In 2012, Russo-American scientist Peter Turchin asked whether the United States would experience a violent upheaval in 2020. Based on a number of quantitative historic and general economic measures, he predicted that the years around 2020 would show increased political violence compared to previous decades; specifically in the form of mass shootings owed, in part, to the economic decline of the underclass.
This is the context in which Todd Phillips’ Joker was released onto our screens.
The film follows Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a literal clown with “a condition” working in Gotham City, of DC and Batman fame. A fatherless 30-something, down-and-out and living with his mother, he wishes nothing more than to rise above his station flipping signs, visiting children’s hospitals and entertaining birthday parties to become a stand-up comedian. Throughout the film, he is subjected to a horrid series of indignities: he struggles to write jokes for his routine; his co-worker lends him a gun, which he is then fired for possessing; and he discovers not just that his mother’s obsession with magnate Thomas Wayne is driven by her belief that he is Wayne’s son—but that she isn’t his mother at all. At almost every turn, we find that what few gains the ill-adjusted Fleck makes fall not only outside his control, but that they’re largely the byproducts of delusion.
It is in these narrative suspensions that Phillips and writer Scott Silvers shine. As viewers, our empathetic understanding of Fleck is vested in his character’s development: he attains success as a stand-up comedian and is invited on to the late night show hosted by his personal hero, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro); he starts going steady with the girl down the hall, who delights in his quirkiness, and he attempts to connect with his father, finally meeting his younger brother. But by drawing these tenuous links between Fleck and the ourselves out from under our feet (in extremely uncomfortable ways), Phillips and Silvers turn this self-inflected meta-narrative into a foil that’s inscrutable to the average spectator. What we see in Fleck’s delusions are his own unattainable wants, aspirations, and needs (the elaboration of which accomplished by showing us in what few ways we can empathise with him); but also what the well-tempered viewer would expect to find in a typically empathetic character (by, in part, mirroring themselves on him).
This relationship between the viewer and Joker takes on its meta-level through Fleck’s “mental breakdown”. If his medication helped mask his genuine perception of the world and enculturate him to the norms of others, Fleck’s psychosis is his self-realisation. The standards of society were clearly not built for him. The deepest empathetic rupture with the viewer takes place when he ends up in the apartment of the woman he imagined was his girlfriend; where she begs him, a strange and potentially dangerous intruder, to leave. After receiving anonymous but citywide recognition for his murder of several Wall-Street types, Fleck strives to explain this sudden acknowledgement, and awakening, to his therapist. But those around him simply can’t connect with his newfound “fame” and it seems that, though he is appreciated, Fleck is nonetheless misunderstood.
In fulfilling his personal hero narrative, Fleck becomes Joker and murders Murray Franklin. Though this scene was the most hyped up in leading to the film’s release, it still stands as its most shocking. How did the writers clear this script for a popular Hollywood release? Even coming into the movie knowing Phoenix pretty much only takes controversial roles; it is astounding that, with the backing of current “comic book culture”, Joker even tried for the level of meta-commentary that it, in fact, accomplished. (Despite DC Film’s previous failures, the studio has clearly staked its flag in the ground regarding future IP: these will not be comfortable films for the audience, nor will they be for critical entertainment. The failing nature of DC as it stands has lent credence to an experimental strategy that is focusing less on being appreciated and more on being remembered.)
As the tension-building background noise is finally brought to a halt so one can hear him clearly, every word in Joker’s speech takes a stab at our culture. He says his situation was created by the meanness and the current lack of empathy for weird guys, and that late night hosts epitomise this callousness through their inadequate, dominant paradigm of the subversive use of humor. Perhaps the message regarding school-shooters is a bit on-the-nose, but it fits. By Joker’s own reasoning, the talk show host establishes not only popular norms of behaviour, but what can be laughed at. Those who choose what is right and wrong in Gotham City are precisely the people deciding what is funny and what isn’t. And for this, they’ll get what’s coming to them.
Leaving aside Joker‘s internal workings, there is the absolute gall of its execution. It was obviously meant to make American audiences shrink. The viewer is made to expect violence at their own screening when, following immense strain involving a gift-horse of a gun, Joker shoots three businessmen after a tense, long buildup. (Whomever has spent time around guns will be able to confirm the sound effects in this scene are realer-than-real.) In several scenes where Joker trails after people contemplating homicide, or a certain sequence in a movie theatre, the viewer is prepared for violence to occur, and I was not alone in noticing the unease in the seats around me.
The movie’s self-awareness expands beyond the conditions surrounding its release. At a certain point, Joker asks his therapist, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” She responds, “It’s tense, people are upset. They’re struggling for work. These are tough times.” This commentary bridges the gap between the world of the film and our own, and it is one of the most faithful ways in which the director interprets his source. In DC’s versions of the Joker, he is sometimes aware of the fact that he is in a comic book, and he is subsequently written as a meta character within his mythos.
