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First as Farce, then as Tragedy

Joker is not just a supervillain origin story. It is also an anticipation of fascism. (Note: This article contains spoilers).

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Todd Phillips, the director of the comic book thriller Joker, has taken offense at what he deems to be “far left” criticism of his movie. Phillips rejects accusations that the film inspires white nationalism and “incel” violence, attributing these responses to political correctness and moral absolutism, which in his mind makes the “far left” as authoritarian as the “far right.” Phillips claims that his film simply depicts the Joker’s origins in a gritty and realistic manner, and that it does not act as an endorsement of the character himself. 

The film has generated concerns among law enforcement and the U.S. military that it will inspire mass shootings. When we saw it in New York City, five police officers stood at the entrance of the theater wielding machine guns. There has been a major incident of real world violence parallel with Batman-themed movies: on July 20, 2012, there was a mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. The shooter, James Holmes, killed 12 people and injured 70 others (58 from gunfire and 12 in the ensuing chaos).

Regardless of what Phillips says, this is a politically disturbing movie. Unable to distinguish between left and right forms of protest, Joker portrays an incipient fascist movement as a genuine mass movement: something left in form but reactionary in content. For Phillips, the masses are engaged in criminal mayhem instigated by the Joker, a narcissistic psychopath. In the world of Batman and Joker, the only way out is for more authoritarian rule. The alternatives are two sides of the same anti-democratic politics: the status quo of elite society, protected by a captain of industry like Thomas Wayne, and his son Bruce, or fascist revolution, which will displace the old elites with new and more brutal ones. In the film, Joker’s fascism appears democratic even though historically fascism has been a movement to control the masses; it steals the energies of mass discontent and rechannels them to reinforce the same system of capitalism. 

Whether Phillips knows it or not, Joker has a fascist unconscious. However fantastic it may seem, the movie rests on contemporary sociological foundations. While Phillips tries to give the film a working-class edge, it more closely mirrors the resentful mentality of petty-bourgeois elements in American life. Arthur Fleck, (played by Joaquin Phoenix), the emotionally disturbed and economically down-and-out man who eventually becomes the Joker, has the characteristics of a fascist agitator, sharing ideological affinities with today’s American alt-right scene. 

A New Joker is Born  

Joker begins with Arthur Fleck as a struggling adult working for an agency that sends him around a crumbling city to do odd jobs as a clown. He is frequently taunted and beat up in this role. Arthur lives in an old, small, dirty apartment with his invalid mother. He is malnourished and appears skeletal, chain-smoking cigarettes and documenting his disturbing and psychotic musings in a personal journal. From the beginning of the film, Arthur is open about his mental illness. He is on seven medications and requests increased dosages from his social worker. We see him commuting home on a city bus, making exaggerated faces at a young boy. When the boy’s mother asks him to stop bothering her child, he bursts into disconcerting laughter that lasts several seconds. He hands the woman a card that describes an unusual condition that he suffers from: he often explodes in uncontrollable laughter during inappropriate moments, and this laughter doesn’t always match how he’s really feeling inside. The card details that people who have suffered brain injuries and trauma can experience this.

Only halfway through the movie are we made aware of the lifetime of emotional and physical abuse that Arthur has endured. Adopted as a baby, he was tied to the radiator at a young age, and his mother let her boyfriend abuse him. Arthur suffered brain damage, constant bullying, and financial hardship as life continued. Arthur claims that he has never experienced one single minute of happiness. He concludes that his life is not a tragedy after all, but a comedy, and that he has nothing to lose.

This comes shortly after the audience is made aware that Arthur’s loving, fun, and romantic relationship with a woman who lives in his apartment building has all been crafted inside of his head. After they meet on the elevator, we see signs of Arthur stalking her as she drops her daughter off at school and commutes to work. He seems to harbor a misogynistic sense of entitlement. 

Scenes depict the two lovers strolling through Gotham City hand in hand, the “girlfriend” rubbing his back and kissing his cheek. They stop at a newsstand, where they glance at a paper with its front page detailing the murder of three businessmen on the subway. Not knowing that Arthur is the murderer, she tells him that whoever killed these three is her “hero.” However, this relationship is revealed as a grandiose, narcissistic delusion when we see Arthur in her apartment, sitting on her couch drenched, as she enters and confronts him as an intruder. 

Arthur’s transformation into the Joker begins with the murder of three drunk businessmen who were taunting him on the subway. As they kick and punch him to the ground, he pulls out a pistol and shoots them. He then sprints to the nearest bathroom, where he does a celebratory dance while staring at his own reflection in the mirror. 

