Why JOKER May Be The Defining Movie Of 2019

This contains spoilers for Joker.

They told us there would be death. It started with the first trailer, with people saying they weren’t interested in a movie that explained away a white man’s violence by showing him as a victim, and it continued with critics and journalists saying the film would be a beacon to violent incels, that it would spark shootings, that theaters would be dangerous places. The feedback loop of modern internet society was such that the fears of violence mashed up with knee-jerk trolling to create a liminal space where it was so unclear what was real and what was a joke that the FBI and US military issued advisories.

But nobody died. There have been some fights, but I’ll tell you as someone who has worked in movie theaters/movie theater adjacent jobs that this is not out of the ordinary. It’s just the movie itself that makes these fisticuffs newsworthy; I’ve seen people get into it at animated films. 

Instead of people dying, Joker has been a huge success. It’s the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time and it is approaching $1 billion in worldwide box office. It made more in its opening weekend than Justice League, a PG-13 straight down the middle movie, did in its opening weekend. It’s not just a hit, it’s a phenomenon, drawing people to a staircase in the Bronx down which Joker triumphantly dances in the film. 

And the reach of the film has gone even wider. Anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Chile and Iraq have taken to the streets in Joker make-up, and very specifically the make-up worn by Joaquin Phoenix in this film. While in the United States there’s a lot of racial baggage surrounding any depiction of an aggrieved white man, that baggage doesn’t quite travel around the world and these protesters prove that there’s something in this film that’s speaking to people on a very fundamental level.

I think it’s worth taking a step back and seeing how unusual Joker truly is for a movie of this scale. The R-rated films it leapfrogged to get to the top spot all make sense as high grossers – the comedy/action Deadpool movies and the action-oriented nostalgia-fest of Logan (yes, it’s a nostalgia movie. A whole generation grew up with that iteration of that character over 20 years). You have to go back to 2004’s The Passion of the Christ to get to a movie that feels comparable to Joker – a film that is actively unpleasant, not fun, 

Joker is an honestly unpleasant movie, and not just a copy of unpleasant movies of the past. It is that, on some level – it’s manifestly and openly a riff on Taxi Driver and King of Comedy – but there’s real misanthropy at the core of Joker. That comes from Todd Phillips, the director, who made some of the most anti-human comedies of the century, the Hangover trilogy. Those films started mean and only got meaner, until The Hangover 3 was barely even a comedy and more of a series of snapshots of human cruelty. 

That’s always been Phillips. I was talking about Joker with a friend who knows Phillips, saying the movie was was mean and ugly and nihilistic, and the friend said “That’s Todd.” It’s always been Todd – you don’t make Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies as your first film unless there’s something about nastiness and ugliness that moves you. That’s not a critique – I like GG Allin, I like Hated and I am also naturally drawn to the uglier, meaner side of things. I don’t have any personal opinions on who Todd Phillips is as a human, although I’ve briefly interacted with him on a few occasions. Rather this is to make the point that Joker is a movie that comes by its unpleasantness in the honest way – it channels it through its filmmaker. Which is quite similar to the situation with Passion of the Christ, a movie that reflects its director’s obsession with the cleansing nature of violence. There’s a real particular view of Christianity on display in that movie, and it’s all Mel Gibson all the way down. 

So here’s an R-rated movie that’s mostly a drama – it has very little action – and that is deeply unpleasant. It’s often mean-spirited, in fact. It’s not a traditional good time at the movies, and here it is knocking up against the magical billion dollar mark. Critics have long bemoaned the lack of adult-oriented dramas in the multiplex, and here comes one with a vengeance. Of course, as the Crypt Keeper noted: “Be careful what you axe for… you might just get it.”

Why is Joker such a phenomenon? For one, it’s pretty good. I think this is the most controversial thing I’ll say here, as there are many people deeply invested in the idea that this film is terrible. It’s not a masterpiece by any means, and in any other year this probably wouldn’t hit as hard, but it’s a pretty good movie. I think it does some interesting things with the Joker character and the Batman mythos, even if it makes us watch Batman’s origin yet again. I was against the very concept of this movie – giving the Joker an origin is, imo, manifestly stupid – but I actually think Phillips navigates these waters pretty well. The nature of the corporate entertainment world is such that because this movie made so much money this will become Joker’s de facto origin, but the movie itself doesn’t come down so concretely, and still offers some ambiguity about who the Joker is and where he comes from.

But beyond that nerdy shit the movie basically works as a movie. It’s a little sluggish at times (one of the reasons it’s surprising the film has been such a hit), but it’s compelling. I wrote a few months ago that I liked the script for the movie, and the film I saw is pretty close to the script I read. More than the script, what sends the movie to the next level is the intensity of Phoenix’s performance. There is so much agony inside of him, and he’s not expressing it in ways that feel hackneyed or overdone. 

