Joker and the Mob

What first strikes me about Todd Phillip’s Joker is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. It’s extraordinary. His movements are graceful, while his form is grotesque. His body deformed. His dancing demented. His facial grimaces terrifying. His scary countenance is that of a serial killer. Not a movie serial killer. A real one. Even the way he runs is mesmerizing. Fluid and panicked. His condition demands our empathy—if we can muster it. One hates with him those who mock him.

What next strikes me is the technique of ultra violence shot as a graphic novel leaping to life. The blood spurts and spatters. On the subway train, one can see the panels unfolding. Same with the apartment scene. And the Murray Franklin show. Gritty realism with the right amount of surreality.

Albeit not bloody, and its visual messiness at the end aside, another film that captures the spirit of the graphic novel in this way is Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk. Moreover, like Phillips, Lee plumbs the depths of the human psyche. Unlike Joker, which is drawing moviegoers in droves, Hulk did not take the box office by storm. Rotten Tomatoes summarized the general opinion of Lee’s Hulk as “ultimately too much talking and not enough smashing.” As I was leaving that film with my son, I heard a man complaining to his son that it took 25 minutes for Hulk to appear.

Joker leaves one mentally exhausted and emotionally drained. The meaning of the film unfolds over the course of two hours. In the end, it’s an account of societal failure to protect children and address the trauma of mass society. Phillips deserves praise for his artistry. The screenplay, by Phillips and Scott Silver, exudes sympathy for those whom society has thrown away.

While this is no ordinary adaptation from the world of comic book heroes and villains, I appreciate the decision to locate the movie in the Batman universe. Gotham is the city. Arkham State Hospital contains many of its secrets. I wanted to imagine how Arthur Fleck would play as Bruce Wayne’s arch-nemesis. We see Bruce as a boy. We see a thug murder his parents. It’s the origin story, but better than previous accounts. There is no vat of chemicals transforming Fleck into the man with green hair, white skin, and that terrible rictus (an image inspired by German impressionist Paul Leni’s 1929 film The Man Who Laughs, based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name). In Joker we get a realistic villain. Complex and clinically insane.

Phoenix’s Joker is not the psychopathic anarchist brilliantly performed by Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight. This Joker is a spat-upon nihilist—driven to his philosophical position by a merciless society. “I don’t believe in anything,” he says. Phoenix’s Fleck just wants to confirm his existence. The joy we derive from his murderous ambitions flows from a different part of us. It is not the desire for vicarious mass killing, the thrill of seeing the Id unleashed, but the hurt part that wants to take revenge on our tormentors.

Some observers were struck by Joker’s similarities with two other movies, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver and his 1983 The King of Comedy, both starring Robert De Niro (as Vietnam war veteran Travis Bickle and failed comedian Rupert Pupkin respectively). De Niro plays a role in Joker, as well, as the late night talk show host Murray Franklin. He channels Jerry Lewis’ performance as the (fictional) late night TV host Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy.

While I understand the comparisons, beyond Phillips’ acknowledgment of Scorsese’s work as his inspiration, it is arguably superficial. It’s not uncommon for people to sit in their rooms and engage in imaginative rehearsal (just as it’s not uncommon for people to fantasize about killing people they don’t like). Scorsese being clever enough to put these near-universal experiences on screen shouldn’t leave other filmmakers worrying the accusation of derivation.

Joaquin Phoenix as Joker dancing to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll”

The movie is controversial. Forty years ago it was conservatives who fussed about movie themes and content. Now it’s progressives who take offense. Whereas conservatives virtue signal about modesty, progressives glorify victimhood—just not the Arthur Fleck kind.

Some are finding the weight loss central to the physicality of Phoenix’s performance—52 lbs—triggering. The way he has described the bliss of self-control is, in their estimation, insensitive at best to those with eating disorders. Others find Phillips’ use of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” not merely insensitive but enabling of sexual predation.

Others do not appreciate on-screen portrayals of mental illness associated with violent ends. The plot runs counter to the narrative that mass violence is due not to mental illness but to movies and video games or to whiteness and masculinity. Indeed, many, portraying the movie as a shout-out to the Incel crowd, are predicting that the movie would inspire white male mass violence. (Philipps could not generate the same level of empathy he does by locating the film in the madness of social media.)

