The Joker (2019) was a controversial film before it even aired in theaters. The plot is about a mentally ill clown as he breaks down and goes on a bloody, gun-ridden killing spree. Since in the US, mental illness is often scapegoated as the cause of gun violence, you could understand why the film has ruffled one or two feathers. Throw in a b-plot about the subjectivity of comedy, and well, it triggered quite the reaction, which was probably the point. It has grossed over $93.5 million, making it the fourth highest R-rated film of all time.
With constant closeups and a repetitive violin theme, the movie desperately tries to be an excellent piece of art that addresses many of society’s pressing cultural questions. The Joker wants to be about the stigmatization of mental illness, wealth inequality in the US, the potentially violent consequences of revolution, the subjectivity of comedy, and the rise of Incel culture.
This full roster, however, means it ends up being about none of these topics. The only striking thing that remains once you strip away the “grittiness” is the main character’s anger. The Joker is actually about the rage that bubbles to the surface when white males are denied the future they think they are entitled to. It’s an accidental case study into the masculine violence plaguing our society, and we should treat its casual glorification of violence quite seriously.
The Joker has always been a violent character. The archnemesis to DC Comics’ Batman is perhaps best known on the page as the person who brutally shot Barbara Gordon in The Killing Joke. On the Silver Screen, he is best remembered as Heather Ledger’s agent of chaos who just wants to watch the world burn.
The comics do not have a concise origin story for the clown nihilist. He is an unreliable narrator who has told Batman many conflicting accounts of his upbringing. This unreliability is brought to director Todd Phillips’s film adaptation as well. We know next to nothing about Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker by the time the credits roll. We are left doubting everything — his childhood, his illness, and even whether or not this story happened. According to Phillips, this was entirely by design. In an interview with the LA Times, he said:
“There’s a lot of ways you could look at this movie. You could look at it and go, ‘This is just one of his multiple-choice stories. None of it happened.’ I don’t want to say what it is.”
The only constant — the only thing we know for sure — is that whoever is telling this story is extraordinarily violent. The Joker, or Arthur Fleck as he goes by for most of the film, commits many violent acts during the story. He guns down several Wallstreet bros. He kills a TV host on live television. He stabs a coworker in the skull.
This violence begins even before his breakdown. Arthur is a man who allegedly has a mental illness that causes him to laugh uncontrollably (side note — it feels gross to have to type the word allegedly here). Most people who interact with Arthur detest him, and he hates the world for its scorn.
There is an undercurrent of resentment in these early moments. We see Arthur in several scenes enacting violence on inanimate objects to get out his anger. He fetishizes that violence, at one point dancing around in his apartment with a handgun given to him by a coworker. This story makes feints at empathy, but ultimately it is one that revels in the destructive capacity of the Joker. A figure who is not heralding a “revolution,” but an entitled, nihilistic force that is intertwined with whiteness, and masculine rage.
A White Avenger
The Joker’s violence is racialized.
Throughout the film, white characters bemoan how “bad it is out there” in the city of Gotham. Outside of a garbage strike, these white characters never give specifics on the nature of this badness, but the subtext is clear. The movie takes place during the 1980s in a city that is a loose stand-in for New York. There was a crime wave in the 80s in New York City, as well as many other cities across America. How that crime was perceived was (and still is) heavily racialized.
Some conservatives will argue to this day that “black culture” — not poverty or the white neglect of the social safety net — was the reason for this crime wave. The crime wave became a justification for heightened policing and harsh sentencing laws. This tough on crime approach has led to a reality where today, African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites.
The movie heavily plays into this racialized lens. The film literally opens with Arthur getting mugged by a group of brown teenagers. There is a brief chase scene that ends with Arthur being kicked by the teenagers while he’s on the ground. He huddles in a fetal position on the cold city pavement as the assault intensifies.
Cue sad violin music.
