I know what you’re probably thinking. Why on earth would I be spending time writing about two vastly different movies to compare or contrast them. These thoughts started with a discussion between my husband and myself. We both love the Joker movie. We’ve talked about it at length and watched it several times now. We watched Parasite the other night and he felt there were a lot of thematic similarities between the movies. I did not. It led to a rousing discussion that made me think about it and decide to share with you.
Warnings first: Both of these movies will be discussed thoroughly, that means spoilers. If you do not wish to be spoiled, please read no further.
Joker: This movie follows the journey of Arthur Fleck, who will become the famed Joker of the Batman universe. He is a deeply disturbed man. We learn almost immediately that he has hallucinations and we cannot entirely trust what he tells us. The movie follows him through his struggles to be a productive member of society before eventually deciding that society doesn’t care about people like him and he wants to burn it all down.
Parasite: This movie follows a South Korean family who scheme and lie their way into working for a wealthy family, literally becoming a parasite on their lives. But they run into some houseguests that they didn’t expect and it all leads to a violent end.
Obviously, both of these movies deal with classism and how society treats certain fringe elements. In Joker, it is Arthur who is struggling to hold down a job with severe mental illness. In Parasite, it is a poverty stricken family who is willing to do anything to improve their lot in life.
Both of these movies deal with the sociopathic nature of our larger society that wishes to ignore people on the fringes. Ignore the crazy man laughing to himself on the subway, it’s not your problem. Feel free to call your house staff and ask them to help you prepare for a party regardless of what tragedy may have just befallen them. In some cases the party is intending to be cruel, in others they are merely ignorant. The boys who attack Arthur Fleck on the subway are intending to be cruel, the people who look the other way are just trying to protect themselves from a similar fate. In Parasite, the wealthy family is ignorant to the fact that their staff might not be able to accommodate their need because, after all, isn’t that their job? It’s not done out of vindictiveness, it’s done out of a privileged ignorance.
But the ending of these movies is where we have a divergence. And it is also why I believe Joker is the superior movie.
Joker is telling us a very personal story about a man who was let down by his society. Arthur tries. He tries so hard. He goes to see his therapist, until she gets let go because of budget cuts. He goes to work, even though it means getting mugged a lot of the time and then punished for it. He takes his medication, even when it isn’t being managed properly. Arthur is a man who desperately wants to be able to survive in a cruel world. He keeps getting kicked down and every single time he gets up. He idolizes people that appear to have integrity and sets his sights on accomplishing something that will impress them. And they let him down too. Ultimately that is the final straw. When he is abandoned by Thomas Wayne, his alleged father, and Wayne decides to demean his mother while he’s at it. Realizing he spent his whole life caring for his mother when she was his first abuser. Then he is invited to be on the show of his surrogate father figure and realizes that he is only there so the audience can laugh at him. He’s had enough. In my opinion he went to the Murray show with the intention on killing himself, until he realizes that Murray is just one more person who wants to kick him while he’s down and laugh at him. In that moment he decided that maybe he isn’t the problem, society is the problem. And he, Arthur Fleck, is going to give them what they deserve. What they’ve always given him. It’s a heartbreaking cautionary tale for a society that is ever increasingly self-absorbed.
Now on to Parasite. The themes here are largely similar. The poor family seems to be wanting to improve their lot in life, by getting jobs with a wealthy family. But they aren’t doing so in an admirable way. They lie, cheat, and poison the existing staff so that they can take their jobs. Then they sit in their new employer’s home and laugh at them. They mock them and their wealth and decide that they deserve to be ripped off. This family has done nothing to them at this point except give them jobs and be kind to them. But even their kindness is spat on with the comment “must be easy to be nice when you’re rich.” This movie seemingly casts the wealthy family as bad simply because they are wealthy. Later on the family does go some cruel things, like commenting on the poor smell of the father and joking about it…..done in private and shouldn’t have been overheard but it was still not right. When the story ultimately erupts into violence it is not out of desperation, it’s out of anger. Anger that the rich man is more concerned for his son then their daughter, even though their daughter was harmed as a result of their own actions. It didn’t matter that all of this came to pass because THEY attacked people and tried to kill them, no it was the rich person’s fault. And at the very end the movie gives you the message that it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you can never make it. The boy makes a dream to buy the big house and rescue his family from poverty, but it’s just a dream and we’re reminded of what his father said…that not having a plan is better because at least you won’t be disappointed when it doesn’t happen.
This is the single biggest difference in the message of the two movies. Joker is telling society at large that they have the choice not to create someone like Arthur Fleck. We are shown our failings in stark relief and told explicitly that we don’t have to be those people. Parasite is telling society that it doesn’t matter, the rich people will always laugh at you and it’s useless to try to better your life because you won’t succeed anyway. Personally, I prefer the first message.