The latest installment of the DC franchise opened October 3rd, and it keeps on smashing box office records. I think that, at this point, it is quite safe to discuss it without spoiling the plot. However, I will try not to give away any details just in case you have not seen The Joker yet.
Todd Phillips has done a brilliant job at retelling a story that has been told a thousand times over, albeit missing a key part. Mr Phillips has just put things in context.
The Joker has gotten some backlash, allegedly accused of “promoting violence and delinquency”. Where some saw the glorification of a villain, I saw an understanding of criminality that is much more complex than Hollywood’s usual views. We are used to crime being blamed on the individual. By treating crime as a social issue, we are presented with weapons to understand and solve the problem.
One of the (many) things I hate about superhero flicks is their perpetual misconception of good and evil. The crystallized separation between two entities that actually coexist in every human being is an obstacle to every attempt at a deeper analysis.
Ultimately it is all a matter of taste, and art is appreciated in subjective ways. Life is hectic, I can understand that people need to unwind and choose content accordingly. Yet, the content we consume might come back to bite us on the butt. As long as we support narratives that are not fundamentally critic of the things that are wrong in our societies, change will never happen.
As remarkable as this film may be, it still follows the same mistaken path lead by most un-remarkable films. The political system is yet again portrayed as dirty, useless and corrupt. Yet again, the people – or better, the masses – choose an utter freak as their leader. The Joker tries to de-stigmatize mental health and crime, but in turn it stigmatizes politics and the people.
Reality tells us otherwise. Coincidentally (or not), the past two months have been full of popular uprisings all around the world. From Lebanon to Colombia, people are revolting against the elites. Coincidentally (or not), the country whose popular demands are further from being satisfied is the only one who is lacking from a political leader. Yes, I am talking about Chile, where the popular uprisings have been entirely propelled by the civil society.
All the popular revolts that we have witnessed during these past few months have their own origins and circumstances. Each and every one of them defies us with their very own complexity, and to talk about them all at the same time is to understand none. For now, let’s just leave it at “the world is a tumultuous place right now.”
But if we were to take the Chilean case, however, we would be able to grasp what I call the Joker effect. The events in Chile began to take place, unofficially, shortly before October the 18th. The immediate cause of the first protests was the public transport system fare increase, which took place a mere ten days before. In Santiago, the country’s capital city, students started organizing themselves to perform massive evasions – a form of protest that involves jumping the Metro’s turnstiles. Although Santiago’s Metro is the most expensive in Latin America, that 3.75 percent fare hike (less than 5 U.S. cents) might have been the straw that broke the camel.Chileans have been faring with inequality since the time of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Chile’s economic segregation becomes even more visible inside the Metro cars, where both high and low income commuters usually mingle. In a way, it made sense that the subway stations were the first battlefield. The massive evasion lead to spontaneous takeovers of the metro’s main stations, and then to open confrontations with Carabineros (the local militarized police).
The fare hike might have been the trigger, but the core issues are much more deeper. Living conditions are poor for the majorities, who cannot afford health or education services. Its pension system, called AFP, is a sentence to poverty among the elderly. The working class struggles without true political representation, while a very few thrive. The fact of the matter is that, ever since President Allende was overthrown on 9/11/1973, Chile’s political system has not known a true left.
So, what is the Joker effect precisely? The film opened worldwide two weeks before the protests started, and the movie’s billboards can be seen in different protest locations.
And then again, all over social media we would see how demonstrators were inspired by the film.
Politics and institutions are always the answer. Argentina has been enduring the very same neoliberal onslaughts that Chile has for the past four years. However, the Argentine people did not need to riot because there is a political opposition that was able to channel their demands within democratic institutions. Although Chilean president Piñera has announced a series of economic measures aimed at reducing inequality, protests have not lost steam. Marchers still demand Piñera’s resignation, and a true political change. Chilean’s have endured one of the bloodiest military dictatorships, and have a great appreciation for democracy. Still, they understand that there can be no true democracy while inequality is this strong.
The Chilean protest have no discernible leader. There is no Joker per se. But what was Arthur Fleck, if not a citizen de-humanized by the systematical violence that comes from an absent government? This is a perfect metaphor of the Chilean society.
Pop culture is indeed powerful, but a single movie just cannot inspire a revolution on its own…no matter how good it may be. What a good movie actually does is reflect the social concerns of their time. Just like videogames cannot be held responsible for producing violent children, a movie cannot create a movement that wasn’t already there. The claims about inequality are indeed a sign our our times, and are gathering millions of followers lead by discernible political figures. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez are the first that come to mind, but there are many more.
Ultimately, Todd Phillips’ The Joker is a portrait of an extremely cruel society. Is it a call to action, though? That does not seem the case. As Otto von Bismarck would say, politics is the art of the possible. And The Joker is no politician.