In reality, the people keeping Arthur down are the white powerbrokers of Gotham. His family was put out to pasture by the Wayne family (yes, that Wayne family) after his mother’s mental illness became too much of a burden. The city’s white mayor cuts funding for the mental health services Arthur relies on for medication and counseling. Arthur’s white boss has no empathy for his plights as a mentally ill man and fires him. The white talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), who Arthur admires, makes fun of him on national television.
Many of the immediate barriers Arthur faces, however, are coming from brown people. Arthur is chastized (understandably so) by a black mother on the bus (Mandela Bellamy) as he tries to play with her child without asking first. Arthur’s social worker (Sharon Washington), is depicted as uncaring from his perspective. It’s clear from the viewer, however, that she is overworked. An administrative clerk named Carl (Brian Tyree Henry) at the hospital doesn’t give Arthur files on his mother.
It’s not a good look.
The unfairness of these race-based power dynamics are hinted at in the film, but not articulated well enough for the viewer to walk away with a condemnation of the racist politics of 80s America. The closest we get is Arthur’s social worker telling him — after she reveals that funding for her department has been cut — that “they” don’t give a shit about him or her. The “they” is never discussed at length. It’s a stand-in for any “other” the viewer dislikes. It could be the mayor’s office, white people, the 1 percent, or for the illogical conservative viewer, “black culture.”
There is no attempt to create significant empathy for the black victims of this oppressive system — victims who arguably have a better claim for “burning it all down” than Arthur. The best stand-in we get is a love interest named Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz), and his interactions with her turn out to be a figment of his imagination. The black characters in the film watch Arthur break down like everyone else. A passivity that is never examined, and reveals more about the director and writer’s own biases than anything else.
Ultimately, this film is for white men to vent about the system that has only now let them down.
The White Knight
The Joker’s violence is distinctly male.
The first group of people the Joker kills are three white men who are sexually harassing a woman on the subway. Arthur doesn’t come to her aid. She is merely a prop to reduce our sympathies for her harassers. It’s only when Arthur starts laughing uncontrollably from the illness he may or may not have that these financial analysts (who work for Wayne Enterprises) refocus their ire on him. They start to beat him up, and he, in turn, guns them down.
This incident becomes a rallying call for a clown-wearing “Eat The Rich” movement happening in the background for the entirety of the film. This motif is an attempt by the film to make connections to modern-day America. There is even a “resistance” sign harkening to the political movement that followed Trump’s 2016 election.
The members of this “Eat the Rich” movement, however, are not brown men and women, or white women. There are no LGBTQIA+, disabled, or homeless brethren on the frontlines of this political wave.
The movie mentions, but doesn’t highlight the problems of wealth inequity in American society. We never see the rich abuse the poor, or have scenes that cause the viewer to empathize with the flagbearers of this moment — we only see their rage. The movement is an excuse for a group of overwhelmingly white men to vent about their anger with “the system.”
This point is brought home near the film’s climax when the Joker is once again in the subway system, trying to flee the police amongst a crowd of clown-masked protesters. It takes a mere passing bump on the SUBWAY (where bumps never happen) to have this group devolve into a full-blown riot.
It’s all about physical violence. These men are angry because things are suddenly unfair to them. There are no overtures to groups that have always been downtrodden.
For example, there aren’t a lot of women in this film. The ones who do exist are depicted as passive figures in the narrative. We have the not-love interest, Sophie, whose interactions aren’t real. His romantic overtures to her include joking about suicide, stalking her daughter, and breaking into her apartment. We have a doctor on the Murray Show, Dr. Sally (Sondra James), who Arthur immediately sexually assaults with a forced kiss the moment he walks on stage. Again, we have Arthur’s social worker (a person that does not have a character name), who he believes is neglectful to his needs, despite the massive amount of paperwork on her desk, implying she is merely overworked. There is also Arthur’s mother, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy), who is frail and dying for most of the film.
Penny is the female character with the most lines, and empathy for her is significantly reduced in the narrative. She is portrayed as keeping secrets from Arthur for much of the film, falling into the familiar “sensitive man held down by his mother” trope that has haunted films since Mommie Dearest.
