SOME MILD SPOILERS
“There is no punchline. There is no joke.”
I was born in a city associated with a terrorist attack that marked a turning point in the 21st century, and moved to another where terror attacks continue to strike semi-regularly, killing people commuting to work or enjoying late evening drinks. Yet I never felt afraid of experiencing random everyday violence until I moved back to the US several years ago, the haunting gut-ache of anxiety that spending time in public places like festivals, gyms, nightclubs, sites of worship – even the Holocaust museum where I did my research or the school where I currently teach – would leave me vulnerable to becoming another figure in the rising toll of mass violence.
And, of course, movie theaters. This last one is particularly relevant, because the release of Joker saw movie theaters become a site for a uniquely American sociocultural debate over cinematic responsibility and public safety. I laughed that the biggest threats at our local movie theatre in Philadelphia were bedbugs and the occasional fist fight over spilt popcorn and kicked seats, but my friend still insisted we drive to quiet mall in New Jersey where pensioners enjoying lunch specials in the food court outnumbered people at our matinee of Joker. For weeks the media had agonized over the potential for copycats following the 2012 Aurora shooting at a theater showing of The Dark Knight Rises. Mass shootings have only become more frequent in the years since Aurora with perpetrators competing for the highest body counts and hero worshipping previous attacks in online communities that foster hatred of ethnic and religious minorities and women. Even the US military reportedly warned personnel to be alert and aware when going to showings of Joker due to ‘credible chatter’ in online forums that felt they’d found a friend, or at least violent wish fulfillment, in Arthur Fleck.
The attention given to the potential for violence before Joker was even released caused its director Todd Phillips to complain it was being held to an unfair standard not applied to bloody blockbusters like the John Wick franchise. But ultimately this criticism depends on what we want from movies, and how they relate to our lives and experiences. The elite assassin’s guild occupying five star hotels in John Wick are so far removed from my daily life that I feel perfectly comfortable crunching popcorn in time to the volleys of onscreen gunshots. That’s not to say we should only engage with movies for escapist suspensions of disbelief, or we wouldn’t have the love of being scared by horror that brings many of us to this website… but it’s when cinema acts as a mirror to society that we should be the most skeptical.
As a lifelong comic book fan, I tried to go into Joker with an open mind and felt myself shrink back almost immediately. The first time we see Arthur Fleck beaten down by society, literally, is when he’s on his side in a foetal position, pathetically protecting himself as a group of entirely non-white teens harass and beat him. I had watched the opening scenes pan out over the Brick City, where I teach, dressed to look like 1980s Gotham with the bodega where I buy my coffee on the way to class now a seedy storefront next to a porno cinema while a group of kids that look a lot like my students – and many residents of Newark – assault a helpless white man for sport. While the movie later attempts to establish some kind of universality among Fleck’s many tormentors – including coworkers and Wall Street business bros – his only defining motive throughout the movie is his position of unique victimhood. The only characters depicted as more let down by Gotham than Fleck are women of color, one of whom voices as much early on, yet even they are presented as ultimately failing him, and failing to understand and save him. As an audience we are asked to tread a fine line between empathy and sympathy for Fleck, as if things would be alright if he could just catch a break and be judged for his qualities that set him apart and not just his quirks. Phillips’ choice to give him mental trauma stemming from abuse does add some nuance to one of the character’s historically cartoonish aspects – the unhinged laugh – but also veers a little too neatly into the political narrative that mass violence is the result of mental illness. The gun acquired by Fleck is small, but quickly manifests itself as an extension of the strong masculinity Phoenix’s impressive physical acting show Fleck to have been lacking. He dances sensually with it in a way he couldn’t with any of the film’s female characters, he uses it to give himself confidence in imagined TV interviews where he’s finally given the fame and notoriety he feels he’s always deserved. No one could understand or cure his pain, it is so unique and uniquely crafted by society – at least that’s what we are meant to believe is the cause of his descent into villainy, particularly after he chuckles at this own personal joke and speaks his final line; “you wouldn’t get it anyway.”
Watching Joker, I thought of a Robert Kennedy quote I posed to my class for debate during a lesson on the recent rise in ‘incel’ and far-right mass violence; “every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves.” Expecting Phillips to have hidden a carefully crafted message about society alongside retconning the Joker’s origin story may be giving him too much credit, and ultimately many people will see reflected in the movie what they want to. Those who identify with Fleck’s isolation from society and failure to relate to those around him, particularly women, might feel a pull to the denial of connections based on his appearance and mannerisms. Others might focus instead on how Fleck’s cardigans and uncontrollable laughter are maybe less of an issue than say, his stalking of a female neighbor, forcible kissing of a stranger on live television, or the pornography cut outs collaged in his journal. Blaming the failure of society to properly care for him and prevent him from carrying out serial violence can at times smack of the same stated motivations as David Berkowitz, who terrorized New York as the Son of Sam during roughly the same time period that the movie is set. That’s not to say there aren’t other teeth to Joker’s underdog to relate to; the stranger sitting next to me at the cinema only chuckled once, during the scene in which subway riders beat two policeman in retaliation for a police shooting, and muttered “Kill ‘em” when the clowns came for the rich. Here is when Phillips comes closest to a cohesive message, but perhaps the most realistic part is its ending result as a jumble of motives and reasons that are loosely mashed into the shape of some kind of weaponized action. FBI task forces tasked with anticipating future incel/far right mass violence have pointed out that rather than clear ideologies, current perpetrators pick and choose from an assortment to best justify retribution for grievances against a world that hasn’t given them what they’re owed. The Joker acts confused when he’s asked about his clown makeup and whether that means he’s a part of the uprisings across Gotham, responding “I don’t believe in that, I don’t believe in anything.”
Neither the Joker or Phillips fully commits to this nihilism, and despite raging in interviews against ‘woke culture,’ the closest Phillips comes to a message is an anti-capitalist one in which the Joker’s vigilantism driven by personal grievances find echoes in society as the downtrodden rise up across Gotham against the wealthy, political elite and even police (although the looter carrying the ‘RESIST’ sign upside down was maybe a bit much).
Every generation has experienced some version of what feels like the end times, extreme and unlike those that came before. Our are particularly confusing, every day anxieties about violence torn between what might get us first; total war, a superbug, climate change, or an individual who chooses a public place as a last stand. To the residents of the city chosen to represent Gotham for its grittiness, their fears of violence probably differ from Fleck’s but they are not who Phillips made this movie about, or even for. Their city might be Phillips’ stand in for the urban decay of pre-Batman Gotham – but their lives and experiences are eclipsed by Fleck’s narrative, irrelevant despite this attempt to position him as an accessible everyman antihero.
Joker isn’t a complex enough movie to be the metaphor for mass violence that critics and fans alike want it to be; whether Fleck would have become the antihero he does is unlikely to have changed without the gun put in his hand or the state that failed to renew his medication and mental health services. Ultimately he is there to serve as a foil to an equally 2-D protagonist, whose longevity as a comic book and big screen hero have relied on having no other skills besides being wealthy and able to dispense justice as he sees fit. Joker really is not the comic book we as a society want right now, or even need. But it just might be the one we deserve.