In fact the way that Phoenix represents Arthur Fleck’s suffering is a key to the popularity and impact of the movie. What he captures is an essentially modern twist on Travis Bickle as God’s Lonely Man, except that where Bickle had a mythology of dominance in his head, Fleck stands naked without any such myth. Bickle, as a vet and a man of some internal discipline, believes there’s a way the world should be. It’s interesting that his other offspring, Rorschach of Watchmen, is having his presence felt again in the culture through HBO’s sequel series; where Rorschach carries Bickle’s deep conviction of what society and the world should be (both are obsessed with what they see as scum clogging the streets of the city. Both men know they are not good, decent people but they believe they need to make the streets safe for good, decent people), Fleck has no such vision. What’s really modern about Fleck is that he is motivated entirely by resentment – he has no idea of what the system should be, he just knows that the system is hopelessly against him. 

This is the shape of the exact political moment in which we find ourselves. We have not lost faith in the system, we have come to understand that it is absolutely and entirely rigged against us. What’s more, we’re starting to realize that it isn’t just the system under which we toil that is rigged against us, it’s all systems everywhere. The protests that have convulsed cities around the world are not always easily broken down into left/right concepts, but rather are often deeply populist in a way that transcends political theology. While many of the protests are solidarity movements they are motivated in large part by grievances that impact the individual – Chile’s fire began with the spark of a subway fare hike. 

So Arthur Fleck, trapped in the middle of this hostile system, is the perfect avatar for the moment. All that he knows is that everything is fundamentally unfair, and when he finally gets what he wants – to be on TV, the ultimate dream of a society that has traded fame for meaning – he discovers that even achieving his goals makes him the butt of all the jokes. You can’t win because there is no winning. Fleck learns the same lesson as WHOPR in War Games – the game is so rigged, so hopeless, that the only way to win is simply not to play. 

Of course his version of ‘not playing’ is quite different from that of the protesters, either in real life or in the movie. Fleck rejects all rules and simply does what he wants – what he’s always wanted to do. What’s interesting is that at first he thinks what he wanted to do was kill himself, but it dawns on him that that’s no fun. When he kills the douchebags on the subway he thinks he’ll feel bad, but he discovers that it makes him feel great. He has transcended the rules of the game and discovered the cheat code that puts him into God Mode. He has a new freedom in anarchy, and rather than destroy himself he decides to destroy what he believes has been oppressing him – his mother, his coworker, his TV idol.

Who Joker chooses to murder represents the structures that make us miserable: family, work, a hegemonic culture of cruelty. His first killings, not really a fully conscious decision, represent destroying the 1%, the moneyed elite. The movie is weirdly silent on religion, and there probably should be a priest that Joker kills, but I suspect that you can slot Murray Franklin into that role – TV/entertainment has overtaken the pulpit as a moral arbiter in our lives. God’s already dead before Arthur Fleck puts on his make-up.

In the script for Joker he’s never called Arthur Fleck; other characters may use that name, but the script always, from page 1, refers to him as Joker. I think that’s vital to what people are reacting to in this film. This isn’t an origin story, this isn’t the story of how a man became Joker. It’s the story of how Joker woke up inside the man, it’s the story of Joker finding his voice. It’s very much the Batman story in reverse – Bruce Wayne is a mask that Batman wears, but Arthur Fleck is the make-up Joker washes off. 

That speaks to the moment as well; it doesn’t feel like we’re learning the world is unfair or bad or that the systems are in place to keep up down because we have always known that. We’ve known that our whole lives. We’ve pretended otherwise, just as Joker pretended to be Arthur Fleck for so long. We believed that if we put in the effort that it would pay off, but in the last couple of years it became clear there was no payoff. It was all a joke, and we’re the butt of it. We’re waking out of our delusion.

In America the whiteness of Joker carries some specific meanings and clouds what is supposed to be a more generalized story about personalized oppression (is there such a thing as an Everyman character in the 21st century anymore? Even that word is loaded in modern times), but I believe that stuff – which is valid and worth discussing – really only registers to academics and people very involved in social movements. Average moviegoers of any ethnicity and gender, trained by a lifetime of white men as default Everymans, just take the central message of the system being rigged against us. And it’s worth noting that every single person Joker kills before being captured is white, with most of his victims men. This feels like calculation to keep the movie out of the crosshairs of bloggers, but I think it pays off in the larger messaging – even rich white guy Todd Phillips gets that it’s rich white guys who are making everything so bad. 

Joker acts as a reply to The Dark Knight, where Heath Ledger’s Joker has his whole worldview upended by the good people of Gotham. They stand behind the billionaire who beats up the poor, and they choose order over a chaos that could bring something new to Gotham. In Joker the exact opposite happens – not only do the poor of Gotham rally behind the system, the deciding factor is an inmate, who has certainly been abused by that system, making the choice to support it! You get the sense that if that moral quandary played out with the Gothamites of Joker they’d opt to blow up both boats just to get at the bastards onboard.

