“He who laughs last has not heard the bad news”
– Bertolt Brecht
German social theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, reflecting on Hollywood’s culture industry in the post-WWII period, maintained that comedy, musicals and the “happy ever after” dramas of mainstream cinema serve as distractions. “Fun is a medicinal bath”, they wrote. “The pleasure industry never fails to prescribe it. It makes laughter the instrument of the fraud practiced on happiness.” The culture industry functioned largely, they thought, to divert people’s longing for a society of genuine happiness into the transitory emotional satisfaction and false joy of narrative certainty. For those concerned with changing the world, however, it’s better to examine with sobriety the ills of society than succumb to the garish Technicolour illusions of mainstream cinema.
Present day cinema, even more than when Adorno and Horkheimer were writing, is an obscene and exploitative industry. It trades in pat clichés and the regurgitation of tired narratives. The endless remakes of superhero films suggest that something is rotten in the state of California – a crisis of imagination reflective of the broader malaise of a capitalist system consuming itself in its own excesses. Every now and then, however, something brilliant, challenging and disturbing appears. Todd Phillip’s Joker is one of those films.
Joker is the latest contribution to the slew of origin stories of comic book villains, heroes and heroines. But it is different in tempo and tone from many of these dull, predictable fantasy films. The Joker, Batman’s arch nemesis, viscerally embodied by Joaquin Phoenix, is a villain created by society’s ills. He wasn’t born deranged or bitten by a radioactive animal. He becomes a tormented, bitter and violent man because of a world in which domestic violence is rife, employment is precarious, social services are meagre and the possibilities for genuine love and affection are destroyed by alienation. The film depicts the reality of 21st century capitalism.
Arthur Fleck, before he becomes the Joker, is the victim of a brutal society. His laughter is unsettling because he has heard, seen and felt the bad news. In a neoliberal world in which politicians of the left and the right are apt to present issues of morality, of the good and bad behaviour of individuals, as having nothing to do with the society we collectively inhabit, Joker offers an important corrective. Violence isn’t some outside evil visited on us – it is the product of a violent society.
In one of the least subtle moments of the film, Fleck asks rhetorically: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill person with a society that abandons them?” The answer is murder and violence. Those who rule over such a society are to blame. Our rulers are represented by the likes of Thomas Wayne, the father of Bruce Wayne (Batman), who is both an industrial magnate and a politician. He is the face of the sociopathy of the rich. When confronted with Fleck’s vulnerability, he punches him in the face. He mocks the poor, calling them “clowns” and accusing them of not appreciating his efforts to help them. What better depiction of the fist inside the velvet glove of capitalist rule than this?
The film has, nonetheless, caused significant controversy. Critics on IndyWire claimed that it is a paean to incels, while Lawrence Ware in the New York Times argues that the film, to its detriment, centres white experience at the expense of people of colour: “Whiteness may not have been on the filmmakers’ minds when they made Joker, but it is the hidden accomplice that fosters the violence onscreen”.
On the opening weekend cinemas across the US were staffed with security guards who searched film goers. The confected moral panic that greeted the release of Joker in the US was both cynical and misguided. On the part of the authorities, it was cynical because the violence of young men, the school shooters or the returned soldiers who regularly go on killing rampages, aren’t provoked into action by films like Joker. They are shaped by a society in which violence is normalised by a state that launches endless wars, by a president who encourages racist pogroms against refugees and a police force that murders people of colour. Where is the moral panic about the real purveyors of violence?
Critics who argue that the film is a celebration of violent white masculinity have missed the point. Far from a celebration, Joker is an excoriation of the world that gives rise to violent white masculinity. We sympathise with Arthur, we can understand his pain, we feel his anguish, we can echo his rage because we recognise the society that created him. Does this mean we agree with his avowedly inchoate, apolitical response? Of course not. The film is not a political manifesto. It doesn’t offer a “road forward for the left”, but which films do? More films about struggle, its transformative power, its beauty and its strength, would be wonderful. Does this mean films that aren’t about working class rebellion are reactionary?
Others claim there is already too much sympathy for disenfranchised white men, especially when these same white men are responsible for the likes of Donald Trump. Joker misdirects our empathy, say these critics. Such views are deeply mistaken. More critical representation of the stories of oppression would be welcome in mainstream film. But encouraging empathy for Arthur Fleck does not disallow sympathy for women or people of colour. To the contrary, it can be an entry point to a critique of a system that oversees barbarity on every front.
Poor white men are easy targets for the establishment clique of cultural critics and political commentators. Indeed, they are perennially rolled out to distract from the failures of American liberalism. But poor whites didn’t create Donald Trump. Rapacious US capitalism created Donald Trump. His slumlord father created Donald Trump. An increasingly racist and right wing Republican Party created Donald Trump. The failures of the union movement in the US created Donald Trump. A liberal establishment increasingly disconnected from the lives of ordinary people created Donald Trump. The quirks of an anti-majoritarian electoral system allowed Donald Trump to take residence in the White House. The argument that stupid white male workers are responsible for Trump misdirects our anger and hinders our capacity to build a movement to challenge the rotten system he represents.
Far from being a film that celebrates the creators of Trump’s America, Joker offers a bleak mirror to the realities of US society and neoliberal capitalism the world over.