On Joker (with Spoilers)

by Akim Reinhardt

I saw Joker last week. I think it’s an excellent film. But the two friends I was with, whose tastes often overlap with my own, really hated it, and we spent the ensuing 90 minutes examining and debating the film. Critics are likewise fiercely divided. Towards the end of our conversation, one friend admitted that, love it or hate it, the film evokes strong reactions; it’s difficult to ignore.

One reason Joker is so divisive and controversial is that several issues have dogged the film.

  • The film seriously confronts issues of nihilism. Because this is almost unheard in major Hollywood movies, it’s challenging even sophisticated viewers.
  • Director Todd Phillips has recently said some very stupid shit.
  • In this Trumpist moment, it is difficult to separate the film from current concerns about violence, toxic masculinity, misdirected raging populism, and possibly even oppressive whiteness.

Any serious discussion of the film must deal with these and other issues. Let’s start with the bookends of Phillips’ intentions and possible audience interpretations.

Director Todd Phillips, he of the massively popular and progressively redundant Hangover film franchise, has recently joined the chorus of spoiled Gen X comedians whining about “cancel culture,” and opined quite stupidly that “woke culture” has made it impossible to do comedy, and thus, feeling cornered, he has turned to drama.

Phillips’ sentiments are moronic, fragile, self-absorbed, and immature. In the real world, “cancel culture” is called “business decisions.” If Saturday Night Live fires a new writer because some of his prior comedy amounted to little more than tired old racism, they have done so because they’re worried about their bottom line, not your feelings. But if you really want to put the lie to “woke culture” ruining comedy, just watch the raunchy comedy of a talented, young, boundary-pushing comic like Nikki Glaser. In that context, Phillips just sounds like another middle-aged, straight white guy angrily bitching that no one laughs at his dumb locker room jokes anymore. Rat tail!

So is it fair then to ask about Phillips’ artistic and political intentions in making this film? Yes and no.

For one, Phillips’ pablum about comedy isn’t particularly relevant. Beyond that, however, I don’t put too much stock into artistic intentions. Art is less about an authors’ intentions and more about the observers’ perceptions, which often do not line up. Thus, regardless of what Phillips’ intended, I and my friends can disagree sharply about a film, with neither of us being “wrong” per se. The film simply landed on each of us differently because like all people, we bring our own agendas and lenses to the experience. The exact same film was delivered to us in the exact same time and space, yet we received it differently. This kind of thing happens all the time. So in assessing art, does it really matter what inspired the artist to make it? Barring extreme cases, no.

Of course sometimes an artists’ intentions are absolutely unavoidable and cannot be separated from the final product. However, whether intentions are laudable or regrettable, didactic messaging is often a sign of ham-fisted art. In extreme cases, the result is as much propaganda as it is “art” (see: Socialist Realism).

I’m not interested in defining art, but clearly any definition of it must acknowledge art’s inherent subjectivity. If art is anything at all, then it is something open to interpretation. If you’re uncomfortable with that, stick to math.

Of course it’s perfectly fair to examine Todd Phillips’ intentions in making Joker. But that’s a different question than “Is the film good?” Some critics have accused Phillips of promoting a host of social ills. I find the case unconvincing, and I also thinking it’s telling that many of these critiques emerged before the film was nationally released and from people who hadn’t even seen it. However, even if Phillips’ motives were corrupt, it would hardly be the first time some dick head with bad motives made good art. (See: Richard Wagner, Ezra Pound, and about 10,000 others).

Which brings us to the inverse issue: concerns that misguided young men will see Joker as some kind of incel training manual. That, even if Phillips’ motives aren’t bad, the movie itself will encourage bad ideas and behavior among some. That regardless of Phillps’ front-end intentions, the back-end results will be grim.

But balling Joker up with such Trumpist ugliness is patently unfair to the film.  Since when are we damning art because a minority of misguided observers misinterpret it as justification or inspiration for their own horrible actions? This is akin to claiming video games are responsible for school shootings and that we must banish the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” for fear it will produce another Charles Manson. As I will discuss further on, Joker is not a clarion call for toxic masculinity and violence.  But anyone who takes it that way must be held accountable for their own stupidity and actions without blaming the film.

So how then do I understand Joker on its own terms? Let’s start with what I consider to be the film’s unquestionable artistic successes.

Front and center is Joaquin Phoenix. It’s safe to say that Phoenix is not for everyone; if you don’t dig his particular brand of intensity then you should definitely skip this film, because that’s its core. However, I’ve always enjoyed Phoenix’s work, whether it adds depth to shallow movies such as Gladiator, carries a biopic like Walk the Line, plays off of other outstanding actors as in The Master, or shapes cinematic atmosphere of films like You Were Never Really Here.

