Violence, Liberal Critiques, and Neoliberal Ideology in Todd Phillips’s Joker

by Ellen Reade

  1. Introduction

Joker is a dark, gritty, realistic take on the origin story of The Joker from the DC Universe. Directed by Todd Phillips and released in 2019, the film critiques two political issues: neoliberalism and the revolutionaries who fight the system with violence.

The film takes place in 1981 when neoliberal policies were first being instituted (Cooper 267). This paper defines neoliberalism as an ideology which holds “dominance over the economic, social and political lives of the public” and “has been reliant upon the deliberate production of insecurity and ‘precarity’ across the working population” (Frame 380). Some key qualities that ensure precarity under neoliberalism are “the decline of unionization and dismantling of the welfare state since the late 1970s, coupled with the globalization of the labor market and post-recession corrosion of secure employment condition” (Frame 380). When this paper refers to liberalism, it’s talking about an ideology that “has an emphasis on employing state power to protect individuals from the suffocating constraints imposed by unaccountable private power and also from life-narrowing contingencies” (Farer 2).

Todd Phillip’s approach to the universe of Joker utilizes realistic, graphic violence as a central part of its storytelling. This essay argues that Joker’s liberal narrative discourages violent revolt and unintentionally upholds the aspects of neoliberalism it seeks to criticize.

2. A Critique of Unchecked Neoliberalism 

Joker critiques unchecked neoliberalism, favoring reform over violent revolt. Joker’s critique of neoliberalism starts at the beginning: Arthur Fleck is posed as a sweet, misunderstood, well-intentioned man who is beaten down by the barriers created by poverty and his struggles with mental health. Working a dead-end job as a low-quality clown, The Joker is jumped and beaten by a group of kids, left alone, bleeding out on the streets of Gotham during an uncomfortably long wide shot—a metaphor for being ‘beat down’ by the system. Arthur Fleck is built as a relatable anti-hero: he experiences personal isolation, the growing wealth gap of the late 20th century, feelings of having no control, improperly treated mental health issues, and personal trauma. All elements of Fleck’s character are amplified through deep intimacy created throughout the film. His most unhinged moments are shown through extreme close-ups of his face, which bring the viewer deep into his emotional experience. Fleck cares for his mother and daydreams about telling his favourite comedian, Murray Franklin, that he loves his mother and was born to make people laugh. But, despite his tender heart, he has a complete inability to function within the system. A woman on the bus expresses her feelings of discomfort towards his laughing condition. Thomas Wayne and the Wall Street guys respond violently to that laugh. Unable to hold down a job, he is rejected by his coworkers and berated by his boss for not fitting in—all while displaying his intense emotional reactions through close-ups. Arthur Fleck is established early on as well-intentioned but misunderstood.

The rich and powerful in Joker are cartoon capitalists. They are greedy, heartless, money-hungry caricatures. Thomas Wayne, the Wall Street boys, and other powerful characters are filmed using low-angle shots—implying others are beneath them. The qualities that make the rich bad in Joker are relatively simple: they are rude, hypocritical, and violent. The relationships between Fleck and the rich are symbolic of structural violence against the poor and mentally ill. For example, Thomas Wayne talks on television about how former employees are like family, juxtaposed against Penny Fleck, an ex-employee who lives in poverty—painting the rich as liars and hypocrites.  

Two major turning points in Arthur Fleck’s descent into violent psychosis are directly related to healthcare: his first visit to the hospital where he was denied an increase to his medication, and when he loses access to medication and publicly funded healthcare. Fleck’s descent into psychosis is signified through use of colour. The colour palette starts out with muted blue, yellow, and brown tones. After Fleck’s denial for an increase in medication, and following subsequent traumatic events, the colour red gradually bleeds into the film’s palette, with the final scenes consisting almost entirely of shades of red. The focus on medication and healthcare as turning points imply proper access to medication, empathic therapy, and properly-funded healthcare could have prevented his psychotic killing-spree. Joker proposes reform to the healthcare system and state responsibility as liberal solutions to Arthur Fleck’s problems.

3. Depiction of Populist Movements

While the film critiques neoliberalism and proposes reform, it also critiques populist movements that violently revolt. Just as the capitalists are portrayed as caricatures, the working-class revolutionaries are depicted as an angry, bloodthirsty, irrational mob—they wear literal clown masks, presenting themselves as fools.

For a seemingly political film, Joker’s political content remains relatively ambiguous. The film never uses words like neoliberalism, liberalism, or revolution. It reduces the situation to an issue of rich versus poor. Thomas Wayne denounces the “anti-rich” sentiment growing in the city, yet doesn’t attach it to any concrete political ideology (Joker 00:36:52). The film only vaguely positions Fleck next to working class, revolutionary ideology by showing Modern Times in the theatre he sneaks into. 

“It’s getting crazier out there” is a common statement made throughout the film (Joker 00:3:50). But, the only examples of craziness mentioned on the radio or television are the garbage strike, the infestation of super rats, increases in heating prices, the subway killings, and the clown-themed protests. The majority of the craziness mentioned in the film is caused by Fleck himself, implying hypocrisy from the radicals. The “garbage piling up” caused by the strike subtly compares the organizing workers to piles of garbage—another critique of those who push back against the system (Joker 0:00:04).

Fleck states on numerous occasions that he is not political and he doesn’t believe in anything. Despite this, the mob of revolutionaries rally behind him: creating a political movement inspired by someone without a political cause. This paints the revolutionaries’ justification as unfounded. Fleck’s rant on the Murray Franklin show ends with the statement “you get what you fucking deserve” (Joker 1:41:56). Before a masked clown murders Thomas and Martha Wayne, he too says “you get what you fucking deserve” (Joker 1:46:33). This shows how members of radical movements will mimic their perceived leaders, even if they are modeling themselves after someone who is psychotic and apolitical.

