By and large, I’ve grown to despise comic book and superhero films. When I see praise lavished upon these narrative-less, stakes-less, CGI shlock-fests I stew with hatred for the artistically bankrupt culture that produces and pays for them to be continuously made. So when I went into a theater to watch Todd Phillips—a director best known for bleak, nihilistic, and ultimately comedic takes on masculine anxieties in films like the wonderful The Hangover and its embarrassing sequels—render an origin story of Batman’s nemesis The Joker, I was ready and excited to walk out despising it.
Imagine my shock when the film’s first scene—depicting the genius Joaquin Phoenix as mentally ill clown Arthur Fleck stretching his lips to the sides of his face contorting his mouth into a ghastly and sinister smile—shattered my expectations. I was overwhelmed by that singular elation that can only be elicited in response to experiencing a profoundly original artwork for the first time. Even competing against great work by film artists like Tarantino, Ari Aster and Claire Denis, Joker is the best film of 2019. Nothing else even comes close.
Don’t listen to Rotten Tomatoes. Art isn’t sports. The best art polarizes the audience. The responses to Joker have ranged from the rapturous to the shocked and dismayed. While Black Panther—a film that fails to go beyond the limitations of the superhero genre in every way (one-dimensional characters, silly effects, low stakes narrative)—was awarded a RT score of 97 percent, Phillips’s Joker tops out with a score of 68 percent. Culturally, this discrepancy is simple to diagnose: while Black Panther offers a message of social justice that the neoliberal media establishment can easily identify, Joker’s politics are rooted in moral ambiguity and the depravities of class inequality. The media has an ingrained tendency to see left political struggle as one solely against the behemoth of white supremacism. This tendency, which socialist political theorists like Adolph Reed Jr. have dubbed “race reductionism,” often bleeds into the culture industry: to “them,” Joker couldn’t possibly be about the universal treacheries of poverty in late capitalism, but only about the irrational resentment of white male anxiety.
Writing for The Guardian, Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara recently said, “The small clique that runs the world is no longer identified as a ‘ruling class’, their control of the economy is no longer called ‘capitalism’ but instead they’re merely identified as ‘white guys’.” He continued: “Forget the fact that more than one in three Americans are ‘white guys’ – ‘white guys’ exploited at their workplaces, ‘white guys’ facing declining life expediencies, ‘white guys’ utterly ignored by political elites. ‘White guys’, after all, are your real enemies.” To some critics, Phoenix’s Fleck is simply a “white guy.” His rage and debasement are the qualities of “white terror” and couldn’t possibly be an extreme response to a society that has hung its most vulnerable out to dry. Arthur Fleck gets cut off his benefits. He loses access to his medication, accelerating his mental disintegration and plunge into violence. With daily political debate about our disastrous for-profit healthcare system, critics’ inability to identify this clear political critique nearly proves the degree to which rich Manhattanite broadcasters are totally out of step with most of society.
Arthur Fleck suffers at the mercy of the late modern condition that the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity”: increasing privatization of public services, excessive information, and the alienation and abandonment experienced when living under such circumstances. The 1980s NYC-esque Gotham that Fleck inhabits is in the early stages of late capitalist globalization: decayed, falling apart, and rife with a nihilistic vitriol that, absent any outlet for solidarity, manifests as crime and violence. Fleck is utterly dejected; a contemporary embodiment of Dostoyevsky’s “underground man.” He is invisible; psychologically and physically vanished. Fleck is robbed of the material things he needs–medication, therapy, stable income, savings–to get well.
The critics writing Joker off as a glorification of white terrorism or incels are either dense or willfully ignoring its powerful class critique. This is a film that takes us into the mind of a mentally ill man who, absent a robust public sector that he could turn to or find solidarity in, channels his dejection into acts of terror. Mark Fisher used the term “capitalist realism” to illustrate the ideology around late capitalism that essentially acts as an imaginary constraint and a self-imposed limitation on cultural consciousness concerning what we think is possible. “Capitalism realism is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action,” wrote Fisher.