In Joker, Phoenix is the clear point of focus. The film is, after all, first and foremost a study of his titular character. Yet Phoenix also gets to play off of other excellent actors in supporting roles, including Frances Conroy, Zazie Beetz, and Robert DeNiro. And throughout, Phoenix’s performance dovetails perfectly with the film’s other obvious triumph, it’s cinematic atmosphere.

I’ve never been a comic book reader and have seen only a handful of super hero movies, but even I understand that Batman’s hometown of Gotham is at once based on New York and also a fictional city descending into a chaotic hellscape of poverty, violence, and corruption. To manifest this vision, Phillips and his crew filmed across the New York City area, including the decidedly unglamorous locales northern New Jersey and the Bronx, and recreated a version of desperate, decrepit 1970s – 1980s New York, replete with graffiti, garbage, crime, and old Times Square-style vice. I grew up in the Bronx during the 1970s and 1980s; trust me when I say the film does an excellent job of manufacturing an extreme version of dirty old New York.

But aside from excellent acting and a gripping cinematic atmosphere, what of the film’s larger artistic statements?

Central to the film, as I see it, is a successful effort to blur the lines between tragedy and comedy. This should come as no surprise in the character study of an eventual villain named “Joker.” And while it’s a three-thousand year old cliché to say that tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin, it’s still a sublime artistic achievement to not only stand that coin upright with its edge, but to also position it so that the edge itself, not either side, faces you. Doing so places the observer in the presence of both sides and neither side at the same time, making it difficult to discern and separate them, yet impossible to escape either. It fully enmeshes the observer simultaneously in both tragedy and comedy instead of simply having them take their turns.

Early in the film, I found myself laughing out loud at some of the horrible things that befall Arthur Fleck, the man who will one day become Joker. And I was the only one in the theater to do so.

But make no mistake; I was not laughing out of sadism. Indeed, true sadism is one of the few things in this world I will not brook. Rather, I laughed because I quickly recognized that comedy and tragedy would be intimately tangled in this film. And my isolated laughter reminded me of the last time I was the only person to chortle out loud in a crowded theater at a scene of ostensible horror: when the arch villain throws an ax into the back of the world’s most beautiful woman during the opening scene of Kung Fu Hustle. That act was so absurd it immediately signaled to me that this film would be an absurd comedy, and indeed Kung Fu Hustle is a true masterpiece of that genre. Joker, however, is not an absurd comedy. It is a filthy whirlwind that spirals from victimhood to villainy. Fleck’s comedy is tragic, and his tragedy is comedic. He is a professional clown and would-be standup comic who makes absolutely no one laugh unless they are laughing at him. He is a victim whose tragedy is so over the top and inescapable as to render it ludicrous.

This unyielding precept, of punching you hard in the gut when you want to laugh, and mocking you mercilessly when you want to cry, is, I believe, the film’s chief artistic triumph. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, and the double helix roller coaster effect kept me enraptured, invigorated, and eventually half-exhausted in the best of ways.

Amid this confusing darkness is a roster of characters utterly devoid of heroes. There are only villains and victims, in all forms: old and young, rich and poor, white and minority, male and female. And that relentless darkness has led some to perceive the film as unforgivably nihilistic.

This Gotham is indeed rotten and rapidly drifting into nightmarish disaster. But exploring the nature of nihilism is hardly the same thing as endorsing it. And this film, so far as I can tell, is not an endorsement or celebration of nihilistic horror.

For starters, the movie does not exist in a narrative vacuum. All 122 minutes of it are back story to a canonical series of comic books, TV shows, and films that debuted 80 years ago. This prequel is merely a newly imagined opening chapter to that incredibly well established narrative, and so the nihilistic horrors we endure cannot be the narrative end game, even if by implication; a hero will in fact rise after all. His name is Batman. And of course Batman/Bruce Wayne’s own well established back story is fairly horrific: as a boy he personally witnesses his parents’ murder. The scene is recreated late in this film, but that’s hardly some Todd Phillips nihilistic fantasy; it’s eight decades of Batman back story. The Batman universe might have originally been written for kids and teens, but Joker is a very adult take on it.

In constructing this version of Gotham, Phillips confronts a potentially brutal question: How awful must Gotham be to eventually produce so moody and troubled vigilante such as Batman, and for the city’s denizens to embrace such a brooding, tortured hero? The answer is, Pretty awful.

But more to the point, how awful must Gotham be to produce such a horrific villain as Joker?

