Arthur Fleck, the delusional and disaffected protagonist in Joker, has become a veritable American culture warrior scarcely a month after the film’s premiere. Fleck, the marginalized “other,” is played with aching, grim-faced virtuosity by Joaquin Phoenix, of course, and the character’s self-actualization comes through vengeful violence. However sordid he may be, Fleck arguably represents our collective madness; perhaps he’s an avatar of our national disillusionment. But anyone who has watched movies since 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde turned bank robbery and murder into a devilishly fun revenge fantasy might not be at all surprised by Joker‘s wrathful glee. In 2019, what should concern us more is that Joker‘s cinematic motifs seem to belong less to artistic expression than to its use as partisan weaponry.
Joker isn’t the first film to be sucked into the vortex of America’s culture wars, and it surely won’t be the last. But director Todd Phillips’ enthralling fever-dream of a film is jangling more than a few nerves at the political disco as it gives both tribes of our increasingly binary culture, the left and the right, another heap of dogma to call their own. If Joker, a brilliantly nuanced and furious phantasmagoria, is being alternately embraced and reviled by both sides of the political divide, it’s less because of the film’s (ostensible) leanings than its own triumphant subversiveness. In other words, it’s art.
That Joker can be simultaneously construed either as a right-wing movie that only inheres as a valentine to white male rage or as a quasi-Marxist tract about the proletariat rebelling against the elite is only in part to overlook its profound questions about alienation and mental despair. It is also to misconstrue what George Orwell meant when he contended that all art is propaganda. To be sure, popular culture, and particularly cinema, have long been a battleground in which social and political ideas are linked to the art that contains them. But Orwell’s point is well taken: all art is propaganda — and it’s our propaganda. At a time when our society’s runaway narcissism mingles with groupthink to create a kind of ideological Olympics, a movie like Joker perplexes our siloed society. So we reduce it to one of two things: an invitation to “incel” terrorism or a populist movement against the plutocratic machine. In truth, it can be both, which may sound like cognitive dissonance. Which means that Joker — that art — is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.
Fleck is a melancholic, mentally ill loner. He’s a clown for hire by day who lives with his ailing, mentally ill mother, yet he aspires to be a star. In Joker’s obvious homage to Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Fleck is the Rupert Pupkin of that film, the sad fantasist whose dreams of comic glory are met with derision by society at large and, specifically, by a Johnny Carson-esque host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro, who played Pupkin all those years ago). Fleck’s dreams of late-night fame are rife with delusion; so are his lovelorn reveries for Sophie (Zazie Beetz), his neighbor, living down the hall. Fleck is scared and volatile. To make matters worse, he also suffers from a rare neurological disorder that sends him into cringeworthy howls of jarringly creepy laughter. His rejection saddens and enrages him — and in lesser hands than Phoenix’s, Fleck would amount to little more than a shopworn Hollywood archetype. Here in Joker, Fleck may be yet another anti-hero, but he’s a profoundly American one.
Fleck does, of course, become the florid super-villain of Gotham City, but in Phoenix’s rendering he’s a modern Ahab, a brokenhearted striver whose thwarted ambition and bad luck give way to bloody fury. Just Ahab’s leg ends up in the gaping maw of literature’s most infamous white whale, Fleck’s long-held dreams are similarly devoured. But where Ahab perishes into Melville’s “universal cannibalism of the sea,” Fleck is reborn. Donning a reddish suit, his hair slicked back with green dye, his face lathered with cheap clown makeup, he’s Joker — and his psychotic self-defense finally feels awfully good. Just watch the dance of improbable beauty as Phoenix’s emaciated body glides gracefully down a set of stairs and across the film’s decrepit landscape. The actor finds liberation in the mayhem, and his performance embodies what Melville meant when he wrote “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.” Make no mistake: Joker’s clown comeuppance is not amateur showmanship. His emancipation is in his madness. Phoenix’s Fleck slays the woe.
And so, in this age of grievance and the aggrieved, when Fleck wonders “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?,” his query resonates, however unintended it may be. After all, divisive rhetoric and relentless bullying is now endemic to our presidential bully pulpit, if not to the whole of our political discourse. Joker can therefore be interpreted as a howl writ large, a collective shout-out of empathy for the downtrodden and the dispossessed.
A number of critics, meanwhile, were quick to suggest that the film is an incitement to violence, capable of stoking the angst of the alienated white male. Some even suggest that Joker could bring about more mass shootings:
With respect, have the naysayers missed the culture wars and First Amendment debates of the past 40 years? Joker is hardly the most violent movie of the past several decades. Is our moment so narrowly partisan, so willfully woke, that we can no longer defend popular moviemaking on grounds of artistic freedom?
The threat that Trump presents to our democracy, our values and our way of life is not to be minimized — and I don’t mean to charge Joker’s critics with objecting in bad faith or to over-generalize their views. But liberals, especially, shouldn’t let this reactionary moment diminish the age-old fight for freedom of expression; liberals should neither forsake nor forget the power and responsibility of the artist to make us feel uncomfortable, lest we lose popular culture as an essential forum where political ideas, and the implications that attend them, can be contested, affirmed and even transformed. Joker is nothing if not its own haunted dreamscape; its deep moments of evocation do more to reveal a snapshot of the brutal underbelly of our time than any other mainstream comic book film of recent vintage. One doesn’t have to admire Joker on its own artistic terms. But to narrowly weaponize it as just another ideological salvo in our partisan hunger games isn’t just to misunderstand the role of popular entertainment. It reduces popular entertainment to agitprop.
Fleck commits murders in three of the film’s pivotal scenes, which both inform his identity and lead to his self-empowerment. Without spoiling their impact, they represent payback for Fleck himself. They are brutal, bloody and unquestionably unsettling. Yet they register, nonetheless, as ghoulish victory lap. Whatever biases you may bring to Joker, Gotham’s demented clown has been resurrected in glorious, humanized form. If Joker assaults your political pieties, that’s cause for celebration. For the sake of art, even the devil must get his due.