What happens when society drives the deprived to the edge? Joker and Parasite seem to be dealing with two entirely different subjects, but in essence, the actions and consequences of the storylines depict the class struggle of our age.
At face value, Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite and Todd Philips’ Joker are two films that fall in entirely different genres. But while they have very different settings, it doesn’t take a keen eye to notice that the violent outcomes of the films stem from the same issue of class struggle. It’s a universal critics’ consensus that Parasite does a better job portraying the sociological issue, many miss the uncanny similarity in the message of the films. And most forget that Todd Philips made it possible with a movie set in the comic book superhero universe.
Clowning Around Class
In 2019 DC hit Joker, Joaquin Phoenix expertly plays the character of Arthur Fleck. A man dealing with a rare disorder that makes him laugh when anxious. Fleck is a depressed man, and his anxieties stem from the inability to keep a steady job, being persistently mocked by the world, the disdain of a man who might actually be his father and most of all by the realization of the discrimination and disparity he is bound to be privy to all his life.
Phoenix deservedly walked away with the Best Actor trophy for doing justice to such a complex role, nuanced to troubling perfection. But what is not nuanced is the hyperbolized world of the fictional city, Gotham. The film takes a controversial path to profile the famed DC villain.
DC’s Joker went beyond the conventions of the superhero genre by focussing on the very earthly, and forever unresolved class struggle.
The movie glorifies the protagonist’s use of a weapon to kill the three men in the subway. The gun was given to Arthur by a co-worker to keep him safe. But it eventually got him fired. That is when he realized the irony of his deprived life and an intense grudge came to the fore. His eventual act fires up the poorer strata of the society. The unanimous nature of the have-not uprising leaves the privileged audience that went to see Joker stunned yet uncomfortably moving in their seats.
Arthur Fleck: A murdering clown or a vigilante for the have-nots?
The enigma and the symbol created out of the lead character post his self-defensive act is one that deserves case studies. While the rich of the world hoard all the wealth, the poor are made to feel undeserving of better lives. The three privileged and misbehaved men in the subway deserved the karma that came their way. But what makes the rich awkward and defensive is when acknowledging the reaction of the working class when it made a symbol out of the act – a face to remind the rich not to take the poor for granted.
Why does their death become such a big symbol? In conversations with folks in the privileged group that I belong to, many wonder why every poor person in the movie celebrated the death of three well-to-do men victims of a man in a mask? It turns out that most of us fail to realize our own privileges. That’s essentially why Todd Philips’ message with Joker fails to resonate on a larger scale.
The Thing About Chaos, Is it Fair?
The rich would like to scrutinize and say that the movie wrongfully depicts every person dealing with poverty as having a flawed moral compass. But the same people fail to realize that they don’t have the right to ascertain morals. Joker did not intend to tell us that all those struggling in the darkness of Gotham’s Overtown were mentally fragile individuals like Arthur Fleck. It tells the tale of a mentally-fragile society reaping what it sowed.
Arthur’s inability to understand the social and political ramifications of his action is inconsequential in the fact that he inadvertently mirrors the angst of the larger society. Class struggle has historically ended in violence. The haves fail to recognize the violent and perverse suppression even when it blows right in their face. Joker was a sharp reminder of the dangerous path the modern society treads. Unfortunately, most upper-class critics conveniently missed the point.
Parasite: Finding Balance Amid Chaos
For the same critics, where Joker falters in its representation of class struggle, Parasite excels. The central character of Parasite is Ki-woo, a young man who helps his poor Korean family pull a con-job on a wealthy family by strategically hiring each of his family members to serve the socialites under pseudonyms.
Their cover starts falling apart when the former housekeeper reveals she is sheltering her husband in the concealed nuclear bunker that the owners are unaware it exists. The film shows the consequences of our capitalistic societies in a more reserved way. It shows two poor working-class families fighting to serve the affluent owners of the house. This helps the rich sympathize with their ignorant plight but also secretly pleases them. This perverse pleasure stems from the ideology where the fact that two different families unable to make ends meet have to fight off each other to serve one extremely privileged family, can not be blamed on the rich.
The plight of the two poor families in Parasite who desire to serve at all costs doesn’t explicitly intrude into the insecurities of the rich.
The climax of Parasite, in the middle of an extravagant birthday party, the ensuing violence is just as chaotic as that in “Joker,” albeit on a smaller scale. But that scale helps the rich come to terms with the tragedy. The undercurrent of class conflict percolates when the poor father plunges a knife into the heart of his employer. The more subtle trigger in the shame that comes to the poor when the wealthy, unknowingly, remarks on his smell, the stink of desperation.
But Parasite, unlike Joker, does not try to project wealthy people as necessarily bad or conventionally evil. The characters in the film come across more empathetic to the plight of the poor. This portrayal of the upper class’ disgusting traits in a subtle way can even make many not pick up on what’s wrong with the privileged Park family. Joker, by contrast, comes across an essentially selfish person focused on his own self-actualization.
Problematic is how many viewers saw the poor family. Their desperation to go to any length to get jobs makes them take advantage of the unsuspecting Park family. They also use a life-threatening allergy of an older woman, another who is a part of the class struggle, to secure their position. While this is one of the most accurate representations of how the film captures the class struggle, the actions of have-nots in desperation can hardly be understood by the privileged.
The rich family of Parasite doesn’t directly make the life of the poor miserable. But that should bring moral salvation to any viewer belonging to the class.