In Joker, the rich are perpetrators, not saviours – and the Wayne family sits at the top of this pyramid of poverty and inequality
The establishment’s knives were out before the film was even released. Commentators warned of the irresponsibility of releasing a work so clearly designed to appeal to the murderous urges of the sexually frustrated male. Masks and weapons were loudly banned from screenings – as if these would be normal fare for other showings. Police were on standby for the inevitable shooting rampages that failed to emerge. Even the FBI and US Military raised the spectre of ‘incel shooting rampages.’
And what they couldn’t warn away from with hysteria, they mocked. “Due to safety precautions no guys who look like they’ve never had sex will be admitted to tonight’s screening” reads the sign at the Arclight Cinema – part of the dominant narrative on the internet that if you liked they film, if you were excited for its release then you are obviously a loser who fantasises about making society, especially women, pay for your failures. The film was apparently made for the kind of desperate alt-right guy who inhabits the manosphere, reads Return of Kings and calls people ‘cucks’.
“One ticket to the Joker please” is the most common meme used to dismiss the film – posted under pictures of archetypal incel rejects, or infamous right-wing buffoons such as Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson.
But is this accurate? If the film did indeed appeal to the alt-right, this alone should not condemn it – wrong people can be right now and then, especially on matters of culture. But it doesn’t.
It’s a very straightforwardly left-wing film.
All the assumptions, and the years of Joker gags – such as the oblique ‘we live in a society’ meme – are based on Christopher Nolan’s batman trilogy, not director Todd Phillips’ vision in Joker.
Nolan made three highly entertaining blockbusters that were true to the source material – i.e. touching on fascistic themes, where a great man, strong in every way, from top of society, has to violently guide the ignorant masses away from chaos and self-destruction. Crime, in Nolan’s Batman, is committed out of a taste for evil rather than being an outcome of poverty. Phillips’ take could not be more different.
In Joker, the rich are perpetrators, not saviours – and the Wayne family sits at the top of this pyramid of poverty and inequality. It is hard to see how the infant Bruce will go on to become anything other than a wholly negative, revenge-crazed bully if Phillips goes on to make a Batman film in this universe.
All this subversion and creativity has, of course, passed by the guardians of taste – especially those liberal outlets that aim to speak for the conscientious or ‘woke’ youth.
“Apparently, After All That Drama, ‘Joker‘ Is Terrible: the reviews of Todd Phillips’s new movie are in, and they’re brutal” – boomed Vice gleefully – having to admit that the “audience reception to Joker thus far has been much, much more positive than the critic response, having earned the movie a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 93%.”
“In trying to be edgy and provocative, this re imagined Joker is at best tedious and at worst problematic and harmful” opined Daniel Welsh for the Huffington Post. The film was “nihilistic” and its violent outbursts “without consequence” – and despite the fact that literally every other mainstream Hollywood action film glorifies ‘might makes right’ violence far more than Joker, it was “the first film I’ve seen in a long time that I don’t just wish I hadn’t watched, but wish hadn’t been made at all.”
The pitch is fear – and they are right to be afraid. Joker is a dangerous film – for all the right reasons.
Where its inspirations are complex – Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, all of Scorsese in fact – Joker is not. Joker comes into its own with the combination of the style of the 20th century film greats, including Coppola and Kubrick, whose work is always morally ambiguous and mature, with the black and white certainties of the comic-book world. Because we have suspended our disbelief and demands for balance as soon as we sit down to anything, no matter how loosely, that derives from comics.
Whilst the gorgeous composition and arrangement of the shots is rich and full of depth, the ethics and the plot are deliberately and openly shallow. While Joacquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is hardly a goody, there are certainly baddies. Identifying them places the film firmly on the left.
Who are the baddies? The baddies are the rich and the powerful. And why are they baddies? Because they abuse those below them, then heap blame their victims, and – in the case of De Niro’s talk show host character – humiliate them.
Far, far from being a film that supports snake-oil salesmen like Shapiro and Peterson, this film is more likely to get them shot: the ideology of the modern American right, that everything would be fine if it were not for the laziness and self-pity pushed on the masses by feminism and civil rights, that real men just need to trample over the weaklings – this is exactly what the film’s bad guys believe.
The work ends with Gotham in uproar, a violent insurrection lead by masked clowns that looks closer to the inner city riots of Detriot and Los Angeles than modern day Occupy, despite the Anonymous-esque masks – this follows as the film is set in a Gotham that is clearly early 1980s New York, unsanitised, pre-CCTV and Zero Tolerance policing.
The Gotham riots have started in reaction to the richest man Gotham, Thomas Wayne, making an announcement that he would run for mayor in which he dismissed the city’s dispossessed as “clowns.” Wracked by poverty and deprivation, the idea that city’s brash, old-money patriarch has decided to do away with middle-men politicians and rule directly by and for the rich, is too much – and the streets explode.
The rebellion is also inspired by Arthur Fleck, prior to becoming the Joker, shooting three “wall street guys” in self-defence on the subway – an incident the media chalk up to “anti-rich vigilantism” in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Wayne Manor and various Wayne Corp skyscrapers loom over Gotham like Trump Tower and his other monstrosities loom over New York. Although Micheal Moore has argued the film, being set in the past, is about the ‘world that gave us trump rather than trump himself’, I insist we should deliberately avoid nuance and complexity in appreciating the work: viewers are going to see Trump, and they are right to.
In this left-wing fantasy world however, instead of inspiring a renegade movement in support of him, this Trump only inspires anger – they, the subject that scares the professional commentariat so much, rise up against him.
The film is largely gimmick and catchphrase free – there are few laughs, even fewer murders, and the two are never combined. The one catchphrase, “you get exactly what you deserve” is delivered without humour, despite being the punchline to an intended joke.
Yes, it may well be delivered by angry Americans in the future as they discharge firearms into those they feel have wronged them – it might; but if their targets are black churches, synagogues or women students on campus, it will have no fidelity to the film.
Because the film sets its sights squarely on the rich and powerful who block the path to justice and equality, on those that enact policies cutting healthcare, throwing people like Arthur Fleck, a survivor of childhood abuse, out on their ear: as his state-appointed therapist tells him the city has cut both his appointments with her and his psychiatric medication, as if we needed it made any clearer what the political compass of the film was, she adds: “They don’t care about people like you and me.”
The scene, which will no doubt be made all about Fleck’s ‘sense of entitlement to female sympathy’ or similar, is actually far better understood through the prism of class: she’s angry, she’s lost her job, and she tells an unstable man who to blame. It’s a flash of class consciousness, irresponsible as it may be.
The real left that cares about material issues over listing the invisible offences and ‘problematic themes’ in popular culture, should embrace Joker. It’s certainly not to be emulated in any way, and if someone did shoot Jeremy Kyle and Richard Branson tomorrow, it would not be particularly productive; but this injection of social issues into a populist vehicle like Joker is welcome, and the terror it has inspired in the establishment is something we should revel in.
If the issues raised by the film – poverty, healthcare, cuts to social provision, unemployment, right-wing demagogues turning us against each other – are ignored by establishment critics in favour of pithy insults about the lack of sex the downtrodden must have, then they are really little different from the conceited industrialist Thomas Wayne and De Niro’s cruel talk show host. And as a society – and we do live in a society – if the liberal elite, along with the right-wing elite, continue to do that too… well…
They’ll get exactly what they deserve.