Not in recent memory has going to the movies been pervaded by such a looming sense of potential death. The lead-up to Todd Phillip’s Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix in the titular role, was met with widespread media outcry that the film could be a target for a mass shooting like the one at a 2012 screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The villainous Joker wasn’t in that particular Batman movie, the sequel to Heath Ledger’s Academy Award-winning Joker performance in The Dark Knight—but he turned up nonetheless in the form of James Holmes, who killed twelve people and left many more injured.
Now the Joker is back—and not in the form of Ledger’s gritty-but-witty gangster kingpin that executes a spectacular bank robbery at the beginning of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Phoenix’s Joker is not the supervillain who meets his match in the vigilante aristocrat Batman. Not yet at least. Now we see the Joker getting his own superhero-origin-story treatment. And the Joker’s origin is that he is a pathetic incel.
At least that’s how the hype would have it. In our age when news is just an inventory of the most-mentioned social media outrages at any given moment, “all press is good press” reigns especially true when corralling the lazy masses off their couches and into the cinemas. Nothing is more seductive than the possibility that one could be senselessly murdered.
So far, no such shooting has occurred. But it’s the thought that counts. A clear and present danger, an imminent threat to public safety, an opportunity for those universally hated self-pitying males, giving those terrorists-in-waiting to identify with someone just like them on the big screen—all part of Joker’s naughty allure. Its hype takes on a life of its own, a hype for something so much greater than the film itself can possibly promise. A death-hype? Yes, the producers certainly leaned in to the controversy, but they didn’t have to do very much to get the predictably shrill voices of liberals and leftists to do their work for them. We consumers would rather die in the theater than accept a “properly” marginalized Joker that the liberal feminists demand. By this measure Joker is a roaring success, and no doubt already a model for future “unwoke” films and edgy ad campaigns alike.
Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck, an abused and emaciated clown who lives with his mother in Gotham City and suffers from uncontrollable bouts of maniacal laughter. We would say that he has some sort of disability. He aspires to be a stand-up comedian and writes his thoughts down into a notebook filled with jokes and observations that the viewer is to see as profoundly unfunny and unpleasant. At night, he watches television with his mother. He forms a paternalistic identification with talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). He imagines that Murray invites him into his show and fills in the void of his absent father and encourages him to pursue his dreams of being a comedian. We eventually learn that his mother also suffers from delusions—she idealizes local billionaire and Reaganite mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, and Arthur intercepts a letter she wrote to Wayne that refers to him as Arthur’s real father.
In the course of the film Arthur is repeatedly bullied and beaten up by the “society” around him. These experiences cause him to transform from Arthur Fleck into “The Joker.” Becoming the Joker entails the death of both of his father figures, Murray Franklin and Thomas Wayne (as well as of his mother). This double-patricide intersects with a growing popular insurrection against the ruling class of the city—this movement identifies with this mysterious clown as a proletarian hero, and its members don clown makeup in solidarity with him. The Joker is what happens when Arthur Fleck—an idiot, an imbecile, a retard, an incel—has his “Day of Retribution” and succeeds.
The popular online identification of the Joker character with the incel subculture precedes Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of him—most notably (to me at least) in the “Gang Weed” meme, the origin of the “Gamers Rise Up” and “We Live in a Society” mantras. But whereas the previous Joker incarnations only obliquely relate to the incel—that is, they only really become “incel” when the Gang Weed meme appropriates them, but otherwise are simply witty, violent gangsters—the Phoenix interpretation leans in to this popular online imagining of the character, embracing the “inceldom” of the Joker by way of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
Joker fits the character study of Arthur Fleck into the plot structure of a superhero-origin-story. Thus the seemingly “formulaic” plot structure was a point of derision for a number of less-impressed critics, but this misses the point. “I literally described to Joaquin at one point […] like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like, ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it f–ing Joker.’ That’s what it was,” Todd Phillips told The Wrap. But the restrictions of the superhero-origin-story plot formula is precisely what makes “sneaking in” the “real,” the traumatic Real, movie possible, the real that’s so real it must be repressed, the real that must be avoided at all costs. The artificiality of the superhero-origin-story form tolerates this Real, it makes possible this movie in which Oedipus is overthrown, the “Beta Uprising” triumphs—because the comic book superhero-origin formula here demands only one essential characteristic: that by the end of it all, the Joker becomes who he is. The incel loser has to lose; it would be obscene to make a film that glorifies Elliot Rodger, his spree killing and his death. But that’s not the case here. Here the incel is a superhero, a superhero that cannot die.
This is one of the film’s most interesting tricks. Is Arthur Fleck of Joker actually “The Joker” of the Batman comics? Is it possible for the gangster kingpin to emerge from this character study of an imbecile so fundamentally unable to engage with the world, the language, the society around him? In interviews Phillips alluded to the possibility that Fleck is just an inspiration for “The Joker,” not the supposedly “real” one that fights the Batman (sic: the fake, comic-book cliche one). I think the consequence of this ambiguity means that we are not to understand this film as being about “The Joker” at all, but rather as a film about the incels, but one depicting the incels in such a way that it could not have been made without the framing of the Joker’s origin. Only this framing makes it possible to present the incel hero as a proletarian hero, his revolt against the family becomes a revolt against the ruling class of the entire polis, the battlefield on which he is to eventually fight his aristocratic nemesis until the end of time.
