Film | Joker (2019)
It’s Joker’s world, we just live in it.
This is a film for the Jordan Peterson generation: Joker is about absent and corrupted fathers. Arthur Fleck, the man who would be a joker (he is an aspiring stand-up comic), scratches a living as a small-time party clown while caring for his invalid mother. He has, we understand, spent some time in the Arkham State Hospital for the insane and remains on heavy, if ineffective, medication. Fleck’s only source of emotional release is his social worker, but she doesn’t seem to listen to him – and halfway through the film her budget is cut and she can’t see him anymore. We could almost say that, like many Facebook and Twitter users, Fleck lives in his own world.
What Fleck has lacked, from the very beginning, is a stable father figure. Instead, as substitutes, he has Randall – a weak and malicious colleague at work – and the evening TV talk-show host Murray Franklin, a David Letterman-like character. For Fleck, Murray – he always thinks of himself on first name terms with the comedian-host – is an idealised father figure. In his imaginings, Murray brings Fleck up on stage and gives him the affirmation he has never had. He lauds Fleck as a good son and talented comedian. This fantasy, along with a rag-tag collection of jokes in a jotter pad, is all Fleck has to live for.
From the first moments of the film, we are led to understand that we are entering a world of corruption, decay, and paranoia – otherwise known as the 1970s. Technically, the film is set in 1981, but we could take this to be a “long ‘70s” – the spirit of a decade often outlasting its literal length. In an anachronistic touch, the Warner Brothers’ logo that opens the film is the one used by the company in the late 1970s and early 1980s: we are in a time of Nixon, Watergate, and a bankrupt New York City overrun by hoodlums. Batman’s hometown of Gotham City is, as you probably know, New York City – the name simply being another, quintessentially Gothic and Poe-esque, colloquial term for the Big Apple. New York in the 1970s was utterly failed and bankrupt: as we shall see, it is more than just the city treasury that is bankrupt in Joker.
In the film’s opening minutes, the radio blares news that a typhus outbreak has hit Gotham’s slums, and later the television news informs us that “super-rats” have taken over the subway and are emerging to prey on the outside world – perhaps the rats are tugging babies from their cribs, as in urban legends? The aesthetic sensibility of Joker is Taxi Driver (1976) meets the decaying (now demolished) Cabrini-Green public housing complex: a world of rot and violence. You can almost smell the festering garbage, cigarette smoke, and fetid hamburgers in each shot. In terms of comic book films, Joker recapitulates the worn-out and cynical world of Watchmen (2009) – a film in which the Nixon era never ended and nuclear apocalypse beckoned.
Understand that, at present, the Western world is reliving the 1970s. Everywhere there is a sense that our economic and political structures are decayed and failing. Trump himself has a Nixon-esque quality to him, he is a populist president with strong views and an antagonistic relationship to the liberal elites in the universities and media. As with Nixon, his political opponents have waged a long campaign to impeach him.
From Julian Assange to Edward Snowden to the Cheshire Cat-like Jeffrey Epstein, our world is alive with conspiracy and paranoia. The 1970s had Watergate, the Church Comittee on CIA and intelligence community activities within the US, and LSD-induced paranoia. In cinema, this was a time that spawned The Parallax View (1974) and The Conversation (also ‘74) – both tales of surveillance, betrayal, and uncertain realities. It was a time when you would be surprised if your telephone wasn’t bugged – perhaps, at any moment, as in Chile in 1973, there would be a right-wing coup by the army, or, as in Portugal in 1974, perhaps there would be a coup from the left…who could you trust? The paranoiac science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, strung out on amphetamines, didn’t even trust himself…
All that people knew, then as now, was that there was strong sense that the current situation of stagnation and crisis couldn’t go on forever: something had to break, and many expected the worst – what they actually got, in the West at least, was Thatcher and Reagan.
What they get in Joker is the final breakdown and transformation of Arthur Fleck from a bullied, misused, neglected, and deceived nobody into a spiritual conduit for all the frustrations and hatreds that have been seething in Gotham City. At the film’s end, when Fleck has become Joker, his acolytes – having brought the city to its knees in a riot – lift up his body and lay it on the bonnet of a smashed car: the scene is redolent of Christ crucified, or perhaps we should say of an anti-Christ – Joker does not come to bring peace on Earth and goodwill to all men.
Joker is much more than a comic book movie, although it uses the comic book mythos of Batman as base material. It’s certainly not entertainment, rather it’s an artful meditation on online life, decay and corruption in Western elites, and the nature of reality distortion.
What, then, are the major themes of the film?