The extreme close-ups of Arthur Fleck are used to immerse the viewer in his intense emotions, but every close up is drawn out and ultimately uncomfortable. While the viewer is able to understand Fleck’s plight, his actions and behaviours are never comfortable to watch. This includes his violence. Violence in the film is never glamourized.  The sound effects of gunshots, stabbings, and other forms of violence are loud, abrasive, and shocking. The acts of violence are depicted as gritty, irrational, and often pathetic. The initial subway killings are done in a fit of rage in response to violent attacks. A close up of Fleck following the killings shows him snap out of a deranged daze, realizing what he’d done. He runs from the scene of the crime, initially horrified by his actions. When he smothers his mother to death, he believes he is justified due to her lies and abuse. But, a close up of the back of a photo of her with the signature ‘J.W.’ implies the romance between Thomas Wayne and Penny Fleck was real. This means she is at least partially innocent. Yet, Arthur Fleck shows no remorse when he sees the photo. When his ex-coworkers come to the door, he states he is “celebrating” his mom’s death (Joker 1:23:51). No matter the justification of the act, Fleck takes his violence to perverse degree: he shoots the third Wall Street guy until his gun is out of bullets, continues to smash his ex-coworker’s head into the wall long after he is dead, and shoots Murray Franklin in the body after he’d already been shot in the head—this implies a level of grotesque enjoyment in the act of killing. Both the revolution and its leader are shown as irrational and bloodthirsty.

This liberal critique is stated explicitly during Fleck’s aforementioned The Great Dictator style speech on the Murray Franklin show. Just like when Charlie Chaplin clearly outlines the message of The Great Dictator in a monologue at the end of the film, Arthur Fleck does the same in Joker. Fleck argues the rich step on the poor and care for nobody but themselves. He explicitly states violence is what you get when you “cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash ” (Joker 1:41:45). The combined critiques of neoliberalism and revolution communicate a liberal message: the state needs ensure there are services in place for the suffering—otherwise, the suffering will violently revolt.

4. Accidental Neoliberal Ideologies  

It is common for films critiquing neoliberalism to still “support key aspects of the system through justifications of cultural and racial hierarchies, economic imperialism and Western ideals of freedom, liberty and individualism” (Trinder 4). The depiction of the healthcare system in Joker accidentally resorts to tropes used to argue in favour of neoliberalism. While the films argues improper access to healthcare is an issue, it still shows the public healthcare system as low quality, unempathetic, and doomed to fail. Neoliberal films show that “heroic individuals can effect radical change” and often suggest “that precariousness and inequality could be overcome by individuals with special qualities, when real solutions to these problems seem so elusive” (Frame 379). Joker is an example of this, but with an anti-hero spearheading the story. Despite being politically apathetic and directionless, Fleck’s actions manage to cause multiple city-wide protests and eventually a riot.

But, by the end of the film Arthur Fleck has not changed or altered the system. Instead, he has overcome his individual relationship with the system, essentially freeing himself by becoming The Joker. In the final shot of the film, Fleck is surrounded by Gotham in flames with a medium-sized group of radicals surrounding him. Fleck has caused a riot, but there is no indication of significant systemic change. Neoliberalism remains—displaying the futility of violent revolt against the system. To add to that futility, a wide shot of Bruce Wayne standing over the bodies of his dead parents echoes the shot of Arthur Fleck that opened the film. These parallel shots imply that if the radical evil of Fleck and the clown movement can rise from nothing and cause destruction, then Bruce Wayne (member of the bourgeois) can also rise to stop it. While Arthur Fleck might have started a movement, the viewer knows neoliberalism continues to remain strong.

5. Conclusion

The film attempts to provide a liberal critique of both neoliberalism and radical opposition to neoliberalism. It depicts violent revolt as senseless, cruel, and futile, and proposes state reform as an alternative. Like many neoliberal films, Joker has an “an inability, or refusal, to imagine what a society organized around alternative principles might look like, and a dependence on narratives driven by heroic individuals who ultimately overcome (but do not necessarily revolutionize) the systems that oppress them” (Frame 390).

Those who leave the film relating to Joker fall victim to the films anti-revolutionary, neoliberal narrative and, in a sense, put on the Joker mask themselves; they become Joker’s depiction of fools who believe violent revolt will lead to change, when in reality the behemoth of neoliberalism remains unmoved.

6. Work Cited

Cooper, Anna. “Neoliberal Theory and Film Studies.” New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, Mar. 2019, pp. 265–277., doi:10.1080/17400309.2019.1622877.

Farer, Tom. “The Clash of Cultures, the Tension Within Liberalism, and the Proper Limits of Tolerance.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 36, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1–21., doi:10.1353/hrq.2014.0016.

Frame, Gregory. “The Odds Are Never in Your Favor: the Form and Function of American Cinema’s Neoliberal Dystopias.” New Review of Film and Television Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, 2019, pp. 379–397., doi:10.1080/17400309.2019.1622894

 Joker. Dir. Todd Phillips. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019.

 Modern Times. Dir. Charlie Chaplin. 1936.

 The Great Dictator. Dir. Charlie Chaplin. 1940.

Trinder, Stephen. “Capitalism with a Human Face: Neoliberal Ideology in Neill Blomkamps District 9.” Film-Philosophy, vol. 23, no. 1, 2019, pp. 1–16., doi:10.3366/film.2019.0095.