Mainstream American critics’ refusal to understand Joker as a powerfully anti-capitalist statement demonstrates their inability to see outside their narrow ideology. Smearing Joker as a white identity film comes from the same perspective as those who smear Bernie Sanders as a white identity candidate. Much of Joker criticism is a neoliberal attempt at what Chomsky calls “manufacturing consent.” If you can’t empathize with Arthur Fleck, then how can you empathize with the material conditions that yield violence and eradicate hope in the first place? If you can’t empathize with terrorists, how can we ever understand the social and economic factors that terrorism often comes out of?
America has a long history of moral panics around provocative art works, but more often than not—as pointed out eloquently by Eileen Jones in Jacobin—these moral panics are only testament to a film’s worth. “These reviewers hitting the panic button repeatedly conflate the danger supposedly inherent in the film’s content with the separate issue of the film’s quality, which reduces some to incoherence,” writes Jones. By misreading the film’s ideology so thoroughly, the media establishment is inadvertently accentuating the power of the film. They are proving its profundity.
Beyond the pertinent political dialogue around the film, Joker is undeniably a work of great artistic clarity. Ever since I watched it, I’ve been returning to Phillips’s older work—everything from The Hangover to perhaps the more fitting predecessor, Phillips’s documentary on G.G. Allin Hated—to find kernels of the genius he proves himself capable of in Joker. Quite honestly, there’s nothing. But Phillips’s dissatisfaction with the Hollywood mainstream movie-making machine that he’s a part of and profited from is on display in every frame of the film. The film pulsates with sizzling nervous energy and sustained angst. Phillips maximizes every fascinating image he puts to screen with terror and disconnected, confused desire.
Though Joker has been rightly criticized for its abundant pastiche of classic cinema, it is not a nostalgic film. It is not even a postmodern film. Something about this movie feels rife with wild originality. It isn’t quite a comic book movie, it isn’t solely a horror film, and it isn’t even quite a gritty New Hollywood thriller homage. But it is all of these things at the same time, and seems to long for a time when films like these were made with reckless abandon within the Hollywood system. There is a hauntological dimension to Joker. It longs for what Fisher often referred to in his essays as “popular modernism,” or a kind of cultural production that blurs the edges between untamed avant-garde expression and mainstream appeal: pulp fiction novels, Hollywood thrillers by European arthouse-influenced auteurs, glam rock, and yes, comic books.
Phillips’s choice to make Joker such a daring and consciously artistic film is loaded with ironic pathos: if this wasn’t a film about a supervillain, would it have been financed? Sadly, probably not. In Ghosts of My Life, Fisher wrote: “While 20th-Century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made us feel as if newness was infinitely available, the 21st Century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion.” Fisher believed that popular modernism could only have occurred under its conditions of a robust social safety net. With that safety net decimated, artists increasingly mimic artworks that have been successful in the past.
Phillips echoes this sentiment in the narrative of the film itself. Fleck is a struggling comedian. He keeps a “joke book” that is full of his schizoid-delirious musings, and uniquely sliced and diced pornographic images assembled together as a long-form collage in the Gysin/Burroughs cut-up mode. The book largely functions as what Lacan called “objet petit a” or “the unattainable object of desire.” The book is like a stacking of Fleck’s creative and nervous energy that he is unable to expel in catharsis.
In one scene, we see Fleck take his bizarre stand-up act to an open mic. Flicking through his joke book with all its compromised content bared for the audience to see, Fleck manages one bad joke—”When I said I was going to be a comedian, they all laughed, well they’re not laughing now!”—before breaking down. Arthur can’t manage another word before involuntarily blaring his horrific guttural laugh— the result of a neurological condition or traumatic brain injury—that makes Fleck look like he’s breaking down in humor and tragedy in equal measure. The audience sees Arthur as a sick, twisted freak. His only reprieve is the genuine laughter of his love interest Sophie (played by Zazie Beetz), but even that is later shown to be the product of Fleck’s deluded hallucination when it is revealed Arthur never had a relationship with her.
From a different perspective though, Fleck’s act could be seen as some kind of unhinged work of performance art. If Arthur was living during a less Baudrillardian time with robust arts funding and a public with patience for art more challenging than instant entertainment, Arthur could have fashioned himself a kind of comedic pop modernist. Absent that, society becomes the sick joke, and a bullet through the cranium the ultimate punch line.
This longing for pop modernism materializes in the film’s aesthetic as well. Phillips’s Scorsese influences have been widely noted. But there is something undeniably refreshing watching Arthur lose his mind in the peculiar way of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. And casting Robert DeNiro to play a version of the same role that Jerry Lewis played opposite DeNiro’s Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy is a small triumph. DeNiro is delightfully, brutishly paternalistic as late night host Murray Franklin, and gives the film’s hair raising climax a brutal fatalism with his smug, dismissive body language.
But by over-focusing on Phillips’s obvious reverence for vintage Scorsese, critics have missed the plethora of cinematic references that Phillips deploys throughout Joker to shockingly artful effect. The film’s dank aesthetic is most identifiable as horror, but of a specifically low-budget, direct-to-video, enfant terrible brand of horror that is no longer produced at the same quality it once was in the 1980s. In its vast mapping of Arthur’s psyche, and the lengths it goes to make the audience identify with his madness and almost empathize with it to an extent, Joker shares aesthetic and thematic concerns with John McNaughton’s 1986 character dissecting horror masterpiece Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Like Henry, Joker doesn’t rationalize its central character’s violence, but it asks us to understand violence as a logical response to a dying society that has left little positive outlets or material benefits to its outcast citizens.
Joker also shares themes with films about mental disintegration like Roman Polanski’s psychological thrillers in the 1960s and the 1970s. As in the Polanski films Repulsion and The Tenant, a large quantity of screen time is dedicated to Arthur alone at his apartment, dissociating from reality, and withdrawing into his fantasy space. He does his makeup, he dances, and with each shot the jittery and insecure Arthur increasingly ceases to exist. But unlike those films, Arthur’s mental collapse doesn’t result in a nervous breakdown. While Trelkovsky in The Tenant, jumps out a window in a morass of confusion and despair, Arthur finds himself—the Joker—in the chaos. No, the Polanski film that Arthur’s journey towards the Joker most mirrors is Rosemary’s journey towards being the mother of Satan in Rosemary’s Baby. Like Rosemary, Arthur’s deterioration results in his self-actualization via tapping into the Jungian shadow self. Rosemary finds power in her maternal relationship to Satan, power that she can use to vanquish the selfish husband who sold her out. Arthur finds power in his creation of the Joker that he can use to wreak his sick jokes upon the society that sold him out. Rosemary and Arthur embrace their dark creations.
Phillips’s depiction of nihilism and moral degradation as logical responses to working class abjection reminds me of Harmony Korine films like Julien Donkey Boy and, even more so, his debut film Gummo. In Gummo, a poor town in the Rust Belt has been annihilated by a series of tornadoes and throughout the film, it’s made clear that the town will be left abandoned and partly eviscerated. If the youthful volatility of Korine’s Gummo fever dream was “its own scary, beautiful, and disorientating world concocted from all the trash that Korine loved as a 23-year-old wunderkind,” according to writer Charlie Fox, then Phillips’s Joker is its own scary, beautiful and disorientating world concocted from all the trash and art that Phillips loves as a 48-year-old close to has-been Hollywood burnout.
And despite its countless references to the cinema of yesteryear, Joker doesn’t feel retrograde. While it constantly references works of pop modernism, it too is a work of pop modernism: there has never been a film, much less a comic book film, quite like it. Much of this can be credited to the creative solidarity of Phillips and Phoenix. It’s clear that Phillips and Phoenix developed a strong creative simpatico in the ways of Scorsese/DeNiro, Anderson/Day Lewis, or Melville/Delon. This is the fourth actor we’ve seen play the Joker, and Phillips and Phoenix’s collaboration yielded an undeniably fascinating take on the character.
