In The Guardian, Micah Uetricht presents the reader with a typically leftist interpretation of the Joker:
[W]e 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.
Yup, you guessed it: we truly do live in a society. As a self-described “Marxist and philistine,” Uetricht’s perspective is characteristically economically reductive: the focus is on the resource-scarcity of its protagonist Arthur Fleck:
What Arthur – and scores of others like him in Gotham and our own society – needs is a fully-funded Medicare for All or NHS-style health system that includes robust mental health services that provide him with the counselings services and medication that can save him (and others around him) from his unceasingly “negative thoughts” and violent impulses.
This, of course, is the typical perspective of childless middle class academic housewives of all occupations, ages and genders: It is desperate for that exoticized Other to reinsert in its warm but really excessively acidic and barren political uterus: If only there was free counseling and pills, the world would be alright and without violent impulses!
However, in Phillips’ Joker, the crisis depicted is only peripherally a material one.
On the contrary, we even witness a certain rococo-esque excess: Everything in Phillips’ Gotham is visually chaotic ornament and ugly material overabundance: No spot on the wall is untouched by graffiti, Fleck almost uninterruptedly smokes: In Gotham, as elsewhere, real austerity appears as a luxury the poor simply cannot afford anymore. Its misery is hardly reducible to economics. Instead, we see signs of nihilistic street violence, interpersonal paranoia, unfriendliness and directionless aggression: A mother rudely punishes Fleck for benevolently interacting with her child, a street gang steals from Fleck and jumps him for pleasure, and his psychological case worker does not really listen to him.
This horrible and oppressive psychosphere extends into individual apartments. Philips invites us for a sociological case study into the typical activity of the psychological masses: Both Fleck and his mother – he still lives in her apartment – are in the habit of continuously deluding themselves. For his mother, popular talk show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro, becomes a surface for projection and idealisation, while she writes impotent letters to millionaire and mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne begging for his assistance because she believes him to be Arthur’s father.
Could there be a better parable for contemporary electoral democracies?
It is no wonder that her son mirrors his mothers’ popular activity. In a dream sequence, Arthur believes himself to be a guest in Franklin’s talk show, where the audience and Franklin reward him for his imbecilic, narcissistic and pathetic sob introduction of who he really is. Fleck, we conclude, desires the typical ersatz of political power – symbolic representation.
However, since Fleck is a father-abandoned and mother-bonded bastard, he can only conceive of the world through the eyes of a child observing the strategy of the single mother in need – seduction and emotional manipulation. Fleck’s tragedy is that he is symbolically trapped in the maternal womb. Although this bubble is periodically infringed on by the omnipresent Real of violence – it literally hits him in the head throughout the movie – he violently refuses to escape his comfortable place.
For example in the beginning, when a youth gang jumps him, and his coworker, portrayed as a politically incorrect, cowardly but really good-hearted co-worker gives him a gun for protection, he only defends them in typical leftist manner: “They’re just boys,” ergo passive victims of circumstance. This of course is the psychology of the incel, par excellence, who believes that the biological structure of the world, populated by Stacies and Chads has taken a position against him personally ever exercising meaningful sexual agency. Is the incel not very similar to the caricatural Marxist who monomaniacally reduces everything to economic determinism?
The same gun, however – the transformative outside violence that will not go away – becomes a catalyst for Fleck’s destiny. Riding the subway in his full professional clown costume, he uses it to kill three men of the visible elite – depicted as blond arrogant WASP types – in the subway after they harass a girl and brutalize him for his out of tune compulsive laugh. He shoots them in a form of accidental self defense that turns into coldblooded murder. Afterwards, Fleck flees the scene to hide in a derelict public bathroom to indulge in what resembles a yogic death dance. As viewers, we understand: the chi of bastard politics – a politics eroticized by perverse resentment and backed up with a substructure of illegitimate and cowardly hard violence, is finally flowing – through Fleck and through wider society which will appropriate the clown outfit as a symbol after sympathizing with the murder of the arrogant elites. Fleck, to use Peter Sloterdijk, like Lenin, becomes the “importer of deterritorialized resentment,” yet unwittingly.
Through this shocking act of violence, as viewers, we realize that Fleck constitutes no genuine outside to violence and is only one representative in a competition of violent strategies. This is also a common trope in neoreaction which rejects the politically naive leftist utopia of powerless paradise and opts for a visible and legitimate power instead of an illegitimate one which dresses itself in a democratic veneer. In Fleck’s case, his cowardly avoidance of direct confrontation has finally putrefied to become a monstrous and disproportionate violence, much worse than a legitimate, measured and overt violence. We are reminded of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.
While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself… the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naive nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment; he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble. A race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree: namely, as a condition of existence of the first importance.
The director clearly plays with these forms. After the murder, for a moment, we are lead to believe that the violence has redeemed Fleck and he has become a transparent power broker via the phallus of the gun. Emboldened by his deed, we see Fleck ravishing his attractive neighbor and becoming more assertive, humorous and confrontational with his colleagues.
However, we soon find out that Fleck cannot escape his psychological determinations. His relationship with the young woman only takes place in his deluded imagination and he remains a passive aged infant desperately seeking to access a lost psychological past to be redeemed. He chooses this path of a narcissistic obsession with his traumatic past (a strategy suggested by the popular version of psychoanalysis) as a substitute for openly confronting and living up to the reality of his situation: After finding a letter of his mother to mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne, he believes himself to be Wayne’s illegitimate son. He consequently visits Wayne Manor where he encounters little Bruce and through a fence reaches out to direct his resentment to corrupt the child (little Bruce as that which is noble but still weak). He transgressively (his fingers are penetrating the boys mouth) distorts the mouth of the boy into a grotesque smile.
