The Gotham City of Joker exists in a sort of 1980s purgatory. By design, the film never explicitly dates itself beyond the Carter- and Reagan-era cars and television sets dotting the screen. Instead it opts to inhabit a perpetual socioeconomic moment. Sort of like the 1940s noir-ish backdrop of Tim Burton’s Batman, Todd Phillips’ Joker adopts the policies and attitudes of the 1980s, ad infinitum. On top of this, the world of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) adds a toxic dose of naked, rapacious cruelty we can only recognize as being of this era, the Trump era.
While ensconced in a 1980s quasi-dystopia, Joker remains a cultural and psychological indictment of the 2010s. It is a hyper-cynical echo of the fragile hope that defined the beginning of this decade, when the Occupy Wall Street protests awakened class consciousness to a degree unseen in decades, only to be crushed by the individual material interests imposed by austerity and privatization. The coup-de-grace to those protests truly was an act of the kind of callous irony that permeates Joker: It was the interests of capital which created the housing crisis and ensuing recession, and it was the interests of capital that diffused and disarmed the spell of opposition that sprouted from it. The lesson learned was that protests of that kind cannot sustain themselves while existing in a system that relies on the same material interests foisted upon them. To truly combat such a system, one must have nothing to lose. One must be able to transcend the labels and conditions imposed by the system.
Arthur Fleck’s journey towards becoming a true, existential threat to private wealth is therefore an overt slap-in-the-face to the naive sincerity of Christopher Nolan’s Gotham City. Here, in the hyper-cynical world of Arthur Fleck, nothing changes, but somehow things always seem to be getting worse. Justice is an illusion. Decency is an artifact of chivalry. All social mobility is defined by a single, crude dictum: That you are either a winner or a loser, and to become a winner you must step on the losers. This is no world for an earnest or hopeful thought. Here, irony of the most callous variety reigns supreme. It is this kind of irony, and how it is used to weaponize and sterilize culture, that I wish to discuss. As futile and self-perpetuating, postmodern irony can be taken as the defining cultural product of late-stage capitalism. Joker mimes this cultural product by taking the form of a rotten onion: You can peel back each layer until you get to a rotten, insubstantial nub in the center.
Consider Arthur Fleck: an earnest, naive, and sentimental sod who wants to do well by himself and others. He wants to earn an honest living. He wants to love and be loved. He wants to care for his mother. He wants to overcome his mental illness. He wants to work on an artistic dream—a dream where he is a stand-up comedian. All this is met by a universe that seems worse than indifferent—it appears as if nature has been designed to spite Fleck in particular. But this appearance is only our process of sympathizing with a figure who is merely a victim of socioeconomic injustice—and also, incidentally, a character with whom we know we should not be sympathizing.
It is not enough that the Joker is a ubiquitous and time-tested pop cultural villain; we must also be subjected to media scolds who presume to know what is best for our entertainment diets. What’s so especially cruel about Arthur Fleck’s circumstances—or really any alienated, down-and-out individual in a hyper-ironic, hyper-capitalist society—is that indifference is almost indistinguishable from malicious design. That we cannot tell the difference between the two makes it all the more tempting to assume some nefarious design, for at least design would lend some sense of being “special,” as Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) refers to Fleck in one of Fleck’s delusions.
Arthur is affected by a mental condition that forces him to laugh uncontrollably. The laughter is so intense he almost chokes on it. Unsurprisingly, this gets him into trouble. Genuine laughter, in a postmodern late capitalist society, is a regulated commodity. There are times and there are places to laugh, and Fleck’s condition often places him outside of those parameters—at odds with Wall Street blowhards who can only tolerate being in on the joke; with Murray Franklin, who scolds him on live television for telling an offensive joke; with social workers whose own relevance is at odds with a welfare state captured by an anti-welfare ethos; and with bus commuters who are so beaten down by the demands of “life” in a neoliberal hellscape that they’re forced to interpret the friendly intent of strangers as catty sarcasm.
Here we begin to see the layers of irony start to peel back, as irony becomes weaponized in service of social fragmentation. The social welfare state is in retreat. Public services are on strike. Unregulated capital is exacerbating wealth inequality, as it naturally does, lending an air of inevitability to its existence and rendering opposition futile. The powers of capital, symbolized by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), label protesters of this reality “jokers.”
