Joker, the latest film to feature the iconic comic book villain, offers a fresh interpretation of the character, as the figurehead of a movement for social change. Whilst the Joker may be depicted as an inspiring influence, this does not mean that it is him preaching these issues, rather the movement essentially builds itself through the opportunities presented by his actions. The Joker is still, at his core, the villain we have all seen time and time again, however, it is the central idea he represents: a taking back of control in his situation, that is the spark to ignite the kind of movement we see protesting and rioting as the film progresses.
In setting the scene, we find out that Gotham is riddled with poverty and sub-standard living conditions; it feels like the people of Gotham have come to accept this way of life, exemplified in how the Joker says he needs to “smile and put on a happy face”. In this sense it seems obvious that the character of Joker serves as a microcosm for the people of the city, his need for help and his characterisation as a victim of oppression resonating with the kind of mass suffering shown in the backgrounds. This relatability of the Joker, as a kind of everyman, allows his actions to be spun into a narrative of demand for social change through the idea that the Joker could be anyone; many have been shown to have the kind of problems championed by the movement so the idea of the Joker being the first one to act sets him up as a figurehead. The fact that this doesn’t even need to be true to have as strong an effect as it does speaks volumes for the power of opportunistic mass movements; whether the Joker actually believes these things is irrelevant, there is clearly a strong demand for a movement, demonstrated in the suffering seen so all that is needed is a spark to light the flame.
The line “I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realise it’s a comedy”, while on the surface just an edgy line, captures the idea behind mass movements completely. The idea of life being a comedy reflects the realisation that to look at life as a tragedy is simply a laughable idea; to view ourselves as helpless in the situations we find ourselves in represents a fundamentally disillusioned mindset, with all agency removed from ourselves. This kind of change is shown in the type of character Joker represents throughout the movie; beginning as a purely reactive character, with things just happening to him with no action of his own, his transformation into an active character who acts towards achieving his goals signals his development. This kind of realisation of power is mirrored in the inspired clown-masked masses, through the idea of the mass movement, our self-perceptions can change in how we view ourselves as actors within society, moving us towards an active role in terms of the shaping and development of the world around us.
The mindset of mass movements is certainly powerful in developing our understandings of our place in society; however, the scale of mass movements is also crucial. The power of the sheer scale for mass movements is shown in the two confrontations with Thomas Wayne. In the first, the Joker is simply powerless against him, demonstrating the power gap between them. However, in the second, Wayne is easily killed in the riots in the seemingly obligatory Batman ‘Pearls’ scene. At this moment, the message that we are stronger together against those who oppress us is plain to see. This second confrontation towards the end of the film also features another of the core messages in the idea that ‘you get what you deserve’. Though it is shown in the context of violence, the idea behind it is that mass movements serve to protest and remove from power those who abuse their positions; this is done in the hope that removing those who control systems of oppression will relieve the problems that themselves led to the beginning of the movement.
At the end of the film, there is no doubt that real change has been achieved, the city on fire symbolic of the power and influence of mass movements; like a fire, the movement burns all and spreads easily. Inescapable, the issues of those oppressed become immediate to those in power, leading to real change both for and by those who previously thought it impossible. Joker highlights the transformative aspects of mass movements, for both society and the individual, and how each can acquire their liberation through joining together, unified in demanding real change.
Written by Rhys Jones