Arthur Fleck is a victim long before he is a villain. His life is a story of abuse and exploitation. He suffers from mental health problems, partly inherited and partly exacerbated by childhood neglect, beatings, and deprivations. Despite being forever damaged and scarred by those horrors, Arthur has grown to be an adult with a heart full of goodwill. This in turn opens him up to exploitation. His mother exploits his love. A corrupt economy exploits his labor. False friends exploit his trust. And society’s nastier elements, which come at him from various angles, violently exploit his glaring vulnerabilities. Nor does Arthur garner any sympathy, either from a society that cuts him loose by slashing funding to social services he so desperately needs just to hang on, or from a wealthy man (young Bruce Wayne’s father) who claims to be the city’s savior even as patronizes and distances himself from its “lessers,” and angrily and violently denies Arthur the love he so desperately craves. And throughout it all, Arthur laughs. Not because he thinks its funny, but as a symptom of his deteriorating mental health.

Indeed. Villains are made, not born. As Arthur suffers beyond the breaking point, his clownish makeup begins to smear and adhere, disfiguring him and covering up his true self.

But we are not here to celebrate Arthur Fleck’s moral downfall and rise to villainy as Joker. That’s made clear when his own sense of tenuous success turns out to be nothing more than a series of psychotic hallucinations. Chief among them is a fantasy that his neighbor Sophie is his loving girlfriend. In reality, she flirted innocently with Arthur when he was fellow victim in a broken elevator. But as the evil begins to envelop and emanate from Arthur, she is terrified of him, any loving connection between them only one of Arthur’s delusions as he descends into madness.

Despite being one of the film’s many victims, it seems that Arthur’s fictive girlfriend escapes real trauma. Her potential suffering at Arthur’s hands, while quite scary, does not come to fruition on screen. Sparing her is perhaps his final act of kindness before the ultimate descent into evil. Or, if you think he did kill her and perhaps her child, then it is his final turn towards evil.

Either way, Sophie is our protagonist’s literary foil. Each is a victim, tied to each other through circumstance, but each’s suffering serves as a signpost to a different path in life. Sophie exists, in part, to tells us that Joker’s impending villainy is unjustified despite all his sufferings, and that his horribleness is tragic not heroic.

Furthermore, as Arthur’s mood and actions darken amid worsening circumstances, his slow bend from pure victim to iconic ultra villain is partly accidental. His violence begins in self-defense.  And he has no intention whatsoever of igniting a larger movement of chaotic social violence, but he will inspire one inadvertently, and that movement will literally find him and scoop him up.

Arthur’s pivotal and semi-sympathetic turn towards villainy accidentally inspires a new social movement of misguided populism. Initially attracting people who are rightly disgusted with their society’s failures, the movement soon grows antagonistic and violent. Its members anonymously pay homage to Arthur, whose true identity is unknown to them, by wearing clown masks. And as the movement turns darker, it mirrors Arthur’s crumbling personal life and descent into madness. Protests become violent and unfocused while Arthur’s tragicomic suffering and victimhood yields to a wild id of rage. If Arthur’s never-was girlfriend sees through him and represents his lost innocence, this social movement he accidentally inspired misinterprets his unintentional cues and blindly hurtles down the wrong path right along with him. And when Arthur’s transformation into Joker is nearly complete, when his violence is utterly unjustifiable despite even his obscene sufferings, it is a group of masked strangers, would-be loyalists, who violently free him from police custody, physically raise him up from the wreckage of a totaled police cruiser, and exalt him as their dark jester.

This penultimate scene explains how it is that Joker eventually gets his gang of criminals. He will not choose them, search for them, or even consider that they exist. Rather, as he gives in to madness and violence, they will find and choose him, and anoint him their King of Fools.

Those who crave a strong moral message, even if it is a subtle one, will be taken aback. One friend accused the film of casting bad and good characters as equals. But I do not think Joker is guilty of such a false equivalence. After all, Arthur’s would-be girlfriend has readily seen through his darkness and rejected it. So should the viewer.

So what is Joker? First and foremost it is the character study of a famous antagonist that serves as a vehicle for Joaquin Phoenix’s riveting performance. It is also a consideration of what produces evil. And perhaps most disorienting to many, it is an adult view of a comic book world sans any heroes.

As the credits roll, Gotham is nearing a new rock bottom, and is still more than a decade away from finding its dark paladin. For now and in the immediate future there will only be villains and victims. But an absence of heroes does not reduce villains and victims to equals. Rather, it leaves us to wonder how we might build a world without either of them.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com