The ultimate question for critics is this: where does the “incel hero” end and the “proletarian hero” begin? The film’s fear-mongering hype was based mainly on how it was perceived that it would opt for the former, and in doing so would be dangerous, irresponsible, nihilistic, even fascist. It would inspire those hateful, ugly incels to harass women on the internet and commit mass shootings. But when the movie finally came out to wide release many leftist critics saw the elements of class struggle in the narrative and concluded that it wasn’t really about incels after all. In The Guardian, Micah Uetricht writes, “what I was witnessing on-screen bore little resemblance to the ode to angry, young, white, “incel” men that I had heard so much about in media coverage of Joker leading up to its release. Instead, we got a fairly straightforward condemnation of American austerity: how it leaves the vulnerable to suffer without the resources they need, and the horrific consequences for the rest of society that can result.”
Coming to this rosy leftist interpretation requires a focus on some of the secondary elements of the film at the expense of overlooking the essential traumatic Real of the incel Oedipal drama. It must repress all awareness of the fundamental antagonisms in family life and sexual development to fit its broader left-liberal worldview. Uetricht points to a scene in the film where Arthur meets with a black female social worker who provides him with his medication. When budget cuts axe the social program, the social worker expresses a class solidarity against the common enemy, represented by Thomas Wayne: “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur … And they don’t give a shit about people like me either.” From this exchange Uetricht confidently declares: “It is those budget cuts that drive Arthur deeper into madness.”
It is clear why Uetricht would identify this as the pivotal scene in the film. If the central problem is one of the administrative services of the social democratic welfare state, the solution is as simple as reallocating funding. The problem can be solved by voting for the right people. And it can be done without necessarily resorting to the sort of orgiastic violence that the film descends into. The moral of the story is that we should vote for Bernie Sanders.
The film is hardly so partisan-political. When Fleck goes on the Murray Franklin show and fully assumes the role of the Joker, revealing that he is the one who kicked off the clown insurrection, he insists that he is somehow “not political.” Indeed, Warner Brothers felt the same way: “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.” But what are we to make of this?
My friend and podcast co-host Daniel Tutt’s Lacanian interpretation of the film sums it up succinctly:
“The murder of the primal father is the birth of the political. […] His murder of Murray, like the murder of the mother/imaginary father also entails a lucid break from Arthur’s wider delusion. The Joker is born at this moment, and he importantly takes “society” as the responsible category for his situation. This moment of lucidity is reminiscent of the moment of lucidity he had with his mother when he killed her […] Although he insisted in his exchange with Murray on the show that he is not “political”, the Joker becomes a newly born political figure after ridding himself of the father of the imaginary and the symbolic.”
In short, the political subject emerges out of the murder of the father, the breaking of the familial bonds that gives the subject the requisite lucidity to become what it is. (In his manifesto, Elliot Rodger wrote that he was prepared to kill all his family members without hesitation except his father, who possessed a sexual potency that he could not comprehend.) What Uetricht misses is that when the social worker expresses her solidarity with Fleck, acknowledging that they are just cogs in a tyrannical machine and that they have a common interest against a common enemy, Fleck was not yet the political subject in this sense—he was not yet Joker.
(A note about Murray Franklin/Robert De Niro: De Niro plays Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy, the two movies with which Joker has invited the most comparisons—both directed by Martin Scorsese. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker could be even seen as a cross between the two characters: a violent, traumatized incel who is infatuated with an underage prostitute and kills her pimp in his own late-70’s NYC “Day of Retribution,” and a deranged stand-up comedian who is obsessed with a talk show host that he ultimately kidnaps. Now De Niro is old, and he is the one playing the talk show host. De Niro, I believe, is not playing “Murray Franklin” in this film at all, but rather himself—an insufferable liberal they trot out on laugh-track TV, an old ass man who is simply not cool anymore. He is what happens if the Joker never comes to be—that is, what the pre-political subject ages into becoming without the revolutionary rupture. Apparently Phoenix and De Niro had real-life beef on set…)
There will be a sequel, I’m sure, despite the producers’ claim it’s just a one-off thing. This is Hollywood, after all, and there’s money to be made. But be careful: the moment the revolution runs out of steam is when its children get their bloody comeuppance. It wasn’t when he first appeared on screen in the Nolan cycle that the Joker’s senseless violence burst across the fourth wall with horrific consequences—but the very next film, the film that embodied the bourgeois reaction against the chaos released just prior. Joker in Thermidor… what would become of him once the twin forces of neoliberal capitalism and the symbolic father regroup to flank the incel insurrection? “We live in a society”—the meme mantra that those forces have always already done so. The blue-pilled Hollywood liberals won’t tolerate the film’s radical ambiguity as it is. They need their sequel to tell us: “It’s over… it was over before it ever began.”
Mike Crumplar is a writer and editor living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter.