“The feeling that the future does not exist, that it is only more of the same, means all utopias are meaningless. Literature has always been relegated to utopia, so when utopia loses meaning, so does literature.”
-Karl Ove Knausgaard, Min Kamp 1
“I’ve tried to find meaning in my life, and I just can’t.”
-Brian Griffin (The Dog), Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy (Volume 10).
Certain periods of American history can now be viewed solely through the lens of the Joker we had at the time. The 1960s had Cesar Romero, whose slapstick hijinks mirrored the CIA’s comical efforts to kill communist leaders using exploding condoms and poisoned dental dams. The 1990s gave us Jack Nicholson, a relic of decades past who committed Adbusters-like crimes such as making an art gallery very scary and twisted. In our dark and gritty aftermath of 9/11 and the national humiliation in Iraq, we had dark and gritty Heath Ledger, arguably the most iconic iteration of the character.
When we snapped out of our angst, we had Jared Leto play the funniest Joker of all time, an initially unintentionally funny byproduct of a moron actor who thought himself far smarter than he actually was, in turn talked about endlessly by members of the media who thought themselves far smarter than they actually were (hey, that’s me!). The months we spent making fun of Leto’s Joker actually look very quaint now. They’re sort of a time capsule, a last look at what semi-irony literate media obsessives spoke and behaved like before Donald Trump was elected, possibly the very last instance of everyone having sustained fun together.
In the three years since, the same throngs still consume every bit of media tossed their way, but with a new seriousness. People who read and react to every post, article, show, and movie have had their brains battered by the Trump era. The human mind probably could not process the sheer volume of things we were supposed to react to before this all became too real for us back in November 2016, and it assuredly cannot now.
Every single day, a few odd hundred thousand people stare into poisonous blue light rays and feel debilitating rage at some things that understandably prompt it and some things that do not. In any event, they will respond with a generic style of online sarcasm that’s been culled from the greatest perma-banned posters of the last decade and sanitized into nothingness. You spew out their words while you react to every macro and micro Trump scandal, watching him mostly weather each cycle not so much unscathed, but ready for a new one that will make you forget about the last one. Everyone is always having a normal one in the normal world, as we clench our teeth so hard we begin to bleed.
People aren’t complete idiots, and know that consuming and reacting to every bit of political media input in and of itself won’t change anything. But I think for some, they’re in a paralyzed state. It’s like a hangover, where any light or movement causes unfathomable pain and you’ve just got to lie in a dehydrated heap until those vapors leave your brain. You know the boring, inconclusive future, and so you have no use in imagining a better life. You just sit around reacting until the next thing.
If you’ve got into the habit of taking and spitting out everything, it’s easy to apply the same rubric to culture. That is how you get the reaction you got to Todd Phillips’s 2019 Joker. In goes a shockingly average movie that I’d probably rate under Four Brothers, out goes more fear-mongering and vociferous defense than for any movie from the past couple of years.
I made sure to see this movie in a well-trafficked theater because I wanted to see if I could spot any undercover cops. However, I made the stupid choice of going to Williamsburg, where everyone looks like a cop on an NBC show. The theater could have been all unusually telegenic cops and then just me, and I never would have figured it out. For what it’s worth, the place was packed to the brim. I’m sure Williamsburg has its fair share of media over-consumers, but judging by the smattering of applause the film received at the end, I don’t think they were well represented at my particular screening.
The movie itself is very straightforward. Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix in a typically incredible performance) is a man with severe neurological trauma, with one of the symptoms being that he laughs at inappropriate times. Fleck lives with his elderly mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and takes care of her, both revelling in Murray Franklin’s (Robert De Niro) late night comedy show. He works as a clown, performing tasks such as sign spinning and hospital visits. He seems to enjoy his work, although he is frequently abused and demeaned by the public and seen as a weirdo by his coworkers.
One night Fleck is on the subway, reflecting on his long day of being in society, and he sees a group of Wall Street pricks aggressively hit on, then harass a woman in his train car. One thing leads to another, and our protagonist shoots them dead to the last man in one of the film’s best scenes. From there, Fleck decides to show society who’s living in who. He performs standup, but his laughing disorder interrupts his prewritten jokes about what it’s like being on Tinder. He has a dalliance with pretty and charming single mother Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). He is led to believe he is actually the love child of his mother and fascist industrialist Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). He is suspected, then pursued for the murder of the three men on the subway who he robbed of a future of investing in Theranos. His murders start a social movement in Gotham’s underclass, who begin identifying with clowns.
Fleck is eventually called up to Murray’s show after his nervous laughter-riddled set goes the 1970s version of viral, which was when your uncle mailed you a VHS tape and you made copies and mailed it to your friends and it became a national story approximately two years later. Before making it there, Fleck gets absolutely duffed by the pencil-pusher schlub Thomas Wayne when he tries to confront him. He then kills his hospitalized mother after realizing both that he is adopted and that she enabled horrific abuse on him as a child. Then he realizes he hallucinated his courtship with Sophie.
