Every four years or so, typically around the time of a presidential election, a genre flick storms the zeitgeist with the force of its social metaphor. In 1969 it was Night of the Living Dead; in 1972, The Godfather. Rocky (1976), Ghostbusters (1984), The Matrix (1999), and The Passion of the Christ (2004) are other examples.
So is Joker, Todd Phillips’ Oscar-nominated addition to the Batman mythos, with Joaquin Phoenix, also up for an Oscar, in the title role.
Unlike previous zeitgeist films, but like every other one of 2019’s 10 top-grossing movies, Joker is part of a well-established franchise. The other nine top-grossers are animated or CGI spectacles, part of a trend that began in the early 21st century with the triumph of the Spider-Man and Shrek movies, the Transformers tales, Toy Stories, and the renascent Star Wars saga.
More than a passing Bush-era fancy, comic book superheroics are the face of digital cinema—a state of affairs that prompted a protest from Hollywood’s most distinguished living director. In an interview with a British film magazine that went viral and was subsequently amplified by an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Martin Scorsese maintained that Marvel movies were “closer to theme parks” than they were to movies “as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life,” bluntly adding, “I don’t think they’re cinema.”
People said the same thing about talking pictures and, in a sense, they were right. Scorsese is acknowledging the digital turn that has affected cinema as much, if more subtly, than the coming of sound 90 years ago (and, ironically, is a technology that he uses himself in The Irishman to de-age the faces of his stars). No comic book movie has ever won the Oscar for best picture (Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is closest, having won in 2004) but, not inclined to take the long view, Marvel fans took Scorsese’s criticism personally. The 78-year-old director was #OKBoomer-ed on social media and beyond.
It’s striking that Joker, a rival for Oscar glory if not precisely a Marvel movie in that it took its characters from a DC comic book, was conspicuously absent from Scorsese’s critique. Was this because, as nearly every critic pointed out, Joker drew so directly on Scorsese’s 1983 King of Comedy—even incorporating its star and sometime Scorsese alter ego Robert De Niro—that might almost constitute a remake? (Indeed, Scorsese later admitted that Joker was a project to which he had at one time been attached.) Or was it because, like Alan Moore’s mid-’80s superhero comic book Watchmen, Joker—a movie predicated on actual locations and human performances—turned superheroism on its head?
Like the original Watchmen, Joker is a thought experiment—like, suppose this caped crusader shit was really real? Or, as Todd Phillips, an NYU-educated director hitherto associated with gross-out dude-coms like Road Trip and The Hangover, told The Wrap, Joker was “a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.”
Introduced in the first story of Batman No. 1, published in 1940, the Joker popularized the figure of the evil clown. You might even say that he became the grinning poster boy for coulrophobia, the fear of clowns.
If Batman stood for vigilante justice, the Joker was the embodiment of pure, random terror. (In the late-’80s comic books, he not only killed Batman’s ward, Robin, but passed himself off as Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations.) Always a popular character—Cesar Romero was called upon to play the part a dozen times for the campy mid-’60s TV show—the Joker’s unbridled id exerts far greater fascination than Batman’s tightly corseted superego. Jokers Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger completely overshadowed Michael Keaton and Christian Bale, the actors who played Batman in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and Christopher Nolan’s 2008 reboot The Dark Knight. But, however redolent of urban decay, neither of those movies were as “real” as Joker.
Set in Gotham City, aka New York, circa 1981, Joker refers not only to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver but evokes several other echt ’70s New York dramas, Dog Day Afternoon and Network. Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) lives with his incapacitated mother and a black-and-white TV in a slum tenement on a grim street that’s recognizably the Bronx. (Given his family name, he and his mother might be the last remnants of a once-Jewish neighborhood.) Fleck is basically a marginally talented rent-a-clown, working both on the street and in hospitals (a creepy echo of the ’70s serial killer John Wayne Gacy who had performed as a clown at children’s parties), hired out of an agency that might have been a subtenant of Travis Bickle’s taxi garage.
Fleck is also a geek. His involuntary, uncontrollable high-pitched laughter—a nervous tic akin to Tourette’s syndrome—results in ridicule and shunning. He is mugged in midtown and broad daylight by a marauding group of black and brown kids, fired by his agency, and deprived of public benefits. Fleck is unable to connect with most ordinary people (notably his social worker, a hospital record clerk, and a fellow bus passenger, all African American) and dissed by the white elite epitomized by the powerful Wayne family that becomes the object of his obsessive hatred. (Bat fans take note.)
Even as the world kicks him out, Fleck maintains a fantasy relationship with a wisecracking TV host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) akin to the one Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) established with his idol, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), in The King of Comedy, although unlike Langford, Franklin is pleased to exploit his clearly disturbed fan. No less than The King of Comedy, Joker slips in and out of its protagonist’s imagination and is, in some ways, more psychologically fraught. Oedipal conflicts are even more overt and Joker builds on the ritual underlying The King of Comedy—implicit in the two powerfully archaic nouns in its title—by introducing the notion of the clown as scapegoat.