The movie is set in the early 1980s. Some of my older readers will recall the 1984 New York subway shooting in which Bernhard Goetz, fed up with being terrorized by young men on the 2 train in Manhattan, shot and wounded four people. The “Subway Vigilante” symbolized popular frustration with the extraordinarily high crime rates in the 1980s, which were met with increasing coercive state action, as well as a self-defense movement, upon which the NRA capitalized. Many saw Goetz as a hero. Goetz was ultimately charged with four counts of murder, four counts of aggravated assault, four counts of reckless endangerment, as well as criminal possession of a gun. His justification was self-defense and he was acquitted on all charges except one count of carrying an unlicensed firearm (he served less than a year in prison). Significantly, Phillips changes the number of victims from four to three, their race from black to white, and their class standing from lumpenproletariat to affluent, and their provocation from robbery to aggravated assault.

What most observers miss about Joker is Phillips’ critique of the mob. Joker invites identitarian reactions to mock and trivialize them with the much greater suffering of Fleck and the citizens of Gotham, those who dwell at the bottom of capitalist society, while at the same time critique the morality and usefulness of mob violence. Which is to say that it is, while not pointless, futile. The mob constitutes the subjective milieu of Gotham, always lurking in the background.

But, of course, the mob lurks in the foreground. For Fleck is its personification, lumpenproletarian in the way Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels portray those at the bottom of society, the dangerous class, the social scum. Fleck is suffering from austerity’s cruelty, an early warning of neoliberal rot in the decay of the Great Society, capitalism removing its human mask.

Engels describes the actions of the mob as “primitive rebellion,” a reaction to class oppression with no theory, with no politics—except to concretize the disorder of the capitalist mode of production. The mob builds nothing. They’re not Schumpeter’s “gales of creative destruction.” They’re just destruction, glamouring to eat the rich for no purpose beyond expressing their well-earned resentment. No theory, no plan, they’re fodder for reactionary intrigue.

Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas, the personification of the one percent, calls the rabble “clowns.” Dangerous but not serious. Fleck is the leader of the clowns. Claiming to stand for nothing, he represents not anarchy but chaos. Wayne and Fleck meet face-to-face in the men’s room of a posh theater with predictable results: the one percent punches down. The story is ultimately about how society fashions madness, not about how the people transcend it.

To draw out the problem in relief, Phillips has, in Marxian fashion, reduced the critique to the futility of disorganized class resentment while keeping the audience sympathy to the plight of capitalism’s victims. He avoids a direct attack on social media and cancel culture by removing the story to the early 1980s, but the critique is also about today’s mob, the ones who drove Phillips from comedy into an exploration of the madness of the crowd (it is a confluence of understandings that finds Douglas Murray’s exploration of the derangement of identity politics—The Madness of Crowds—hit the market in September).

A faux social justice movement, the offspring of the New Left are clowns, too. However, their trauma pales in the light of Fleck’s trials. Fleck is no snowflake. His suffering is exquisite. His reaction to his abuse, shorn of politics and purpose, is meant to make more sense than the politics of the woke scolds, whom Phillips, frustrated that people have missed his point, explicitly calls out (see “Woke Scolds and Twitter Mobs”).

The historic setting of Joker is ideal for conveying today’s societal mood, like science fiction in reverse, throwing us not into the future to behold the problems of today (à la Twilight Zone or Black Mirror), but sending us back in time, to when crime and disorder were making urban life unbearable for the proletariat, a crisis that moved the masses not towards revolutionary action, but drove them to support authoritarian measures to stem the disorder, to identify with the bourgeoisie because the dangerous class was out of control and something had to be done to restore order and safety: “Broken Windows.” Similar conditions, albeit manifesting differently as they do in every age, have returned to many America’s cities. Not just in homelessness and piles of needles and body counts. The police are standing down on the orders of progressive mayors for the new chaos without a purpose.

Whether intentional or not, Phillips’ movie is a work of left realism. Many of Joker’s critics were poked by it.

[Note: This essay was revised 4.11.19 after a second viewing of the film.]

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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