Phoenix’s performance is electrifying. Whatever your opinion of the film, no one can deny that Phoenix is the most interesting leading man working in the studio system. Watching him, you are constantly made aware that acting is an art form with a process every bit as intensive as painting or sculpting. Phoenix embodies Arthur Fleck as physically and spiritually emaciated. Researching PTSD and the effects of antipsychotic medications, Phoenix imagined Arthur as a man prone to rapid spurts of weight loss and fractured body language that betrays a history of abuse and trauma. One detects shades of some of Phoenix’s own past characters in Arthur, particularly his take on an alcoholic cult member in PT Anderson’s The Master. Phoenix emotes an angst and dejection that most handsome actors can’t tap into. He has a haunted quality in his aura. But what makes Phoenix’s Joker so utterly gripping is Phoenix’s awareness of Fleck’s self-image and physicality: Arthur Fleck cuts a disturbingly striking picture that Phoenix contorts and stretches throughout the film in his journey towards the Joker.
An early shot in the film depicts Arthur Fleck shirtless from behind, shoulders rounded into a state of skeletal uselessness, visualizing his back as one grotesque arch. He looks shriveled. Fittingly, Arthur’s physique is similar to the bodies of the bony, neglected and abused South African asylum patients that served as photographer Roger Ballen’s muses in his early 2000s photo book Outland. Like the ghostly figures in Ballen’s images, Arthur doesn’t just look ill, he looks like being denied proper treatment and care. You can also see physical similarities between Arthur and the starving late Soviet Union citizens depicted in Boris Mikhailov’s photography. Arthur’s poverty in late capitalist America has resulted in an abused and malnourished physical form that looks not far off from the gaunt bodies starved by bureaucratic inefficiency under late Soviet Communism. Phoenix’s rendering of Arthur’s body is one of the most powerfully anti-capitalist images of any mainstream American movie ever.
But it’s not just Phoenix’s striking physical presence that makes his Joker such an astonishing feat, but also his precise, bizarre, and uncomfortably sexualized sense of movement. Some of the film’s best sequences are of Arthur moving and dancing throughout his apartment, trying on makeup, and slowly mutating into the Joker. There are Taxi Driver references sure, but Phoenix goes further down the rabbit hole than DeNiro ever did. Arthur Fleck is not just a frustrated mentally ill clown, he’s a frustrated mentally ill artist. Joaquin allows us to watch Arthur create himself, the Joker. And Phoenix embodies the creation of the Joker as a process of nerve-wracking creative intensity. As Arthur sculpts the Joker from his wounded psyche, he undergoes a brutal artistic process: he contorts his frame in the mirror, he vanishes into his dreams, he mutters incoherent ramblings, and he suffers. The Joker is Arthur Fleck’s body without organs: his unfulfilled potential and creative power.
Arthur’s process towards becoming the Joker mimics the process of painting as it is depicted in artist Paul McCarthy’s 1995 video piece Painter. In the 50-minute piece, McCarthy performs as the titular painter wearing a blonde wig and multiple prosthetics (like Arthur’s, McCarthy’s body has been withered by labor). McCarthy’s erratic behavior in the video—talking in an exaggerated manner, behaving childishly and violently at different points, self-harming—emphasizes art making as a psychologically and physically torturous activity that slowly withers away parts of your very being. Phoenix, likewise, depicts Fleck’s disintegration as an art process that will yield his ultimate creation: the Joker identity. Eerily, both Joker and Painter end on talk show stages. And neither of these scenes end well.
Much has been made of Phoenix’s singular dancing throughout Joker. Some have written it off as overkill, whereas others like NYT dance critic Gia Kourlas offered it wild praise. Kourlas says that what makes Phoenix’s performance so “poignantly confusing” is “that he has essentially placed two characters within the same dancing body.” Phoenix, undeniably confident in the rhythmic movement of his body, uses dance to emphasize Arthur Fleck’s physical and psychological transformation into the Joker. But, as Kourlas noted, there is some of the Joker already present in Arthur’s steps, and there remains some of Arthur’s in the Joker’s.
The film’s first jaw-dropping dance sequence comes after Arthur has committed his premiere act of cold-blooded murder against a trio of drunk and sexually abusive Wayne Enterprises employees. Arthur flees the scene to a nearby bathroom, but he isn’t panicked. On the contrary, he’s never felt more alive. Arthur starts to move his body in the undulations of an animalistic ritual. His movements, if identifiable at all, channel the Butoh spasms of the late Japanese choreographer and dancer Kazuo Ohno through the violent haze of an awakened agent of death. The dance is one of unpolished avant-garde experimentation. Arthur’s dances continue throughout the film, but with each sequence Phoenix’s movements grow more fluid and versed in showmanship until the Joker finally emerges in all his glory. When the Joker performs his victory dance down that urban staircase to the hauntingly fitting Gary Glitter jock jam, he has honed his art into palatable entertainment. Violence is the purest form of entertainment, the film cleverly suggests. But even then, Arthur’s predilection towards the unhinged expressiveness of Butoh dance is never fully expelled from the Joker’s body language.