Afterwards, covered by the chaos of the political protests that have begun, Fleck sneaks into a cinema screening to confront the man he believes to be his father.
Phillips neoreactionary message again is in the aesthetic. Fleck steals a bellboy costume to move about in the building without being noticed but loses it to reveal his shoddy lumpenprole hoody as if rejecting his place in the traditional hierarchy only results in something far worse. The contrast could not be greater when he confronts an upright and well-dressed Thomas Wayne in a tuxedo with his pathetic, stunted and squalid demand for inclusion – “I am your son”. Similar to the masses raging outside with placards of simplistic slogans like “We are Clowns,” or “Kill the Rich,” he is unwilling to transform and wants to be accepted by power as who he really is.
Wayne, being a representative of Nietzsche’s noble race, gives him a political lesson again: By punching him straight in the face for his maladresse with his son and informing him that he is not his real son but instead the adopted child of a delusional mother. Once again, we encounter the symbolic and benevolent father, as an agent of structuring hormesis and discipline, who guides with an unpleasant but ultimately honest and just violence.
Afterwards, we see Fleck visiting the Arkham Asylum to access the archives. This is perhaps the real underrated key scene of the film. Fleck finds out that his mother failed to protect him as a child and that he was abused by her boyfriend. Despite, possibly being Wayne’s son – this plotline is not resolved – it was somebody else who tied him to the radiator and his own beloved mother did not protect him. Again, in Fleck’s past, there is no alternative to violence and there are no innocent parties: there are just different forms of violence. Their prevalence in narrative, in return, is a struggle over information and history.
Fleck, however, again cannot stomach this truth and integrate it into his strategies. He mirrors the impotent and resentful masses unable to integrate the political lessons of Snowden and Epstein. Despite learning the truth, no corresponding political action takes place: There is no catharsis. Fleck instead continues to direct his violence against the only people who in their open violent truthfulness disturb his reality bubble but really express that they at least potentially consider him a real competitor. He brutally murders his colleague who teased him and plans to kill himself on Franklin’s talk show, to which he had been invited because a comedy club leaked his ridiculous stand-up comedy performance to Franklin.
On his way to the talk show of his mother’s idol, he is chased by two police officers investigating him for the subway murders. In a full subway train car, he initiates a deadly brawl by taking someone’s clown mask. Another key theme in the movie. The resentful Fleck appropriates identity to triangulate violence by stirring up the crowd against each other creating a chaos which allows him to cover his tracks and escape unharmed. Once more, Fleck uses the covert and indirect violence of the resentful weakling.
Before the talk show, he meets another potential father figure. Franklin receives Fleck with distance and harsh honesty but, against the advice of his producer, wants to give him a chance to participate. For his fatherly but conditional love, Fleck, humorless, awkward and pathetic, repays him by simply admitting to the murders and publicly killing the host. Is anyone already noticing that we only see white men get killed in this movie?
In the finale of the movie, we see Fleck escorted away from the crime scene by a police car while Gotham is set on fire by protesters. However, the movie does not end here and we are in for a symbolically laden and counterintuitive ending.
An ambulance crashes into the police car and its drivers with clown masks free Fleck. They – bulky and tacit operatives in clown masks – help an injured Fleck onto the top of the police car, elevating him into a figurehead to be adored by the masses. Somebody hijacked the humanitarian symbol (ambulance) and piloted it against the traditional symbol of authority. Sounds familiar?
In the meantime, another muscly and silent man in clown mask uses the chaos to assassinate the mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne. Is it a coincidence that Phillips, not a stranger to plots dealing with types of spy intrigue, presents us with the seemingly ex-nihilo coordinated and professional actions of well-organized and obscure powers here? Phillips even alters Batman’s origin story from a mugging to an assassination. Is he hinting at the real parapolitical proceedings of power which continuously hijack morality to obscure their own power interest to bring down traditional symbols of authority and power? In the end, Fleck is transferred back to Arkham asylum into the authority of the state. After a last murder, we see the Joker running from personnel in slapstick fashion mirroring an earlier scene, the supposed elite watching Chaplin’s Modern Times: After politics has been resolved, we are now back to watching the same old repetitive and ridiculous play.
Phillips’ Joker thus stylistically resembles a baroque painting: the contextual margins are obscured, we are invited to focus on the elaborate illuminated microexpressions of the center – the face of the portrayed. The film can be read as a continuation of neoreactionary themes in the Batman series: While in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker is a brilliant aristocrat and divinely indifferent death god who forces the benevolent humanitarian Left to drop its mask and adopt an alternativeless oppressive and intrusive violence, Phillips’ Joker is a portrayal of another contemporary political archetype indispensable for the realist worldview.
Arthur Fleck is a clown who’s not in on the joke. He is the representative for someone incapable of mapping the totality of political relations surrounding him to become a complicit but powerless figurehead for a bastard politics of resentment, guided and organized by others who remain in the shadow: Joker is a psychopolitical study of the useful idiot.
Nicolas Hausdorf is a German editor, analyst, and essayist based in Melbourne. His essay “Superstructural Berlin,” an experimental sociology and pulp theory of Germany’s capital has been published by Zero Books. He tweets at @dcntrrr.