Without quite breaking the fourth wall, Joker draws the viewer’s experience into its own. As in Scorsese’s 1983 The King of Comedy (played by De Niro), Fleck performs stand-up in his mother’s room, believing himself to be king of the world. He fires a finger-gun into his head like Travis Bickle did in 1976’s Taxi Driver—again by Scorsese, again with De Niro—. He lays his head in a police car, watching the chaos he has created pass him by, in a way similar to what Heath Ledger does in iconic scene of Nolan’s 2008 The Dark Knight. And while, on one level, it can be held that this film borrows heavily from its predecessors, the happenings (and happening of) Joker are hardly coincidental—regardless of the extent to which its cast and crew know it.
Joker‘s timeliness is part of a continuing trend that’s currently under discussion in both science and history. Peter Turchin believes that complex societies, like the United States, are driven by a cyclical Marxian class struggle that repeats itself every 150 years with smaller, intermediate 50-year oscillations. His school of thought, known as structural-demographic theory, holds that generational gaps between successful economic conditions relating to factors such as upwards social mobility, home ownership, and other rates (including biological ones, such as height) point to complex interactions between the state, the national elites, the general population, and the prevalence of prosocial norms. This approach has already been applied to studying the collapse of complex societies, and Turchin has recently turned from describing past events to predicting oncoming ones.
In 2012, he ventured that levels of “political violence” would increase over the next decade, peaking in the years around 2020. This prediction drew on his theory of secular cycles: for each period following a time of roughly 50 years, countries should exhibit a higher amount of political instability, including lone wolf shootings, rampant individualism, and a breakdown in social relationships. It is certainly no coincidence that Scorsese’s Taxi Driver aired just 43 years ago, with nearly identical themes to those Joker’s exploring today. In both films, poverty and disillusionment with the political and upper classes, and the protagonist’s trouble with finding women, play a central role; as does the breakdown of society and the trust characters have in it.
Figure 6.1 from Turchin’s Ages of Discord (Beresta: 2016) shows rates of political violence and instability over time. Note the upswing in the seventies and the one continuing into today.
Whoever is aware of the social conditions of our time will recognise the conditions of our antihero’s story: a youngish man with high aspirations finds his place in the world to be much lower than the one his parents pushed him to imagine for himself. His frustration is turned into violence because of an incapacity to find help or relate to those around him. “Everyone is struggling,” Fleck’s therapist says, and, “everyone is so mean now,” he himself proclaims. The root causes are all there: alienation, a lack of upwards mobility, a reduction in social programs for assistance; the continuous, painful inability to make oneself understood. Out of frustration, Fleck kills several men, bankers who—though separate from his grievances—are representative of institutional hierarchy. Society is inspired by the killings, unrest ensues and the city rises against its capitalist villains. In the interval, Joker kills his idol, broadcast live. The film climaxes with a giant revolt that finds the Joker dancing at its centre. Though his criminal act is admittedly unrelated to those of his anarchist followers, it has resulted in a full-blown revolution.
The reason journalists no longer agree on publishing the names of mass shooters is because the fantasy in Joker is played out by real-world shooters. Like many of them, Fleck is driven not by wickedness nor political gain, but by his intractable frustration. Joker is an expansion of the “incel” dream where, through minor, non-targeted violence against a monolithic system, one becomes a hero and wins the girl, to eventually emerge the herald of a looming revolution. Turchin describes these agents of random political violence as aiming “not at individual people but at groups, social or political institutions, or entire societies.” Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza—who, seven years ago, ruthlessly murdered 26 people, including 20 children between the ages of six and seven—laid out this logic in a forum post from 2009, stating:
“Columbine wasn’t an isolated incident: it was the apex of a string of school shootings which began in the early 1990s… it’s myopic to telescope on school shootings when they’ve comprised a small percentage of the larger trend of mass murders, which are carried out in all sorts of contexts; but they always occur in contexts which involve some permutation of alienation, which has been part and parcel with societal ‘progress’… look in your own life…you’re afflicted by unrelenting anxiety and you’re afraid to leave your house. Do you really think that the way you feel is not symptomatic of anything other than your own inexplicable defectiveness?”
Setting Derridean feedback, where audiences are plunged into the “experience of the film”—à la Avatar—aside, one must agree: the “story” in Joker lacks substance. There is no character development. Fleck ends where he begins. Anyone rooting for or against him should be disappointed. Fleck’s antagonist is never formally defined. Instead, the film’s success is onanistically dependent on the viewer’s ability to either empathise or be disgusted by him. It is evident that the only character intended for this film was Phoenix’s Joker as protagonist, with his anomie as antagonist. And it is beautiful.
For nearly all spectators of this film, discomfort will be found in how Joker is entangled with the real-world violence of our Age of Discord. For most, the effect will be achieved by his offensiveness; for many, it will be in his actions. For even fewer, it may be attained by Joker’s exceeding familiarity to their own selves. Though unoriginal and alienating, one must applaud Joker for its iconoclasm. It is as undeserving of an Oscar as any true classic.
Cody Moser is a researcher in anthropology taking a multidisciplinary approach to understanding human behaviour. He is interested in evolutionary psychology, the roots of inequality, cultural evolution and structural approaches to anthropology. You can follow him on Twitter @LTF_01