In Ancient Greek mythology, Apollo represents order, law, beauty, reason. Dionysus represents chaos, drunkness, primal instincts, sexual urges. The battle between them is one of order versus chaos.
And the sources I mentioned above frame the battle between Batman and the Joker as one of order versus chaos.
What is very interesting to me is that in every Batman versus Joker movie/show I’ve seen so far, Batman is always framed solidly as the source of good, and while the Joker (who is obviously evil) may wreak havoc for a while, before law and order get restored at the end of the day.
Yet Todd Phillips’ Joker tells a different story.
Joaquin Phoenix plays a sympathetic Joker. While the things he does are certainly destructive and evil, the way the movie plays out, we the audience, the typical proletariat layman living in the day-to-day grind, we can actually find ourselves empathizing far more with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker than the Waynes (Batman’s parents) who isolate themselves from the problems of Gotham in their own world of wealth and privilege.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is struggling to become a stand-up comedian in Gotham City in 1981. His day job is as a clown, in which he gets beat up by the hooligans on the mean streets of Gotham. He works this crappy job to take care of his ailing mother Penny (Frances Conroy). She calls him “Happy,” while deep down, Arthur is anything but. Yet he does his best to “smile and put on a happy face” to please her. But life has not been kind to Arthur. He’s had at least one stint at Arkham Asylum, was abused as a child, and because of his childhood abuse, suffers from a neurological disorder that causes him to break out in maniacal laughter whenever he is anxious or stressed (which is often). (Ars Technica)
Todd Phillips’ Joker is not a diabolical mastermind, but a troubled man who fell between the cracks of a society that has betrayed him. He goes to court-ordered therapy. But when the funding for that therapy gets cut, he has nowhere to go to get help or medication. And that’s when his further descent into violence and madness begins.
Eventually, he gets fired from his day job being a clown. And while still in clown makeup, he kills three Wallstreet executives on a train. The three men started to physically assault him because of his neurological disorder. When Arthur fights back, it’s self-defense at first. But when the third guy flees the scene, running and screaming for help, Arthur gleefully pursues and kills this man. No longer out of self-defense, but because it made him happy to do so.
Immediately after the attack, Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s dad) who is running for mayor, publically condemns these three murders. Yet many of the people of Gotham rejoice because they’re tired of living in poverty, and tired of living under a wealthy elite that clearly doesn’t care about them. Protesters put on clown paint, hold signs that say ‘Resist!’ and start rioting in the city.
End the end, Arthur Fleck makes the transition from an unsuccessful, lonely comedian who no one knows about, to becoming a symbol of the city’s Dionysian rage. He stands triumphant with a circle of protesters celebrating him, protesters who are burning and destroying the city. While Bruce Wayne and his parents flee this destruction, only for a masked protester to kill and rob his parents.
The Ancient Greek Bacchae is very similar. It is a story of drunkness, intoxication and self-destruction. In this story, the cult of Apollo reigns over all. It is a cult of order and society. Yet where it once represented ideas of enlightenment and knowledge, it later came to represent a politically corrupt authority, an authority that was drunk off of power and wealth. The ruling authority was a senile group that was far removed from the people and stuck in their own ways.
The God of chaos and hedonism, Dionysus, enters the situation to shake things up. There is a vacuum of power into which he surges. As a long-haired, non-conformist, he arrives at the capital city with an angry mob. This demigod is arrested, interrogated, mocked and thrown into prison.
Yet the authorities could not imprison the violent forces of the primeval. An earthquake leveled the royal palace, destroying the symbol of the Apollonian World Order. Wild women tore cattle to bits with their own hands. Then these women proceeded to dismember the current authorities just like cattle. They played ball with their arms and feet, and then impaled their heads on sticks.
While Todd Phillips’ Joker takes place in 1981, it relates far more to our world today than any other movie I’ve seen this year. I walked out of the movie theater with chills. The character of Arthur Fleck managed to personify a rage/nihilism/antipathy of an increasing number of people who feel that the forces of law/order/society are failing them. Fleck represents a rage that is a powder keg waiting to explode.
Though Todd Phillips’ movie is not at all a glorification of nihilism and violence. Clearly, the violence caused by Arthur Fleck’s insanity is shown as deranged and evil. Rather, the movie is a character study in how these traits arise and manifest in a man who society has abandoned.