What angers me most about this film is that it reduces the struggle of the poor or the disabled to a culture war. The target isn't big business or the government, but a late night television show host. In the ensuing chaos, both big business and the government are affected, but only indirectly, suggesting that Fleck's brand of rebellion truly has no underlying justification as he suggests in his interview. Say what you want about the tiring overuse of Ledger's Joker inspired "we live in a society" memes, but his whole endeavor is based around the idea that humanity, deep down, doesn't hold any kind of human values nor is it afraid to embrace nihilism. The path that Phillips follows instead is that of one man's journey through a comical level of contrived trauma to bully its audience into embracing the violent "catharsis" at the end. But who is Murray Franklin? Why should I care about the Murray Franklins of the world? His life didn't (and the lives of the various Murray Franklins we see in our world) actually contribute a whole to culture nor do their deaths actually influence politics both local and worldwide. Phillips strains to craft a tragedy around Arthur's life, but his mental disability and his low financial status robs him of the agency that is necessary for one small (but very relatable) flaw to get us to sympathize with or understand him.
I cannot bring myself to hate this movie if only for the scene between him and the therapist. Not since the BLACK PANTHER "Bury me" line has there been a piece of dialogue that hit me so hard as "They don't give a shit about people like you, Arthur. And they really don't give a shit about people like me either." Perhaps the social worker reached that level of awareness before that moment, but I like to think she had an epiphany right then, right there. She deserves her own movie. I like to believe someone out there was inspired by that line to write their own version of JOKER, but with the social worker as the main character. Could you imagine? A movie about a therapist who realizes that they will not be able to save anyone and everyone is slipping faster into their own personal hells due to an apathetic government and a collapsing economy. Driven to madness by their patients, they lash out against the uncaring void in a series of violent acts against the powers that be. With a single line, she became the most interesting character in the entire film and one of the most interesting characters in all of 2019 cinema.
Unfortunately, it was also her last line and her last scene. This movie isn't about her. This movie isn't about retributive justice. This movie is about the Joker, first and foremost. He is a villainous figure whose biggest flaw is perceiving the damaging remarks about his social class as affronts to his ego, not his to his identity, as most men do. If poor or mentally disabled men were to truly understand that the powers that be aren't targeting them to humiliate but to destroy them, the US government would have medicare for all today. Instead, so much of modern politics is about men engaging in the aesthetics of battle only to achieve the aesthetic of an award for that battle. It occurs in sport. It occurs in superhero movies. It now occurs in these alternative superhero spinoff movies. What made BLACK PANTHER so revelatory wasn't just the "Bury me" line but the sympathetic reaction on T'Challa's face when he heard it. There was never an ounce of empty posturing in Eric's quest for world domination. There was never a wasted moment in his plan to bring chaos to Wakanda. I struggle over whether he was ultimately right, even though his theoretical conquest would bring another genocide. Even though JOKER doesn't have global aims, the fact that it is intimate allowed Phillips even closer to the everyday white proletariat or white lumpenproletariat. The unfortunate truth is that white people, especially white Americans, need to be continually confronted by class issues if they are ever to achieve class consciousness. This movie comes close. So close. Yet at the end, it is still a movie about how one entertainer justifies violence against another entertainer for his "culture" not being appreciated as much as the dominant one.