Father, dear father
As I’ve already mentioned, the absent and corrupted pseudo-father is the essence of Joker. The axis on which the film turns is Fleck’s paternity. Penny, Fleck’s invalid mother, is a former employee of the city’s leading businessman, Thomas Wayne. She completely idolises the billionaire, and avidly follows the Wayne’s campaign to become city mayor and clean up Gotham. Penny insists that Wayne is a good man who will save the city, and, so she hopes, taking Wayne’s PR-patter about family values as gospel truth, that if she can just write to Wayne he will help her and her son out of their dire poverty.
Fleck’s final break with whatever vague connection he had with reality comes when he is forced into a confrontation with three bullying businessmen in a subway car. Returning from his work as a party clown, Fleck is still in full “Bozo” makeup and wig when his life takes a turn to complete darkness. Convulsed with laughter – part of Fleck’s mental condition is incongruent emotional reactions, particularly laughter – he attracts the attention of three prototypical arrogant rich white males who had previously, perhaps in a nod to #MeToo, been picking on an attractive single girl. The men proceed to beat down Fleck – his second, though far from last, beating of the film – a punishment that is only interrupted when Fleck uses a handgun that his colleague Randall has given him for self-defence to kill the businessmen.
This action, in symbolic terms, lays the ground for the the film’s closing scenes of mass riot and devastation. The subway is analogous to the city’s unconscious, and the three businessmen represent the “super-rats” that the television news reports talk about. The businessmen stand for the the oligarchic and arrogant behemoth of Wayne Enterprises, a business that dominates the city – perhaps strangling it at the same time. Wayne Enterprises could be taken to be analogous to the West’s network of bailed-out banks and corrupted elites – friends of Jeffrey Epstein all – who are, in a sense, a kind of super-rat that feeds on the West’s tax payers.
By killing these men in the subway, in the city’s unconscious, Fleck inadvertently sets in motion the conditions whereby violence against Gotham’s corrupted elites will irrupt from the city’s unconscious into conscious violence. Sure enough, the “killer clown” (as the newspapers dub Fleck) is not reviled by Gotham’s citizens; instead, they take the clown mask as a symbol of resistance. In a wry nod to the #Resistance against Trump, we glimpse members of this self-organised clown army holding placards that read “Resist” – perhaps the filmmakers are telling us who they think are the real clowns in American politics?
A mass protest that eventually turns into a riot is organised by disgruntled citizens using the clown mask as their symbol. Fleck plays no part in this, and remains completely uninterested in what he has inadvertently sparked – at one point insisting that he’s “not political”.
Why does Fleck’s first killing have so much power? The answer is that Fleck is the illegitimate son of Thomas Wayne. This is why, as Fleck discovers when he reads his mother’s begging letter to Wayne, Penny puts so much faith in Thomas, her former lover. After the three businessmen are killed, Thomas Wayne appears on television claiming that although he didn’t know them he saw the men as family – since everyone at Wayne Enterprises is family to him. Ironically, his own disowned and much abused son watches his hypocritical father make this hollow announcement on television. The man who wants to be mayor, father of the city, can’t even be a father to his own son: he condemns men like the subway killer as “clowns”.
Fleck and his mother are essentially a psychic dump – an id – for all the dark and unacceptable actions Gotham’s elite undertake to maintain their wealth and power. Their insanity and dysfunction provide the mirror image of the fully functional elite group who, according to the world at large, are the “good guys” and respectable citizens – entirely normal people.
This why Fleck’s first crime – a crime against his father in essence – must take place underground: he is the revenge on the elites for their hidden crimes. A return of the repressed. This is made clear later in the film when Fleck tries to confront Thomas Wayne. Fleck sneaks into a gala cinema showing for the city’s upper class: they are watching a Charlie Chaplin film. Chaplin, the innocent clown, is enjoyed by the elite while they are watched by the man who will become the dark clown, Joker, the necessary antipode to their own “innocent” and gilded world.
Later in the film, Fleck, now become Joker, proceeds to kill his pseudo-father figures. In the first instance, he kills Randall, the co-worker at the two-bit party clown company Fleck works for and the man who gave Fleck a handgun to protect himself from bullies – a gun that Fleck will later use to commit his first major crime. When Fleck disgraces himself by bringing the handgun to a children’s hospital during a clowning act, Randall pins the blame on Fleck and claims that the hapless loon was badgering him for a gun. The man who once claimed a paternal interest in Fleck’s welfare reports him to the boss and gets Fleck fired from the only job he ever enjoyed. Randall’s betrayal is repaid in bloody kind when Fleck goes off his meds and becomes Joker.
In the film’s final act, Fleck kills Murray Franklin, the talk-show host who he has venerated from afar. In his daydreams, Fleck had imagined appearing on Murray’s evening talk show – a favourite of his mother’s at tea time – and being embraced and welcomed for his noble care of his mother. This will be his big break. As it turns out, Murray finally brings Fleck on his show – not to embrace him as a son – but to mock and humiliate him after previously amusing his audience with a video clip of Fleck’s lamentable stand-up act in a Gotham comedy dive. In return for this mocking, Joker takes the opportunity of an invitation to come on Murray’s show for further humiliation to tell the world what he really thinks is funny (and it’s certainly not their idea of humour) – and to kill Murray.