The implication here is that anyone who complains about their treatment in such a heartless and unforgiving culture is not to be taken seriously; the project of capitalism depends on the alienation of those who would object. To abide their concerns cannot serve the interests of profit. Moreover, this is a society that lacks the creativity to imagine an alternative—that, too, has been jettisoned in favor of the selfish, material needs imposed by the system. Gotham City, in that sense, is an abject symbol of capitalist realism, which Mark Fisher described as the “sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”.
Those who would deign to protest such a system—let alone imagine an alternative—must, then, be seen as insincere rabble-rousers, with no goal other than to sew chaos and destruction. Because what alternative is there? What other purpose might one have?
The irony, again, is that the masks worn by protesters—the clown masks symbolizing ironic detachment from the wellbeing of private property and its defenders—conceal a truer, nobler, more sympathetic appeal for equality. That they wear masks shows they’ve learned the lesson that Occupy Wall Street did not, which is that the earnest pursuit of economic justice—or, in a cultural sense, the earnest reclamation of sincerity from the stranglehold of irony—must take the form of irony. To be taken seriously one must relinquish any claim to sincerity.
On top of this you have Arthur Fleck himself, who says he has nothing to do with the protestors—one of the truest statements he makes in the film. He has no political or economic motivations precisely because the economic system he lives in has beaten it out of him. It has peeled away every layer of intent—good or bad—to reveal a rotten, decrepit core of nihilism.
Fleck’s journey into nihilism is sympathetic to us precisely because it appears as inevitable. It is just a logical reaction to his treatment. We witness his trajectory as predestined—and not just because we know this is an origin story. It is predestined by the laws of action and reaction.
Fleck’s first act of violence was one of self-defense against three rich investors who, honestly, deserve little pity. His mental illness is, at best, misunderstood and at worst, openly mocked and ridiculed. His medication is pulled. He’s unjustly fired from his job. His attempts to discover the truth about who he is and where he comes from, whether he has ever loved or been loved, are met with scorn and derision. Once again, he is beaten down by any attempt at sincerity or an honest living. The Wayne family, and who we can only assume to be a younger Alfred Pennyworth, treat this desperate, mentally ill son of a former employee with abject scorn. Once again, we’re invited to interpret the cold indifference of capital as malicious intent. We are invited to pity a character we know we shouldn’t pity. But how can you not? Our sense of humanity nonetheless compels us.
This leaves Fleck with an uncomfortable question, and the point at which he departs from our complete sympathy: How do you take seriously a starkly unequal, hyper-ironic society that refuses to take you seriously, and which penalizes you for even attempting to take it seriously?
To Fleck, that question comes in the form of a joke: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get. You get what you fucking deserve!”
To Fleck, the answer—the punchline—is violence. And it’s worth stressing: That he arrives at such an answer is not a result of his mental illness—it’s a result of his character.
A poor reading of the film would lead one to believe that Fleck’s alienation stems from a) his mental illness, b) his resentment as a white male in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic society, or c) both. That reading, too, is a cynical layer of irony masking a capitalist means, the ends of which is a system that exploits the very hierarchies it creates to further fragment and cement its own hierarchies. Imposing such hierarchies, perpetuating class division, ensures the system’s continuity. In that sense, Joker is as much film as it is performance art—mimicking Fleck’s own exhibitionist instincts.
The critical response to the film—with its patronizing concerns about copycat crimes, its contempt for the ability of “non-experts” to discern nuance from art—is itself an ironic manifestation of the film’s central idea. Fleck, as well as the historical Joker, exists because of a culture that refuses to acknowledges his existence.
As irony is weaponized against him, Fleck performs his own ironic coup-de-grace, seizing it for his own means. By eschewing the very decency and civility he claims to cherish, by becoming that which he hates, he becomes a metastasis of postmodern irony. He weaponizes himself against property, against profit, and against avaricious cruelty. By becoming a part of the joke in an infinitely ironic world, Fleck transcends the joke. To Fleck, humor—at least, his own particular brand of humor—is power. And the only thing funnier and more powerful than the cruel joke that is capitalism is to become every bit as cold, cruel, and indifferent as it is. That is the joke that Fleck claims, at the end of the film, “you wouldn’t get.”
He is still a villain, but somehow not. He is still an enemy of justice, but he is also an enemy of injustice. As a funhouse mirror held up to the visage of neoliberalism, he becomes anything you want him to be: a villain, an anti-villain, a folk hero, an anti-hero. Take your pick. Because it really doesn’t matter.
Tyler Wells Lynch’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Awl, Terraform, Abyss & Apex, McSweeney’s, Motherboard, and The Porter House Review, among others.