hollywood ending feel to it. Arthur ceases to be a character with depth and becomes an icon for a movement he perhaps doesn’t even fully understand. We are meant to be swept up by this moment — as well as the moments when he is emboldened by his turn to violence. For you, there is an additional discord in that it represents a misperception of real-world rioting that has a purpose and turns it into Hollywood spectacle. But I would argue that Arthur’s entire character is also very Hollywood — everything about him and his situation is exaggerated and the riot scene isn’t what it appears to be. The actual ending which follows the riot scene questions the “reality” of everything we have just seen and the last words spoken in the film, by Fleck, when asked why he is laughing, are: “you wouldn’t get it”.
In regards to the use of violence and building on what you said earlier, out of curiosity, I looked at commonsensemedia.org, a site that helps (usually conservative) parents post details about the nature of violent/explicit content of a film, for: “Parent reviews for Joker“, where the film received a 4/5 star rating, the overwhelming majority did not find it overly violent with several reviewers recommending younger viewers could be taken to see Joker. Here’s one review:
“Some of the left-leaning media are trying to paint this film as some sort of anti-social justice warrior or pro-incel manifesto. It is nothing of the sort. It delivers serious criticism to both the right and the left, and to society in general … what the film does is paint Joker’s evil with shades of grey, and it does so without violating the integrity of the character…I actually think for the context of this film that the amount [of violence] is just right — actually, I was expecting more violence and admired how this was used sparingly…”
What I am interested in is when and why certain fictional violence is celebrated, and what crosses the line in the context of cinema. If we compare the Joker’s violence to Hollywood darling Tarantino’s use of spectacular, merciless bloodshed, the ethics behind choosing to depict such violence is either an afterthought or else celebrated as having good reason for being included. Why do we permit, for example, the fictitious “Mandingo fight” scene of Django Unchained but condemn Arthur’s transformation into a cold-blooded killer? Both show senseless acts of violence that mirror real-world horrors. I believe it is because in Tarantino’s film we don’t associate ourselves with the ones perpetrating the violence on screen. We are on the side that is against slavery and would never condone such violence, so viewing this scene makes us feel better about ourselves for being on the “right” side of evil — it is perfectly acceptable to see violence we disagree with as long as we don’t associate ourselves with causing that violence.
In Joker, we may very well be the reason for Arthur Fleck’s demise and eventual violence and that is simply unacceptable to US movie critics in the age of the lone wolf assassin. I want to be clear that I myself don’t excuse Arthur’s violence, neither do I sympathize with any of the now numerous lone wolf assassins who have claimed that being rejected by women, being bullied, getting fired, or that simply being mentally unstable justifies bloodshed. But Joker forced me to consider whether I somehow enable accepting a world that ignores its most unfortunate and that an armed, capitalist society that abandons its citizens could be the reason for the increase in this kind of violence.
The beauty of cinema is its ability to change the way we see things by virtue of the very visceral, collective and immersive experience of a great film. Hollywood is good at immersing us in simplistic storylines with clear heroes and villains, and when the protagonist is a villain, it is clear that we are witnessing their behavior from a distance. Never implicated in their actions, the plot is one that depicts a character’s internal conflict. A few examples: A Clockwork Orange, A History of Violence, The Reader, American Psycho. Rarely does the villain protagonist turn the mirror back onto society.