In The Dark Knight the people stand behind Batman. In Joker they kill his parents.

This is where Phillips’ unpleasantness really comes into play, with a deeply nihilistic view of the human spirit. There are two ways for the movie to go – when Joker kills Murray Franklin the people could turn on him or they could get so riled up the whole city burns. The city burns as people are inspired by his ultimate act of anarchic destruction – he so deeply doesn’t care about the rules that he commits murder on live TV and kind of hangs around afterwards. He’s not fighting the system at this point, he’s basically refusing to acknowledge it.

There’s a discussion to be had about whether the film’s ambulance-crashing ending is real or if it’s all in Joker’s head. It’s the most heightened, unrealistic part of the movie, and the film abruptly cuts from Joker dancing in the streets to him in Arkham. But whether or not that’s imaginary, it speaks to the larger themes of the whole thing. Nobody in the city has an illusion that Joker stands for anything beyond “burn it all down,” there’s no sense that the people of Gotham look to him as a leader. He’s just the one who showed them all the door, a door through which they gleefully walked. 

He’s Donald Trump. He’s Jill Stein. He’s the idea of voting for Brexit because it would be funny. He transcends ideology because the only ideology that matters right now is “I’m mad as hell.” He’s the inchoate cry against everything that is, but without a vision for anything better.

This is why, in the end, Joker is a deeply juvenile movie. Tearing it all down is the easiest thing; any asshole can do that. It’s the building up that’s hard. Seeing that your situation is bad is indeed the first step towards changing it, but you can’t get stuck there. Joker is an avatar for people who complain on Twitter all day, who just reply to the President’s every tweet. Maybe the most vital thing in this movie is that Arthur Fleck isn’t funny – really, truly isn’t funny (although I did laugh at his knock knock joke). He’s not even anti-comedy in the Andy Kaufman vein because he doesn’t know he’s not funny. He sucks. If he had been some kind of misunderstood genius, or if he has blossomed into hilarity when he finally started killing people… that, I think would actually make the movie as dangerous as its early detractors thought it would be. 

But Arthur Fleck is a pathetic man who never contributes anything, who lives in delusion. There’s a Joaquin Phoenix interview where he says he thinks Arthur’s mugging early in the film doesn’t even happen, that it’s all in his head. When he’s attacked by the Wayne stockbrokers on the subway one of them sings a whole chunk of Send in the Clowns, which seems really unlikely. Unless, of course, that’s all in his head. With that in mind his final triumphant dance seems more likely a delusion as well – no reason his delusions would stop just because he became aware he had imagined a whole relationship with his neighbor. 

Anyway, this is the movie’s saving grace. Because Phillips is riffing on King of Comedy as well as Taxi Driver (by the way, I’ve read critiques of Robert DeNiro’s performance in this film, especially that he’s stilted and phoning it in. He is delivering lines exactly like Rupert Pupkin. Murray Franklin is Rupert Pupkin, down to the timing and intonation of his punchlines) Joker ends up being kind of a dipshit. If there were only Travis Bickle in this movie I think Joker would have come across as too cool, just as that character troublingly has for many moviegoers. But because there’s Rupert Pupkin in there – the man whose battle cry was “Better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime” – Joker becomes a tragically inept figure.

Even that is unpleasant, of course. There’s King of Comedy all over Joker but it’s the griminess of Taxi Driver that informs the DNA of the film. It’s Pupkin without the cringe comedy, without the deranged hopefulness. One of the reasons people came up with the theory that the end of Taxi Driver is a death dream is because they couldn’t quite process the intense nihilism of Bickle becoming a hero for his self-destructive rampage, the way that it pointed the finger back at who society upholds. That same nihilism is present in the ending of King of Comedy, as it seems Pupkin becomes a sensation, but it’s so much gentler. Joker has it both ways. 

If it’s the patheticness of Joker that makes the movie work even in its juvenile nature, I hope it’s that same patheticness that keeps him only as symbol for the mass anti-government protests around the globe. I hope people recognize that the tearing down of old structures may be a goal, but it can’t be the end, or the whole point. Sometimes these symbols are needed to jolt us, to embolden us, but avatars of destruction need to be supplanted by avatars of hope and construction. 

But Phillips isn’t interested in hope and construction. That means in some ways it’s fitting that Joker’s influence on Gotham ends up creating the person who strives to bring an order as violent as the chaos he brings. This idea, which I think dates to Burton’s Batman, literalizes the concept of Batman and Joker as a self-actualizing system, a yin and yang in perpetual conflict. Maybe that is the most nihilistic thing about Todd Phillips’ version of Joker – the attempts to destroy the system will only lead to the system growing new defenses to destroy you.