WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.
As a Southern Nationalist, I loved Joker.
This movie is going to be an instant classic like American Psycho. I knew that I was going to like this movie after the reviews started pouring in and I began to grasp what Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker was about. The point of Joker was to do something “irreverent” by turning the comic book universe of man baby Marvel bugman movies on its head while holding up a mirror to our own society and offering a compelling satire of it.
The character of Arthur Fleck was exactly what I expected. He is a mentally ill loner and social outcast who lives with his mother in the dystopia that is Gotham City in 1981. Fleck aspires to be a stand up comedian, but his own mother who is his only human connection doesn’t think he is funny. He eeks out a living as a mime for a company called Haha’s.
From the beginning of Joker, we are plunged into Arthur Fleck’s awful life as an urbanite and see his descent from extreme social isolation into violent psychosis. Gotham City has become sharply polarized into a world of haves and have nots and is lorded over by a tiny oligarchy led by the Wayne family. The streets are full of garbage, graffiti and giant rats. They are full of petty criminals and a gang of Hispanic thugs brutally assault Arthur and steal his sign.
The fact that Arthur Fleck is poor like the rest of the resentful urban proletariat isn’t what drives him insane. We quickly learn that he doesn’t have a father. Instead, he sees Murray Franklin – the host of a late night comedy show – as his surrogate father and dreams of being embraced by him. He uses public transportation which is full of rude black people who see him as a creepy White man. He is an incel who has sexual fantasies about the young black mother in his apartment building. The key sociological fact of Arthur Fleck’s pitiful life is that he inhabits a world of zero social capital: he has no girlfriend, no children, no father, no friends, no community, no faith, no prospects, no tribe. He has nothing to give happiness and purpose to his life. In his loneliness, he dreams about having a father, being a successful comedian, romantic relationships, etc.
Arthur Fleck does have a relationship with the state which has prescribed him seven different anti-psychotic medications to treat his mental illness. He tells the black social services employee that she never listens to him and asks him the same questions. She tells him that society doesn’t give a shit about people like him and that due to cutbacks of social services she will no longer be meeting with him and that he won’t be able to receive his medications because he doesn’t have health insurance. Even when he was on his meds though, Arthur was miserable (he had previously been institutionalized) and it is difficult to imagine these drugs making any difference in the downward spiral that is his life. It all comes to a head when he is assaulted a second time.
Arthur is riding the subway when three young drunk hotshots who work for Wayne Enterprises see him as a loser and start bullying him. He fights back and kills them. The incident becomes the biggest story in Gotham City. Thomas Wayne announces he is running for mayor of Gotham as someone who has “made something of himself” and denounces the killer clown who murdered his employees who he describes as good men. Gotham’s underclass identifies with the killer clown who killed a few of the rich assholes who are exploiting them and start a protest movement of people wearing clown masks. Fleck revels in his newfound notoriety. He tells the black social services worker in their last meeting that finally people are beginning to notice him.
The unraveling of Arthur Fleck’s only human connection with his mother is what sends him over the edge. We learn early on that she is obsessed with Thomas Wayne who she used to work for thirty years ago and is always sending him letters. Fleck opens up one of his mother’s letters and learns that he is the bastard son of Thomas Wayne who has abandoned him. Naturally, he becomes obsessed with the Wayne family and his real father. After seeking out and confronting Thomas Wayne, he learns that his mother Penny was a paranoid schizophrenic who adopted him, the story of Thomas Wayne being his father isn’t true and that she was institutionalized in Arkham Asylum. Fleck has a total mental breakdown after going there and retrieving her records. He finds out that he was a victim of severe child abuse by one of his mother’s boyfriends in his youth. In a rage, he kills mother who has suffered a stroke and is recovering in a hospital.
Arthur Fleck’s relationship with his surrogate father Murray Franklin similarly takes a nosedive while his mother is being treated in the hospital. Murray uses one of Arthur’s appearances as a stand up comic in which he bombs and creeps out the audience to make Fleck the punchline of a joke in a skit. He is invited to appear on The Murray Franklin Show, which has been his lifelong dream, so that Murray can make fun of him some more to his face. It is the weight of these two blows from his purported father and surrogate father that transform Fleck into Joker. He fully collapses into a violent psychosis and starts to live in his fantasy world.
The saddest thing about Joker is that Fleck doesn’t really begin to live until he becomes the comic book villain and takes out his wrath on society. He agrees to appear on The Murray Franklin Show. Shortly before being introduced by Murray as Joker, we see him looking at a photo that is signed “T.W.” on the back which suggests that Thomas Wayne is actually his father and that the institutionalization of his mother was caused by her abandonment and that the adoption had been engineered by Wayne to cover up a sexual liaison with one of his working class employees. Now fully transformed into the Joker, Fleck tells a joke about our society’s standards of humor and morality and condemns the society that has abandoned him and treated him like trash which he finishes by shooting and killing Murray who he says is getting what he deserves.
The assassination of Murray Franklin by the Joker sparks an uprising by the underclass of Gotham City. The clown army liberates the Joker from police custody and kills Thomas Wayne and his wife. After recovering from a car accident, Joker stands before the howling mob of clowns as their liberator. The movie ends with the Joker locked up in Arkham Asylum which leaves the audience wondering how much of what transpired toward the end of the movie was ever real. Was he captured after the riot? Was he just living in his own head in the asylum?
If you loved American Psycho and Fight Club, you will almost certainly love Joker which is of the same caliber. This movie is superficially about Arthur Fleck’s descent into nihilism, mental illness and violence. This is why the media is condemning it as “dark.” At a deeper level though, the movie is really an indictment of the social order that Arthur Fleck lives under and which has left both him and the majority of the residents of Gotham City feeling isolated, exploited and powerless. Liberalism and free-market capitalism has created a meaningless world in which the social fabric has been severely frayed and has enriched only a tiny minority.
American Psycho, Fight Club and Joker could be watched as a trilogy. Patrick Bateman represents the meaningless life of the upper class in this society whose empty lives are based on status signaling games and material consumption. The Narrator in Fight Club represents the meaningless life of a middle class automobile recall specialist in a world based on consumerism. Finally, Arthur Fleck in Joker represents the pitiful lives of the suffering underclass where both social and economic capital approaches zero. He says in the movie that he isn’t political and believes in nothing except that actually he does. Like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, the Joker sees the world he hates burning and says it is “beautiful.” All three movies are told from the perspective of an unreliable narrator undergoing a mental collapse into violent psychosis. It is easy to imagine all three characters – Patrick Bateman, Tyler Durden and Joker – being institutionalized in Arkham Asylum.
It is really Clown World that has gone mad though. Human beings aren’t supposed to live under these heartless and unnatural conditions – the pure anonymity of the marketplace and the modern street – in which our common culture has been decimated and hollowed out. It is only natural to desire liberation from such a world. This is the world that George Fitzhugh described in his books Sociology for the South, or, The Failure of Free Society and Cannibals All! or, Slaves Without Masters. I found myself in the theater last night watching Joker while drinking a Bourbon and Coke and thinking … yeah, you will get that when liberalism is taken to its logical conclusion.
I didn’t come out of the movie admiring the Joker, but I do understand him. He is right about living in an unjust world. It is our world and it should be changed.