It’s revealed late in The Joker that she has a severe mental illness, a fact which is taken at face value, despite America’s sexist history of institutionalizing “difficult” women. She apparently “let” her abusive partner abuse Arthur as a kid, which is the implied reason for why he is as deranged as he is. This reality is, again, not questioned, which is deeply problematic and victim-blamey.
Upon hearing this truth about his mother, the Joker suffocates her with a pillow. The way the situation is framed makes it seem like we are supposed to identify with him. It’s just terrible, and the movie revels in these acts of misogyny way too much for them to be conflated with commentary.
When we zoom back and look at the creators, the misogyny and racism of The Joker shouldn’t be surprising. This movie was directed by Todd Phillips of Old School and The Hangover fame. These comedies are ones that revel in masculine dominance of their leads by having them tell extremely mysognistic jokes. In one dated example, Bradley Cooper’s character in The Hangover had a punchline where he made fun of a dentist by calling them “Dr. Faggot.”
The darker nature of The Joker brings these biases up more viscerally in a way that can’t be as easily dismissed. It’s hard to wave away the misogyny of fridging your neglected mother when your film doesn’t have a laugh track.
After all, despite the title, the Joker isn’t joking.
Ambiguity Hiding Racism and Misogyny
The closing moments of The Joker are as follows. He’s hospitalized after inspiring major riots in Gotham. He’s talking with his therapist, a woman of color, and laughs. She asks him what’s so funny, and he tells her she wouldn’t get it.
We then cut to him as he walks down a hospital hallway. His footsteps are bloodied, implying that he has fridged yet another female character offscreen. We see him running back and forth down the hall multiple times in what could be interpreted as various escapes.
This is the cycle of the Joker. Arthur is pushed in and out of the system again and again. Each time building to what we all know he will become. On and on it goes, assuming it even happened at all.
It’s difficult to talk about the actions of unreliable characters because the off-hand dismissal is always that these are awful people who we shouldn’t like. You can’t trust the Joker in the same way you can’t trust Mad Men’s Don Draper or Breaking Bad’s Walter White.
Therefore, nothing seen by the viewer should be taken seriously.
Did The Joker actually happen?
Is Arthur real?
Is this a genuine origin story, or merely a “choose your own adventure” that we shouldn’t criticize too profoundly?
“Who cares,” calls out the triggered fanboy. “It’s just a joke. A film. A movie. Stop bitchin’.”
The rigmarole here of pretending like the creators of this film don’t want attention is the height of gaslighting. They want the praise that comes with producing a prestigious film, and with that comes criticism. We are supposed to take The Joker seriously. This film, by the nature of its existence, wants us to want to consume the nihilistic, destructive behavior of the Joker.
That’s the entire point — to cheer on an antagonist who respects nothing, and no one. To curse a system, while not thinking too deeply about the underpinnings that create it. The film grants the viewer permission to vicariously hate their society with a raw and unrestrained animosity.
This hatred doesn’t mean that The Joker will be the cause for the next mass killing. It bears emphasizing that the glorification of violence in The Joker does not directly correlate to mass shootings. There’s no compelling case that seeing this film will make a young viewer exit the theater and shoot up a shopping mall, or a school, or a night club, or a post office, or a newsroom. That argument is as weak as blaming violent video games for gun violence.
The culture of hate it adds to does have a larger, more diffused impact, though, and the evidence is too overwhelming to ignore. We exist in a society where disaffected white men are shooting up places nearly every other day. That destructive entitlement doesn’t come out of the blue. It has to be nurtured through years of enforcement, and this film is another brick in that culture of lethal, racist misogyny.
Another meme shared on 4chan and Reddit.
Another gif tweeted by a fascist leader.
Another half-joke pasted in a screed or manifesto.
It’s a droplet in an ocean of hate.
The Joker has an impact, even if it is not a direct one, and there’s nothing funny about that.