The film Joker has played into the agenda of people of various political stripes. Conservatives have stoked up fears of it instigating mayhem on the streets, there are liberal voices who criticize its depiction of mental illness or its supposed glamorization of “incel” tendencies. Each assessment can be examined by the individual watcher if they are so inclined. But what I want to address here is whether it is the progressive masterpiece that some claim it to be. I think it is not.
Basically it has been lauded for its unflinching look at destitution and the systemic violence that afflicts the poor, a form of violence that far outweighs any that a single desperate person can commit. The idea is correct, but we have to ask if that kind of depiction is enough. In Hollywood, depictions of systemic violence have, more often than not, already been coopted as devices to move the plot forward, then concluding with a completely different message.
And what does Joker have to say? I suppose the most common way it is described is that it is a dark and scary look at how one man descends into madness in a world that is even crazier than he is. People are warned that they may be disturbed by the bloodshed and graphic violence, neither of which I thought was too excessive, really. No, it wasn’t disturbing because of the bloodshed (there are plenty of other movies that are bloodier). It was disturbing for me because Joker, for all the hoo-hah, was just another movie that failed to grasp the complexity of class struggle (while capitalizing on it as a theme), and so fell back on tokenism and well-worn stereotypes.
For example early in the film we hear that there is a garbage collectors’ strike: OK, so in this iteration of Gotham City there are what we may call as the organized masses. But that is the last we hear of it. The strike merely becomes a backdrop – literally, because the movie needed a reason for Gotham to be visually full of dirt.
In the film, rich people are despicable, but the poor people are just as reprehensible. The only possible response to social problems is to rampage on the street and burn everything. At a time when protesters in Hong Kong are fighting for legitimacy, and not to be branded as mere vandals and rioters, this movie isn’t doing them any favors. I am reminded of the phrase popularized by Mark Fisher: it is easier to imagine the end of Gotham City than to imagine the end of capitalism. It’s a classic reactionary Hollywood trope: the rich are destroyed by the poor and the poor just destroy themselves.
One last disagreeable point for me is how Joker, or Arthur Fleck, is written as a character. I concede that Fleck is played superbly by Joaquin Phoenix, but too well perhaps, that the Joker’s cynical core is rendered riveting instead of repulsive.
At the film’s climax of the TV studio shoot out, when Joker has already presumably gone over the edge, he is still nevertheless able to articulately express the circumstances that led to his insanity: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?!” Instead of owning his acts like a true psychopath would (he’s supposed to be an iconic supervillain, after all,) or at least someone whose resolve has erased any need for a Big Other, Fleck falls back on a tidy explanation. Also, this moment is a clear instance of what Žižek calls the cynical functioning of ideology. Different from Marx, who described the functioning of ideology as “they don’t know what they are doing, but they are doing it anyway,” cynical ideology shows the paradox of “they do know what they are doing, and they will do it anyway.” Arthur Fleck knows who his enemies are and lashes out. But his lashing out is still shaped by the fantasies that led to his misery in the first place, such as his seeking out celebrity and the class comforts of being part of the Wayne family. Moreover, while he victimizes people from across the class spectrum, we are left with little doubt that the carnage he unleashes will ultimately doubly victimize people of color and the working-class of Gotham like himself.
But the story does provoke one crucial thought. As it turns out, this film isn’t just the origin film of the villain we know as The Joker, but the origin film of his nemesis – and superhero – Batman. In this version we see how Arthur Fleck’s deranged decline is intertwined with the formative years of a young Bruce Wayne. Believing that Thomas Wayne is his father and that Bruce is his half-brother, Fleck travels to their ensconced country manor hoping to be welcomed, but ends up terrorizing the boy through the estate’s tall metal gates. Later in the film, the defining moment of Bruce’s youth – the murder of his parents – is shown as a direct result of the city-wide turmoil instigated by the Joker figure.
This is an interesting juxtaposition. The possibility that Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne are related is entertained, and we see how trauma becomes integral to their becoming the Joker and the Batman respectively. Fleck unravels and vows mayhem upon Gotham, and Bruce, though appearing more methodical, becomes just as obsessed to stop it. But essentially, both take the law into their own hands as vigilante-figures. The main difference, of course, is that Arthur Fleck is lower-class and is a vigilante in the crudest of ways. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, is upper-class, whose vigilantism is hidden behind sleek appearances and snazzy technologies. Now we can ask, does this have anything to do with why we consider the former a villain and the latter a superhero?