Warning: this article contains spoilers for the 2019 film Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix.
In Joker, director Todd Phillips’ bleak, gritty vision of 1980s Gotham City (a moniker for New York coined by American writer Washington Irving), there are no heroes. There are only villains and working-class people pushed to the brink by the greed and disdain of the hyper-rich and elected officials who bask in the warmth of their government’s neoliberal, “trickle-down” economic policies.
It’s no coincidence that Irving drew his reference from the village of Gotham in Nottinghamshire, England, where, according to legend, the residents feigned mental illness to prevent King John from building a highway through their town.
Mental illness is one of the central themes of Joker. Arthur Fleck, whose descent into the character of the Joker is played by Joaquin Phoenix in perhaps the best performance of his illustrious career, is a struggling stand-up comic and professional clown.
Early in the film, we see him in a therapy session in which he reveals that he is taking seven types of medication. Later it comes to light that he has been the victim of abuse and trauma during his childhood, which led to brain damage.
His only ambition is to be a successful comic and to make others happy. He is fond of and kind to children and is a dutiful, affectionate son to his ageing, sickly mother, Penny Fleck. He takes his mother’s advice to “always smile” so literally that it becomes his mantra, which eventually twists and deforms his mind and body as his descent into psychopathy progresses. His mother also suffers from mental illness and, though she seeks help from her wealthy former employer, she receives none from him or from the government.
At one stage Fleck writes in his journal: “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you DON’T.” The “O” in “DON’T” is a smiley face. His response to the neoliberal society decaying all around him and which has discarded him and his mother is to grin and bear it. Until it becomes unbearable.
The role of class and capital is the driving force behind Fleck’s descent. There could be no Joker without capitalism. The social worker he sees informs him during a session that there will be no further meetings – and no way for him to get his medication – because of the local government’s austerity measures.
One of the antagonists of the film (there are many) is the Trumpesque billionaire Thomas Wayne, who is running for the office of mayor. He promises that if he is elected, he will help Gotham’s poor find jobs and purpose, while simultaneously calling those who protest against the current political and economic situation “clowns”.
Real-life political slogans such as “Make America Great Again”, “Yes we can” or “Change you can believe in” would have blended in seamlessly with Wayne’s political rhetoric.
When Fleck (who may or may not be Wayne’s illegitimate son with his one-time domestic worker Penny Fleck) tries to find Wayne at his stately manor, he is kept out by an ornate gate and an aloof British butler who threatens to call the police if Fleck doesn’t leave the grounds. As in real life, the police of Gotham are more interested in protecting the persons and property of the rich than ordinary citizens who, like the garbage piling up because of a city-wide municipal strike, are left on the sidewalk to rot, offending the delicate sensibilities of the well-heeled.
When Fleck does finally confront Wayne, it is during a charity benefit screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. While Gotham’s elite are enjoying Chaplin’s exploits, they seem oblivious to the situation the tramp character finds himself in as a factory worker on an assembly line who gets stuck inside a machine after suffering a nervous breakdown brought on by an ever-increasing workload.
After recovering in hospital, the tramp finds out that he has lost his job. He is mistaken for a communist during a demonstration and thrown in jail. Indeed the modern, industrial time in which the tramp lives is so unbearable that when he is about to be released from jail, he tries to convince the authorities that he actually prefers life in prison. The rich audience in Gotham’s cinema see all this and laugh.
‘Kill the rich’
Throughout the movie, Fleck is plagued by a condition, possibly caused by brain damage, that causes him to laugh inappropriately when he is under emotional stress. He carries around a laminated card that he uses to explain his condition to others.
The turnaround point of Joker takes place when Fleck is on a train on his way home in his clown outfit, after finding out that he has lost his job. A young woman is sitting not far from him in an otherwise empty carriage when three drunk, entitled Wall Street “bros” stumble on to the train and begin harassing her. A distressed Fleck begins to laugh loudly and the three men shift their aggression to him.
The woman gets off the train at the next stop and the men start beating Fleck viciously until he pulls out a revolver and kills all three of them, one of them in cold blood as he tries to escape. The murders transform Fleck and the city, which hails the as yet unknown murderer as a working-class hero. By the next day, newspaper headlines read: “KILL THE RICH”.
The train killings in the movie reference the 1984 New York City subway vigilante killings. Bernhard Goetz shot four African-American teenagers in what was initially perceived as a self-defence incident. The public rallied behind Goetz as his actions seemed to symbolise the fear and anger of New Yorkers living with the soaring crime rates in the city during the 1980s. Public opinion turned against him when he began making racist statements.
It is important to note that Fleck’s character, though a lonely, disenfranchised white man, is not a racist. Warnings – like those issued by the United States military – that the movie might be a trigger for incels, a group of men who hate women or mass shooters to commit murder based on race are a misreading.
Indeed, the only people who seem to treat Fleck with care are his black therapist, a black clerk at a hospital and a colleague with dwarfism at the clown agency. Fleck also develops a compulsive infatuation with a black woman who lives in his building and fantasises about a relationship with her, but this is later revealed to be a delusion.
By the time Fleck’s transformation into the Joker is complete, he is no longer a meek, self-deprecating man. Emboldened by what has now become a string of murders, he appears on television with his one-time idol Murray Franklin, who Robert de Niro plays with great aplomb. Casting De Niro is interesting because of how heavily the film draws on the Martin Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, both of which feature De Niro and focus on mental health and being a comic respectively.
Fleck eventually reveals on live television that he is the one who murdered the three young men on the train and, when the crowd and Franklin turn on him, he asks perhaps the most pivotal question the film asks: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? You get what you fucking deserve!” He then murders Franklin on camera and sends the audience running for the exits.
His actions provide the disenfranchised of Gotham with the catalyst to finally turn on the rich. He is the one person who acknowledges and confronts the material reality of the city’s working class and becomes a symbol for class warfare. The problem, though, is that by this stage Fleck no longer exists. Society killed Fleck, for all intents and purposes. All that is left now is the Joker: a villainous, bloodthirsty psychopath who has inspired an army of angry zealots. They channel their anger into violence, looting and setting ablaze the city that scorned them.
There have been arguments for and against the film from across the political spectrum. But, again, this is a movie without any heroes, only villains. More than an indication of where we as a society may be going, Joker is perhaps an explanation of how we got here.
Neoliberal austerity measures, the farce of “free-trade” agreements, failing public health systems, a broken social welfare system, the poor and unemployed allowed to wither in the shadow of the mega-rich’s prosperity. Populist politicians’ willingness to use race and xenophobia as election tools; corrupt, irresponsible law enforcement; and a society that targets women, children and the disabled have all brought us to where we, and the Joker, find ourselves at the end of the movie: a mad, burning world only getting crazier every day. Is anyone still laughing?