Fleck’s breaking point comes when he turns on a group of abusive, privileged young stockbrokers in a subway altercation meant to remind New Yorkers of the “subway vigilante” Bernhard Goetz who shot four black teenagers in 1984. It is at this point that he becomes the character who Mark Dery described in his essay “Cotton Candy Autopsy,” as “the quintessential psycho-killer clown” and “the crazy-funny mascot of our chaos culture.” Is chaos culture a political force? (Back in 2017, Steve Bannon was being compared to the Joker. How many times has Donald Trump been called a “clown”?)
Shifting from individual to collective protest, Joker’s second half evokes the Guy Fawkes mask introduced in the 2005 film V for Vendetta (and thus, along with Batman and the Joker, copyright by Warner Bros., which sells tens of thousands of copies each year). The hacktivists known as Anonymous used the mask in 2008. It was next deployed by Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and subsequently appeared during the Arab Spring (causing it to be banned in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain). It has since turned up in Thailand, Turkey, and most recently Hong Kong. The parallel here is impossible to miss.
Thus conflating coulrophobia and pitch-fork populism, Joker ends with a full-scale masked clown riot.
Not the least interesting thing about Joker is that no one knows precisely what to make of it. Could history’s highest grossing R-rated movie, taking in over a billion dollars worldwide, also be, as John Waters admiringly put it, “the first big-budget Hollywood movie to gleefully inspire anarchy”?
While some expressed the familiar fear that Joker would inspire copycat violence, the criminologist Adrian Raine found the movie “surprisingly accurate in its depiction of the anti-hero’s pathology and as well as the way he “was incrementally driven to ‘reactive aggression.’” In other words, rather than mayhem, the movie might promote empathy.
The surprise winner of the Gold Lion at the Venice Film Festival, Joker was immediately denounced as an incel manifesto and an apology for straight-white-male jerks. Doubtless sensitized by #MeToo disdain of his jerky douche-bro oeuvre, Phillips pushed back against the forces of perceived political correctness, telling The Wrap “what’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right.” Indeed Joker has been highly praised by prominent leftists.
Recognizing a diagnosis of populist anger, Michael Moore hailed Joker as a “cinematic masterpiece,” a movie “about the America that gave us Trump.” Appreciating Joker’s apparent call to revolution, the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek published a piece under the headline “Don’t insult Joker by comparing him to Trump.” The movie’s “elegance,” he concluded, resides in the absence of a “move from self-destructive drive to a ‘new desire’ for an emancipatory political project.” Thus, “we, the spectators, are solicited to fill in this absence.” But who are we and does it include the movie’s most intriguing supporter, Donald Trump?
Months before Joker appeared, Team Trump recognized the importance of the Batman mythos by appropriating the theme from The Dark Knight Rises for a campaign video. Five weekends after Joker opened, CNN reporter Shimon Prokupecz tweeted that a senior White House official revealed that Saturday, Nov. 16 (the day after he pardoned a convicted war criminal, Clint Lorance), Trump screened Joker in the White House for an audience of “family, friends, and some staff” and, in a confirming report from Yahoo! News, “liked the film.”
Given that Trump himself refrained from tweeting, we can only speculate on what exactly the president liked. Was it the violence? Trump is famously a fan of “Shark Week” and the brawls in the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Bloodsport. Only two weeks before showing Joker he had attended an Ultimate Fighting Championship event at Madison Square Garden, surrounded by friends and family (Congressmen Kevin McCarthy and Mark Meadows, Eric and Don Jr.) pumping his fist at the action as 150 protesters—clowns?—massed outside. “People are feeling helpless, like they have no power,” one member of Refuse Fascism told the Daily News.
Did the president experience nostalgia? “If you’re Donald Trump, it’s always 1979,” the culture critic Stephen Metcalf wrote recently in The New York Times. “New York City, at least the parts you deserve to own (The Plaza, Studio 54, 21 Club), is a bachelor’s playpen. The rest of it? Ungovernable hellscape.” Was it the on-screen vengeance wreaked on his public enemy Robert De Niro? A professional appreciation of successful demagoguery? An enjoyable spectacle of existential ressentiment with masked clowns demonstrating under a banner “Kill the Rich” that could just have easily read “Kill the Bitch”? Was it pure nihilism, the thrill of unbridled id? The fact that this total loser takes Fred Trump’s advice to be a killer? So many possibilities to tickle the Trump brain, but one thing is certain. There was no shock of recognition.
Joker is undoubtedly the year’s Trumpiest movie and I mean that as a compliment. Not only an intelligent throwback to the feel-bad shock cinema of the 1970s, Joker is all but unique in its social realism: No other movie so cogently addresses the crisis of the present moment, both in Hollywood and the world.
Read J. Hoberman’s film and art criticism for Tablet magazine here.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.