Any last shred of Arthur’s humanity and potential for empathy is lost during the hospital scene where he suffocates his conscious mother to death with a pillow. Shortly after, Arthur evades two detectives who have been searching for him, as he watches them get dragged and beaten on the subway by rioters wearing clown masks. Once Arthur arrives on set at the Murray Franklin show, his transformation is complete. He requests to be introduced as “Joker.” In full costume, he walks on stage with his journal and tells disturbing jokes while making the audience feel uncomfortable. To everyone’s shock, he publicly admits to having murdered the three men on the subway. When Murray starts questioning his morality and his sanity, Joker asks: “What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” and then proceeds to shoot Murray, his comedy hero, in the face on live television.

Arthur’s attitude is elitist and celebrity-driven. He longs to be accepted by the billionaire Thomas Wayne, who he believes to be his father, along with the show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro. Contrary to his working-class background, Arthur’s quest for recognition and his lust for power have more to do with his own petty-bourgeois aspirations. In this way, Arthur closely resembles the character Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy. Ironically, Robert De Niro played Pupkin, a deranged narcissist, who also lived with his mother and dreamed of becoming famous. Pupkin kidnaps his talk show host idol, who is played by Jerry Lewis. While Pupkin, despite his crime, gains recognition and fame at the end of the movie, Arthur becomes famous through his killings and his crimes. 

In the final scenes of the film, Joker escapes custody and is surrounded by fellow rioters in clown masks, setting the city ablaze. As Joker becomes conscious and aware of his surroundings, he rises above the crowd and draws a smile across his face with his own blood. The crowd responds to Joker as their savior, cheering and showering him with love. As this is happening, Bruce Wayne is seen in a back alley, trying to escape the madness with his parents. A rioter follows them and shoots Thomas and his wife Martha, just after saying “You get what you deserve,” which is a line that Arthur says on the Murray Franklin show. Bruce is left traumatized, foreshadowing his own eventual journey and transformation into the “Caped Crusader,” Batman.

The scene cuts to a mental institution, where Joker is seen in all white in a sterile room with a case worker. He starts laughing uncontrollably and then says that he has come up with a new joke. When asked what the joke is, he simply responds, “You wouldn’t get it.” Moments later, he is seen exiting the room with blood on his shoes, implying that he has committed another murder. 

The History of the Joker as Social Barometer 

The image of the Joker, with his rictus grin, has been around since the era of German Expressionism. The 1928 film The Man Who Laughs first portrays a man named Gwynplaine (played by Conrad Veidt), who is disfigured as a result of torture as a young child, leaving him with a permanent grin. The face of Gwynplaine inspired the 1940 creation of the Joker supervillain in DC comics. While the Joker in the original comic books was portrayed as a ruthless serial killer, his image softened over the years, and he was increasingly depicted more as a ham than as a genocidal monster. This was especially true in characterizations of the Joker in the 1960’s, culminating in Cesar Romero’s onscreen performance of the Joker as an ineffective goofball in the 1966 Batman TV series. 

However, in the last thirty or so years, the Joker on the movie screen has been cast as a cynical, ultra-violent, and nihilistic force. Starting with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, the Joker, played by Jack Nicholson, is an over-the-top postmodern rendition of the character. This Joker runs a criminal syndicate, appears to the citizens of Gotham through their television screens, seducing and killing them with his charisma. He is the technicolor opposite to Batman’s black monochrome. The Joker here has some things in common with another 1980’s postmodern Manhattanite, namely Donald Trump: they are both products of Reaganism, and both liked to appear in television commercials with dramatic flair to promote their businesses. Nicholson’s Joker primarily sees himself not as a crook, but as a great artist, echoing Trump’s statements about his deal-making being akin to works of art, hence The Art of the Deal. Unlike other elites, they saw themselves as “men of the people,” in touch with the needs and desires of the average citizen. Donald Trump railed against the political establishment elites of Ed Koch’s New York, while the Joker denounced the political establishment of Gotham represented by Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne. And since Gotham was Washington Irving’s nickname for New York, Trump and Joker also share the same city.

Before Joaquin Phoenix, perhaps the most famous and iconic rendition of the Joker is Heath Ledger’s from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This version of the Joker is a nihilistic terrorist, a reflection of the neoconservative years of the Bush era’s “war on terror.” He is a self-described “agent of chaos” with no clear motive or, for that matter, a clear origin story. Like Gwynplaine’s character in The Man Who Laughs, his scars are permanently etched onto his face, and while he seems like a traumatized war veteran (as Patton Oswalt has pointed out), he only wants to see people driven to desperation and for Gotham to burn.

