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October 21, 2019688Views

Joker or Woker? The Ideological Battle Over a Comic Villain's Origin Story

Thomas Cobb reviews Joker and looks at the socio-political wranglings among the commentariat over its true message

The release of Joker has inspired outpourings of approval from sources hitherto opposed to the mores of mainstream Hollywood cinema. Paul Joseph Watson, a YouTube star who has routinely cited the perniciousness of Hollywood social liberalism and popular culture, viewed the film as elucidative of the evils wrought by the mainstream media and the pathologisation of masculinity. Stefan Molyneux, a prolific YouTube philosopher, has drawn plenty of insight from Todd Phillips' film whilst being highly critical of its tone and violence. Their lengthy readings of this picture, however, miss its skilful skewing and distortion of contemporary populism, a sleight of hand layered with moral equivalence. Like Quentin Tarantino's recent Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Joker co-opts edgy and distinctly un-PC elements to disguise its fundamental nihilism and endorsement of values synergetic with the very malaises it purports to lament.

Joker is set in Gotham City circa 1981 and follows the travails of Arthur Fleck, a man in his 30s whose life consists of one humiliation after another. Around the beginning of the film, Fleck dresses as an advertising clown and is robbed by street children, consequently losing a sign deemed important by his employer. His struggles are strongly exacerbated by a neurological condition which causes him to laugh at inopportune and incongruous moments. A depressing scene on a bus sees Fleck hand a card revealing his condition to a nervous mother and establishes the identity of a man whose existence has been inescapably pathologised. The prevalence of stigmatisation is worsened by Fleck still living with his mother, a dynamic which adds a touch of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to the already macabre proceedings. As if things weren't toe-curling enough, Fleck harbours aspirations of becoming a stand-up comedian, despite having little charisma and woeful comic timing.

There is so much to extrapolate from Joker for predisposed critics of progressive thought. Is it a cautionary tale against the glibness of 'neurodiversity', a school of thought which argues that neurological disorders such as autism and Tourette's (which Fleck seems to have an acquired form of) have desirable characteristics? A warning against identitarian politics and its exclusion of white men who happen to be disadvantaged, as Fleck undoubtedly is? Or just a scintillating story of how liberal elites ignore the plight of the 'left behind' classes? The casting of Robert De Niro, who of course played a disturbed loner in Scorsese's iconic Taxi Driver (1976) and conversely plays an out of touch comedian in Joker, perhaps most cements the third potential reading.

To surrender to this thinking, however, is to succumb to a subterfuge which masks the hollow moral equivalency of Joker's politics. As if to counteract any comprehensive reading of his picture as charged by MGTOW and anti-identitarian politics, director Todd Phillips ensures that the most seismic plot development is also its most ideologically Marxist. The shooting by a clown Fleck of three drunken white men on a subway, who happen to be yuppie employees of the billionaire Wayne family's corporation, is a transformative moment, an act of insurrection which inspires demonstrations against inequality and political indifference. It's at this point in the picture that Fleck's vitriol against the world becomes kaleidoscopic, extending beyond the predations of street thugs to the perceived excesses of America's financial elites. The fact that Fleck's shooting is not entirely offensive and provoked by beatings inflicted by two of the men only further embellishes the provocations which underlie the disturbed man's cause, now consisting of shibboleths which deem it appropriate to punch up as well as sideways.

Perhaps Phillips included an anti-rich element because he wanted to convey the essential inarticulacy and ideological bricolage of our era. At a time when rhetoric against Wall Street, globalisation and neoliberalism (now more of a bipartisan condemnation than in previous decades) permeates both American political parties, maybe Joker connotes a sound and fury against rootless bankers which is distinctly unpartisan. Like the anti-elitist elements of the Brexit vote in the UK, which established a convergence between the interests of urban working class Labour voters and the traditionally conservative shires outside London, maybe 'everyday' Americans are going through a similarly encompassing process of assertiveness over their globalist betters. Yet the role and depiction of billionaire father Thomas Wayne, formerly incarnated as a patriarch of noblesse obliges persuasion in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005), proves an ulterior agenda.

