Among all comic book villains, none is as iconic as the Joker. The character has come a long way since his Cesar Romero incarnation: Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto have all taken their respective turns as the Clown Prince of Crime. This time around, Joaquin Phoenix (perhaps best known for his appearance as evil emperor Commodus in “Gladiator”) dons the clown makeup and purple suit, in a drama that plenty of critics have already denounced as the stuff of mass shootings.
For a variety of reasons, I tend to think this says more about the critics than about the film.
Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a fortysomething loner in Gotham City who scrapes by at a rent-a-clown agency while caring for his aging mother. Fleck dreams of being a standup comedian, but suffers from severe depression and a neurological condition that causes fits of uncontrollable laughing. Day by day, Fleck’s life goes steadily downhill: he is assaulted by street toughs, fired from his job after acquiring a gun to protect himself, abandoned by his caseworker following social-services cuts, and mocked on national television after an unfortunate comedy club appearance. When a knot of young financiers attacks him (purely for kicks and giggles) on a late-night train, Fleck finally snaps. Out comes the gun, and a legendary villain is born.
As should be clear, director Todd Phillips’ Joker bears little resemblance—beyond the most superficial aesthetic one—to the classic comic-book character. Whether appearing as the pure nihilist of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” the lascivious tactician of Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke,” the quasi-demonic specter of Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth,” or the Ed Gein-influenced psychopath of DC’s “New 52” comics, the Joker has always been an agent of chaos rather than its product. This Joker is Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” run through the filter of Chris Arnade’s recent book “Dignity”—the American “forgotten man” turned vengeful.
In light of this, the political valence of “Joker” is not readily characterized as left-wing or right-wing. To be sure, the film can be read as a straightforward tale of class struggle (there’s plenty of Occupy-inflected imagery to go around). But in mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne’s denunciations of the angry and disadvantaged as “clowns,” it’s not hard to hear him calling them a “basket of deplorables,” or see his retinue as a mass of prosperous elites sneering at those who struggle with unemployment, mental health, drugs, and broken communities. The movie, in short, is the most curious of things: a genuinely populist take on the Batman mythology.
Certainly it’s not the first to float these questions. After all, both “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” feature villains who are, in some sense, casualties of Tony Stark’s industrial empire. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” traces its central conflict—must power always be accountable to the masses?—back to the massive carnage that closed out “Man of Steel.” And Amazon Prime’s television series “The Boys” is built around the vindictive victims of superheroes’ casually destructive escapades. But none of those projects are truly willing to interrogate the questions they raise: Tony Stark remains a hero who never has to say he’s sorry.
By contrast, “Joker” actually commits to its populist premise rather than simply flirting with it. The film isn’t forced to abandon its ethos in favor of a fiery superhero smackdown designed to appeal to global audiences: rather, its climax is a chillingly plausible crescendo of mass madness, an upsurge of merciless violence directed against a coddled elite. If “The Dark Knight Rises” raised the specter of the French Revolution, “Joker” evokes the Russian.
And yet none of this ever amounts to a glorification or celebration of violence. “Joker” is instead an interrogation of the roots of violence, the abuse and drugs and family breakdown and other conditions that might lead someone to conclude that they have nothing left to lose. I tend to think that the “Joker” backlash is rooted less in fear of “copycat killings” (nothing about the movie glamorizes murder) than in the fact that the film unflinchingly depicts these conditions, and asks the audience whether, under the right circumstances, mightn’t they go a little crazy, too?
This is not a question easily answered, because deep down, one knows that the breakdown on display here isn’t strictly attributable to an uncaring government or an untreated illness. That’s because what Fleck clearly craves, more than anything else, is dignity—to be seen as a person of value despite his weaknesses. In the wake of his first killing, Fleck muses, “In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice.” Only in blood, and in the awful maelstrom of the mob, can Fleck find the actualization and community he craves. Nothing else in his life offers hope.
Here, more than any ambient creepiness or startling moments of violence, is where the real power of “Joker” lies: in its haunting study of true alienation, and how easily those of us who live fortunate lives overlook the ones who don’t fit our narrow standards of propriety. Indeed, the film left me with a question that has troubled me ever since: If Arthur Fleck walked into my church—unsettling laugh, strange behaviors, and all—would I look on him with kindness? Would I see, in the Joker himself, the image of God?
I’d like to say yes. I hope I can say yes. But I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, do most of us.