These Jokers are transparent reflections of the political climate of their times. They have all been leading up to the Joker of the present moment, namely an alt-right fascist Joker. Such premonitions of fascism in the form of supercriminals acting like political tyrants was well-described in Siegfried Kracauer’s 1947 study From Caligari to Hitler. Kracauer insisted that all the psychological traits of fascist dictatorship could be retroactively reconstructed in the films of interwar German Expressionism. According to Kracauer, these films depict the personality traits of a future fascist dictator, the traits, that is, of social outcasts yearning for love and recognition from a society that rejects them. These are precisely the traits that Phoenix’s Joker exhibits most profoundly. In attempting to overcome the fatal loneliness and rejection he feels, this Joker seeks revenge against society itself. It is uncanny how similar Phoenix’s Joker is to Kracauer’s character sketches of supercriminals of Weimar republic films like Homunculus and Dr. Mabuse, both of which Kracauer described as having Hitlerian traits.

Ironic Fascism in Joker 

The trait that connects the most recent iteration of the Joker to the alt-right is the social function of his laughter. This laughter is much more than mere silliness but has an evil and reactionary intent. Joker’s laughter is dehumanizing; in the film, he laughs at murder, at the realization of his child abuse, and he laughs when his co-worker is mocked for his short stature. When on the Murray Franklin show, Joker recites some dark humor about a drunk driver killing a child, and Murray protests that he has gone too far. In response, Joker says he is sick of not being able to laugh at “inappropriate” things; that society should not be the arbiter of what is right or wrong anymore. This echoes the alt-right cultural war against political correctness and “cultural Marxism,” starting with Milo Yiannopoulos’ attacks against minorities, masked as comedy, and ending with Andrew Anglin’s “ironic Nazism.” 

Like Joker’s notebook, Anglin released a 17-page playbook, detailing how his dehumanizing message is more acceptable if presented as humorous. Anglin said the tone of his Daily Stormer website should be “light,” relying on memes and other jokes to make his fascism more palatable. For Anglin, irony is a weapon to desensitize those who think fascism is taboo. As Anglin puts it in his journal, “There should be a conscious agenda to dehumanize the enemy, to the point where people are ready to laugh at their deaths. So it isn’t clear that we are doing this—as that would be a turnoff to most normal people—we rely on lulz….Dehumanization is extremely important, but it must be done within the confines of lulz.” While Joker makes fun of a drunk driver killing a child, Anglin himself sadistically mocked the murder of Heather Heyer. As he said, “I’m not feeling hate, I’m feeling amused” at the vehicular homicide of Heather Heyer at the hands of a neo-Nazi at the Charlottesville rally. 

Some commentators seem to be mistaken that Joker sparks an inspiring left-wing movement by the oppressed masses. While it is true that this Joker is portrayed as a struggling member of the working class, his mentality and reaction to this situation couldn’t be further from socialism. His psychology is thoroughly petty bourgeois and has more in common with a fascist upstart than a genuine tribune of the people. 

When Thomas Wayne calls the rioters “clowns,” we’re reminded of Hillary Clinton’s denunciation of Trump supporters as “deplorables.” Even though Wayne is called a fascist by the protestors, and the rioters attack the rich, their protest against the system is vague. Historically, fascism has tried to mimic the symbols and language of the left in what could be called a counter-revolutionary mimicry. Protests against the rich become narrowed to protests against a parasitic elite, who are cast as racially other from a more authentic society. Such vagueness has allowed fascist demagogues to substitute class war for race war, with the bourgeoisie reduced to “Jewish interests” subverting society. We even get a whiff of anti-Semitism in Phoenix’s Joker when he mocks Murray’s name in a stereotypical accent. 

In Joker’s hands, there is a fine line between a mass riot and a pogrom of individual killings. As Joker rises above the crowd in the final scenes, we see a master ready to dominate his herd. In their mystical union with Joker, the rioting clowns behold their new god. We see any democratic potential the riots had fade as these clowns are ready to turn into the Joker’s future shock-troops.

It is striking, and perhaps no coincidence, that a screening of a Charlie Chaplin movie makes an appearance in Phillips’ Joker. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin played a Hitlerian autocrat as a clown and a buffoon. Hitler and Goebbels were often portrayed as clowns in Weimar-era political cartoons: their wild, emotional appeals; their crying and strutting on the political stage had all the aspects of a comedy. But to invert Marx, fascism is a case of the farce preceding the tragedy, and what we see in the latest Joker movie is what Kracauer warned us of in his analysis of interwar films: that what we see on the screen is a foreshadowing of what could be. 

We must fight against this fascist unconscious becoming conscious in flesh-and-blood reality before it is too late.

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Harrison Fluss

Harrison is a philosophy professor who lives in Manhattan

Sam Miller

Sam lives and teaches in New York City.

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