Fleck goes on Murray’s show, and after uncomfortably forcing a kiss with a Dr. Ruth stand-in (Sondra James), goes all the way in on society. Before this scene, I would actually fantasize about being society, because people would never notice my hypocrisy. Trust me, I do not have that wish anymore. Fleck freaks out and shoots Murray in the head, and then after being arrested, is freed by a rioting group of clown protestors, one of whom shoots Thomas and Martha Wayne (Carrie Louise Putrello), giving us decades of gravely self-important movies about a guy who makes a scary voice to freak out the mafia.
This was one of the most middling films I have ever seen. It may have been fully bad, but I just graded it higher due to how great Phoenix is. It actually made a ton of sense; if someone had just laid it out bare, that the director of The Hangover series was going to make his version of King of Comedy but with The Joker, I would not have been so excited to see it. Todd Phillips’s comedic repertoire is a bunch of guys seeing a fat man in a speedo and exclaiming, “Okay, that’s just wrong!” Given a million tries, he could never make something as hilarious but uncomfortable as King of Comedy.
The movie had very little to do with the incel panic people built up around it. The Joker’s main antagonist is the wealthy, and for good reason. He has fantasies about women, but he doesn’t seem terribly interested in laying clown pipe. At no point does he consider getting cosmetic cranial surgery. But everyone pinning this particular set of fears on this movie was incredibly predictable, as “incel” is one of those words journalists learned a year ago and have tricked themselves into believing they’ve known it their whole lives and can deploy it fluently. People saw this and decided that a movie about an abandoned, sad, abused man was about their new favorite word, alternating between repetitive mockery and belief that they would be martyred for reviewing it. It could be one of the darkly funnier outcomes, that this unremarkable movie about a sad, fucked-up guy becomes a rallying point for incels solely because journalists decided that’s what it was about, but I suspect that like everything in our culture, this will be swept up before we notice it.
Joker had the opportunity to be a really good, interesting movie. I firmly believe the biggest unnoticed problem in our culture right now is loneliness, and this could have been a seminal look at our isolated time. It also could have been way funnier, or at least not taken itself so seriously at every moment. It could not have beaten the viewer over the head with the idea that Arthur Fleck is a strange guy and blasted us with genre typical booming orchestrals to remind us what we’re supposed to feel. Unfortunately, we got a version of AJ Soprano talking about Nietzsche, even if Joaquin Phoenix was doing it.
I firmly believe that we are, as a culture, attempting to relive 2004-2006 by playing World of Warcraft, listening to Tool, and watching self-serious Batman universe movies. But if this film had come out in that time and you removed The Joker from the equation, it would be forgotten a day after its release. Maybe years later, people would resuscitate parts of it to use in YouTube meme videos so the president would retweet it. Its main cultural cache would most likely be the DVD that your dirtiest friend always leaves on in his sweltering room.
But all of this comes together to make Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck the perfect Joker for our era; something that produces a whirlwind or reaction and counter-reaction, to the point that people are absolutely positive every theater will produce one mass shooting or that Joker will replace all western canon, and after all that, we get a positively unremarkable expedition that will be forgotten by Thanksgiving, a product of a media economy where three companies who make everything keep it as efficient as possible by just making a few types of media properties and hoping people will tear each other apart in the cramped space to increase every product’s Q rating. It is an endless debate over a social phenomenon it’s not actually about, a boring culture war that will have no resolution, and a million jokes people on either side of it don’t actually have fun telling. It’s a bunch of clenched, gritting smiles that made Warner Brothers millions of dollars, and then you go home, more likely to die from boring yet equally evil indignities than getting killed at a culturally relevant event.
For a bonus, it’s in the superhero genre, one of three genres of film we are allowed now outside Noah Baumbach excursions about architects learning to accept their freewheeling stepbrothers and comedies that are made with an algorithm so every scene will be usable in GIF form. And you’ll probably be experiencing moral panics/emotional defenses of every single one of them for the rest of your life.
Todd Phillips may have performed the greatest Joker’s trick of all time, however. He may have made a movie that is more “5.5 out of 10” than any movie before it, and tricked us all into either arguing about how it would cause an army of incels to murder everyone, or get us so annoyed at the constant state of fear we’re supposed to live in that we start arguing with those voices, creating an endless feedback loop of people that are now working 40 hours a week on a volunteer basis to raise Joker awareness. If Phillips is aware of both his limitations as an artist and the current, sick condition of the highest volume consumers of media, he is more twisted than Mr J. himself. But to that end, he should just make another Hangover movie. Our culture that wishes it were the mid 2000s is far more ripe for that.
Until they make another fucking one of these, see you out there in society!