SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen “Joker” be warned.
“Joker” has been out in wide release for a week and it remains an intensely hot topic. From moviegoers to Academy voters, “Joker” has provoked strong conversations and reactions have included everything from vitriol to the highest praise. Unfortunately misguided “controversies” of all shapes and sizes have popped up leading some people to talk more about them than this outstanding film.
The loudest of the “controversies” is the one claiming “Joker” celebrates, condones, encourages, inspires or at the very least gives a pass to the violence it depicts. This either comes from a strict and literal reading of the film or a negligence when it comes to examining the movie as a whole and wrestling with the themes it puts out there. Plainly put, “Joker” in no way promotes, champions, or excuses the violence it shows. Quite the opposite actually. It may be unsettling and difficult to digest. It may be too much for some audiences (which is understandable and respectable). But those things do not equal a pro-violence stance.
I’m convinced that much of this is drawn from the film’s ending and the different ways people have read it. Without question the way you interpret the ending of “Joker” can have a huge impact on how see the movie as a whole. For me there are several compelling ways of reading it (interestingly none of them condones or inspires violence). Here are three interpretations that I not only find highly plausible, but also critical to understanding what “Joker” is going for.
Reading 1 – This is the probably the most comic-booky reading but there is credibility to it. There have been several iterations of the Joker’s gang of henchman in the comics, the animated series, even the Batman films. At the end of “Joker” the battered Clown Prince is lifted up by a raucous crowd of violent protesters all donning clown masks. They place him on the hood of a car where he stands up like a messianic figure to their rapturous applause.
It makes sense to say this adoring group surrounding him is the first manifestation of Joker’s notorious gang. Everything about them fits the bill. It’s also important to note that Joker’s gang was never made up of fine upstanding individuals. They were thugs, murderers, the criminally insane, etc. So it goes without saying that these kinds of individuals lifting Joker up as their hero doesn’t mean the movie is doing the same thing. So in this reading Arthur is gone, Joker has taken over, and his gang of dangerous goons are ready to follow.
Reading 2 – Many have viewed the movie as heralding Joker as a hero, not just to the aforementioned miscreants who would become members of his gang, but to the disenfranchised and downtrodden of Gotham City. But does the hero interpretation really hold up? Toss aside the Joker Gang reading completely and look at it through a more psychological lens. Joker is no hero. Yes our sympathies are with him early on, but he crosses line after line on his road to villainy. In a nutshell our sympathies can only go so far and the idea of someone worshiping Joker should be terrifying and repulsive.
That is a very reasonable way of looking at the scene where Joker stands on the car bathing in the cheers of his idolizers. The movie doesn’t join in on the celebration. It paints a frighteningly grim picture of human depravity, one much different than the vile apathy of the rich elite, but just as heinous. This is how I initially viewed that scene – as an effective image of absolute moral decay and how far a society can spiral. And along with that comes a wickedly clever way in which the film makes our responses to it either indict or exonerate us.
Reading 3 – This one may be the most fun to consider and it’s the interpretation that lately I’ve been leaning towards the most. Simply put, what if it’s all in Arthur’s head? What if the entire movie is Arthur telling his story to the psychiatrist we see in the final scene? We already know the entire movie is told from his point-of-view and he has proven to be an unreliable narrator. Over the course of the film we learn that some of what we see didn’t actually happen. This makes questioning the validity of certain story beats completely fair game.
This also answers any potential questions (whether fair or not) that the movie venerates Joker. If Arthur grows to see himself as a hero and an inspiration, it makes sense that the movie would show it and it would be part of his storytelling. In his mind he is a leader and the one who inspired the uprising. Interestingly, you could say he’s even wrong there. Early in the film Thomas Wayne refers to protesters as “clowns”. That statement is what triggered the clown mask protests. Arthur’s subway killings happen to intersect with it, not cause it. It’s yet another delusion born out of his growing desire to be noticed.
So we’re back to the conversation with the psychiatrist where Arthur references a handful of things including a specific joke he’s certain the doctor wouldn’t get. It comes across as a perfect ending to a story he would believably be telling. It’s not a seamless theory but it makes sense of the sometimes hazy storytelling.
These are just three of the many ideas floating out there in the wild. What do you think of “Joker” and is intriguing ending. Hit the comments section below and tell me how you read this provocative movie.
And to read my proper review hit the link below. https://keithandthemovies.com/2019/10/06/review-joker-2019/