Galvanised by the deaths of his employees on the subway, Wayne appears on TV in the second act to announce that he is running for mayor to save Gotham from carnage. The 'reimagining' of Wayne, along with the timing of his appearance, is incredibly redolent of Trump's entry into the Republican race in 2015. Portrayed as a confident blowhard, this Thomas Wayne is far from the genteel old world figure of prior representations, instead conditioned by a pugnacity and haughtiness affinitive with the current US president. Yet his cause, which hints at protection of the rich and a championing of order rather than anti-globalism, implicitly allegorises Trump as a consolidative force, a defender of status quo privilege and the gilded classes. This is again, like the inverted dynamics of the Bernard Goetz killings interpretable in the film's subway shootings, perceivably Marxist.

Much of these potential readings are overshadowed by the luridness of Joker's third act and its unadulterated nihilism. One bizarre plot development involves the speculation that Thomas Wayne could be Fleck's father, an idea disseminated by Fleck's mother, who claims to be a former employee for Wayne Enterprises. This rivals the revelation in Sam Mendes' Spectre (2015) that Bond and Blofeld shared a childhood history in terms of small world, insular audacity. It only escalates from here. In a staggeringly creepy scene, Fleck visits the Wayne family mansion and starts to greet a child Bruce Wayne in a way that can only be deemed deeply uncomfortable. It's clear at this point that Fleck won't become the crazed genius of Heath Ledger's Joker, who at least did grandiose stuff like burning piles of money and facilitating the dramatic destruction of a key character from a police cell. This is the formation of an incel Joker: maladjusted, unglamorous and disquieting to watch on-screen. The final scenes epitomise the emptiness of such a portrayal.

A shock plot development reveals that Fleck is an adoptee and his 'mother' is in fact a foster parent who violently abused him as a child (why Fleck still remained in her care after this horrific event, which caused his debilitating neurological disorder and was published in Gotham's press, is never made clear). The idea of Thomas Wayne being Fleck's father is thus a red herring, designed to put us off balance before the catharsis of finding out the trauma wrought on this future villain. Fleck's murder of his mother is followed by a rapid descent into carnage. He savagely executes one of his former work colleagues before heading for a guest appearance on Murray Hamilton's comedy show (a contrived event facilitated through the comedian's discovery of a videotape showcasing Fleck's staggeringly poor standup at a local club). The climactic execution of Murray, a former idol of Fleck's, points to Phillips' rationale for making Joker, epitomised in the truism that 'woke culture ruined comedy'. Yet Phillips, who made the boorish Hangover trilogy, fails to provide the truly incisive edge which could have made Joker a wholesale repudiation of wokeness. The epilogue, a fanboyish spectacle which ties the killing of Thomas Wayne into the narrative, depicts mass uprisings prompted by Murray's departure and hints that it all might be a dream, establishes more amorphous aims.

In short, those who try to mine Joker for political ammunition, whether on the left or right, are inevitably going to be faced with countervailing plot elements which render their arguments hollow. Nevertheless, politicised readings have been rife. As mentioned, Paul Joseph Watson hailed this picture as a truly remarkable break with Hollywood liberal hegemony. Stefan Molyneux devoted extensive attention to a subplot which revolves around Fleck's romance with a single mother next door in his apartment building, needlessly extrapolating a section of the film which could have been excised.

I expect watching Joker for a second time will prove an emptier experience than the first, especially given that so much of its novelty derives from Joaquin Phoenix's chilling performance rather than any narrative dynamism. Right wing defenders of the film might vaunt its portrayal of the downfall of a single, oppressed white male, but Joker is in the end symptomatic of the very sound and fury it seeks to sensitively reify, spiralling in all sorts of directions, but ultimately quietly straddling a bien pensant political agenda. Much like Yoda says about the dark side cave in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), politically you'll find in Joker what you take in with you. That so many right wing people have found elements that can be made to suit their own view though doesn't negate the inherent leftist message present in the film – but a film being made in today's hyper-liberal Hollywood that can even allow for a right-leaning reading by itself makes Joker worthy of note, if not artistically then at least as a curiosity.

Thomas Cobb

Thomas Cobb writes on American foreign policy, history and culture. He is particularly interested in presidential elections and the dramatic realignments interpretable from their results.

 

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