How Joker and Black Panther are linked thematically
There is an obvious canyon that separates these two films. Black Panther’s discussion of race and Joker’s use of mental illness keep the two far apart. Neither approach the other’s front and center theme. Yet, after my recent watch of Joker, I recognized there is a bridge, that is class.
So first Joker overview. (Spoilers)
The synopsis is misleading. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a failed comedian the same way I’m a failed astronaut because I flew in a plane once. I’m not and neither is he. He tries it once and becomes the object of ridicule. He is a clown for hire with a deep misunderstanding of funny. He also was not driven insane as is claimed. He is mentally unstable from our first introduction. This movie shows us Arthur’s discovery of the release he finds in violence, visually displayed by his dance, and the empowerment he feels in the acceptance that come along with it. He understands himself to be broken, separated from society, stricken by a want to be accepted as ‘normal.’ Using pills, therapy, and work to feel apart of a group that doesn’t want anything to do with him.
The movie layers the Arthur story on top of a comic book Gotham on the brink of a class war. Due to uncaring upperclass, lead by an unfamiliar characterization of an asshole Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen)
Thomas Wayne is the villain.
I won’t link these characters to real life political figures, but it seems pretty straightforward.
Though Arthur is an unreliable narrator, we have clear sections where we see reality invade. So it’s not Arthur painting Wayne as a villain, the movie is. This is stressed also by Arthur’s mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), his moral center whom he lives with and cares for. She continues to call Thomas Wayne a good man whom she believes to be Arthur’s father even while Wayne is on television calling the working class scum. In such a universe, a billionaire having a fling with a maid, a secret child, and then throwing both away like trash is completely plausible. This twisting thread is not just a red herring for the audience, but the incident that pushes Arthur over the edge.
Finding his mother to be delusional, unintentionally lying to him, and had allowed him to be hurt when he was a child is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Though Arthur surprisingly finds enjoyment in killing three rich bullies much earlier, it is the suffocation of his mother, the embodiment of his morals, that is the change from which he cannot return.
Arthur is caught in his own head, his illness usually prevents a wider view of the world for most of the film. He flashes into fantasy situations that make him a beloved hero, son, and boyfriend. In reality others find him off-putting at minimum, and often frightening. His actions in the subway shooting make him the accidental spokesman for the class war he doesn’t care about. He may say he doesn’t care about the current upheaval, but by his speech to late night host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), it is clear he feels it and it becomes a rallying cry to the disaffected of the city.
“Have you seen what it’s like out there, Murray? Do you ever actually leave the studio? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy. You think men like Thomas Wayne, men at ease, ever think what it’s like to be a guy like me? To be anybody but themselves. They don’t. They think we’ll all just sit there and take it like good little boys. That we won’t werewolf and go wild.” Joker argues.
The use of the word ‘civil’ I find particularly funny. A glaring red welt, painfully out of place. Civility is often used in lieu of actual recognition.
Were I to project forward, the Joker film would have to paint Batman not as a pained man who works to clean Gotham from the clutches of mobs, gangs, and supervillains. Not as a hero pursuing crime to it’s deepest underbelly, to prevent the loss of those who love it, but as a defender of the aristocracy and terror of the powerless.
As a bonus, Arthur has a rather Snyderesque Jesus moment, carried from his police cruiser tomb, rising from the dead to the glory of his followers. He is the hero of this tail. Flawed and broken as we often see Batman. His violent outburst seen as uplifting of the downtrodden.
This class war is where we cross our bridge to Black Panther.
Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) is a child of loss. Well, more like theft. Theft of his father N’Joku (Sterling K. Brown) at the hand of King T’Chaka’ (John Kani), a decision to protect Wakanda. Theft of his history, security, and future brought about by a society that believes their secrets most important, keeping other societies at arms length even if it requires the sacrifice of some of the most vulnerable.
For a short time, with his mother’s secret revealed, Joker’s Arthur feels he belongs in a different class, confronting the Wayne family on multiple occasions with these accusations. Both Arthur Fleck and Erik Killmonger believe themselves discarded. Victims of an uncaring, self absorbed powerful group that will protect themselves over all else.
Both are correct.
Even if not of Wayne blood, Arthur mental issues and subsequent financial status make him no more than the super rats he hears about on the news in Gotham City. Erik’s father’s betrayal of Wakanda’s expectations makes home persona non grata by relation.
These are two utterly different characters. Arthur is mentally unstable, lonely, and rather weak. Erik is powerful, knowledgeable, and successful. What they are looking for and what they would do upon re-entry to their perspective societies is where they diverge again.
As we know Killmonger is in a way successful. He has a purpose, revenge and reassertion of his rightful power. Revealing a painful past, pushing heroes to the brink, forcing reckoning and growth. A story of pain to hope. Arthur on the other hand finds out his hope is false. He is not a lost son. He kills what was left of his old self and rises as a treacherous pseudo-savior, Joker. This version of the character may not be capable of planning a class war, but as we see by his speech, he feels it and can express those same emotions to connect with the anger of others. A story of powerlessness to dominance.
I give Joker a B.
Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the disturbed Arthur is absolutely worthy of all of its accolades. The movie never flinches in its pushing of Arthur in the worst ways, never letting him breath. There are only a few moments I question the choices made, like Arthur steady hand while being questioned by the police at the hospital. The two things that bring my grade down are:
A) It is disturbing. Which if you like that it’s probably a bonus for you, but not for me. B) The movie seems to not want to be based on a comic book character. I don’t begrudge writers taking else-world views on characters, but the idea that Arthur Fleck’s Joker is a villain to any competent hero doesn’t fly for this geek. This is a great film without need of a known hero origin shoved inside.
Only 2 years late on this review, but Black Panther is an A- for me.
It’s lush visually, strong cast top to bottom, and Killmonger is a villain with a purpose. It’s an original with social commentary and story that’s dipped in MCU fun. Some iffy CGI and unnecessary killing of both villains prevent perfection.