In his WW2 memoir Kaputt, Italian writer and disaffected Mussolini supporter Curzio Malaparte offers a first-hand account of the evil, Dionysian excess, and flagrant hypocrisies of both German and Italian fascists. In a poignant passage documenting a dinner party with SS soldiers, Malaparte writes: “Naked Germans are wonderfully defenseless. They are bereft of their secrecy. They are no longer scary. The secret of their strength is not in their skin or in their blood; it is in their uniforms.” What Malaparte alludes to here is that the truth of who we are is found in our exterior, not within the layers of our psychological makeup. It doesn’t matter that Hitler may have a soft spot for puppies. Who he is is what he has done. “There is more truth in the mask we wear, in the game we play, the fiction we obey and follow, than in what is concealed behind the mask.” wrote Slavoj Zizek.
This reading could certainly be applied to the mythology of the Joker as a character in the DC universe. The most interesting reading of the Joker historically is that he defies all the typical psychological or traumatic explanations. The Joker is the Joker’s real identity; the mask of the clown is his face. One of the most evocative images in the film features Phoenix as Arthur photographed from behind while applying white makeup to his face while his image is reflected back to us from mirrors to both the left and right of Arthur. Mirroring Diane Arbus’s Female Impersonator Putting on Lipstick, Arthur looks perplexed. He is not yet who he is, because that mask is who he is. The Joker is pure chaos: an anarchically violent ideology developed as a logical response to societal decay. This is the Joker analysis of comic writing legend Alan Moore’s (The Watchmen, V For Vendetta) The Killing Joke in which the Joker murders Commissioner Gordon’s daughter and kidnaps and subjects Gordon to psychological and physical torture. While tormenting Gordon, the Joker weaves an elaborate origin story of his but then balks, and impishly says, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” This trepidation towards easy answers concerning the Joker’s origins influenced Heath Ledger’s ferociously ideological portrayal of the character in The Dark Knight. Throughout The Dark Knight, Ledger’s Joker tells contradictory stories about the genesis of the scars that line his mouth.
It would make sense that people interested in the conception of the Joker as a character beyond origins would have trouble with Phillips’s Joker; the film is, on the surface, an origin story. But even that criticism is dismantled in the film’s final scene. After Joker is freed from a police vehicle in a vicious crash, he rises to the top of the car and basks in the adulation of his clown mask wearing followers before the camera pans out and Arthur is now seen disturbingly laughing in a mental institution. His therapist asks him “what’s so funny?” Arthur Fleck replies, “You wouldn’t get it.” In that moment, it becomes perfectly possible that the entire film transpired within Fleck’s deranged psyche. It also becomes clear that Phillips—like some of his critics—believes that the idea of a “Joker origin story” is ludicrous.
Phillips has said that the only way he could do his own take on the Joker is by ignoring all the other iconic screen renditions of the character. Joker is one of the more expectation-defying films of recent memory. It’s an origin story that doesn’t believe its own origins. It flips the script on the DC universe in which Batman and Wayne Enterprises aren’t benevolent billionaire benefactors of the downtrodden, but dangerous neoliberals who cut the programs that people like Arthur Fleck need (and then Bruce Wayne has the audacity to beat people like Arthur to bloody pulps when they lose their minds). Formally, the film defies the belief that a comic book adjacent film can’t attain the qualities of arthouse cinema. I’ve grown utterly frustrated with critics praising cookie-cutter superhero films as high art, but Joker is art. It is a profound work of pop modernism. I don’t know if Joker will be a portent of “serious comic book” films to come (though if I had to guess, there will be many more, and most of them will be terrible, such is the Hollywood program), I just know that I witnessed something that a part of me had been longing to see: an unexpected mainstream Hollywood cinematic masterpiece.