Finally, the riot at the end of the film that Fleck inadvertently provokes by murdering the businessmen leads to the conditions where – in accordance with the mythological origins of Batman – Thomas Wayne and his wife are murdered in front of a young Bruce Wayne, the boy who will become Batman. They are shot dead, not by Joker, but by one of the rioters inspired by him.
Three father figures betray Fleck: Thomas Wayne, his own father; Randall, his co-worker; and Murray, the showman. Three father figures, three dead businessmen on the subway: this is the bloody symbolic arithmetic of Joker.
So the privileged young Bruce Wayne, like his unacknowledged half brother, will also grow up as an orphan – and so he will also rely, like Fleck, on a substitute father figure, his butler Alfred Pennyworth. By joining Joker, Fleck, Batman, and Wayne in this way, Joker completes the symbolic circuit of the Batman mythology. These ambiguous and violent men in masks are related – half dark and half light, and half brothers also.
The shaman rises
Critics of Joker, perhaps recalling the Aurora cinema shootings during an early showing of the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, have linked Joker to a risk of spree shootings. The pre-release mood of the press has almost been willing an act of mass violence to occur in connection with the film, and, although this may happen (the press are already ascribing Joker as a cause of recent crimes), the film is unlikely to catalyse mass shootings.
To understand why this the case, we must appreciate the magic of Joker.
Joker is a film that was conjured into existence in an act of hyperstition, or, to put it more simply, meme magic. Hyperstition is a slightly pretentious academic expression for a means by which certain events can be made to happen, not by rational planning or argument, but by creating visual, narrative, or archetypal representations of an event so as to bring it from the collective unconscious into the conscious world and so to reality. What I have written there is, admittedly, quite pretentious as well – so what do I mean exactly?
For several years, a meme has been circulating among right-wing Internet users – particularly on the Twitter hard right – that characterises the latest ideological crazes or disasters in the West caused by a lack of common sense as examples of “#clownworld🤡”. The recent case in Paris where a Muslim convert who subscribed to Islamist beliefs was employed by French internal security and had access to confidential information about counter-terror operations is a case in point.
This man went on to kill four of his colleagues in the police station where he worked. That a man who, reportedly, praised the Islamist attacks on the Bataclan theatre could be employed in such a role is surely an example of a decision that is absurd – it defies common sense, could only be justified ideologically (to avoid discrimination against a man who was deaf, born in the Caribbean, and a Muslim – could such a man ever be fired from the French civil service, even now?), and so must be, quite frankly, an example of #clownworld🤡.
Just as the hapless Arthur Fleck struggles with the absurd decisions that see him thrown from his crummy job and later elevated to the position of bit-part celebrity on a nightly talk show, so we all struggle with a world that, in its increasing speed, seems bizarre and absurd. After all, what is the sense in murdering a group of people at a rock concert? What is the sense of the man who writes your name on a cup at Starbucks when there are no other customers? What is the sense of the Church of England calling for all kitchen knife tips to be blunted to stop knife crime? Perhaps the last one was just a parody – I’m not sure anymore.
The “clownworld” meme summoned Joker into existence through its constant repetition and visual representation in memes and images: this was a form of modern magic, perhaps not literal magic, but a form of repetition that changed – through the coordinated action of anonymous Internet users – human consciousness, so bringing an awareness of “clownworld” to the fore. Joker itself is about the absurd and ridiculous state of our current world – it’s a clown’s world, you just live in it. We can tell this is so because the acolytes of Joker who riot and bring chaos to Gotham wear clown masks that are identical to the 🤡 emoji used in the meme. The film’s makers must have been touched by meme magic.
Within the film, the hyperstition that occurs for narrative purposes happens when Fleck performs (or rather commits) a “magic ceremony” – a blood sacrifice in fact – against his father and father figures by killing the three businessmen. This quasi-magical act, powered by his blood relation to Wayne, causes Gotham to erupt in revolt against those people who have mistreated Fleck and his mother.
The risk of violence from Joker is not, therefore, of spree shooting: the risk is individual violence against figures who are father or pseudo-father figures for mistreated young men. Two men who have taken on this role for the fatherless men of the West are the psychologist Jordan Peterson and president Donald Trump; it is their position as surrogate fathers that could attract the “negative magic” of Joker. This speaks, perhaps, to the dangers of taking on a fatherly role for an entire society – and also perhaps of the grave dysfunction of the family in the West.
The figure of Joker is essentially shamanic. Fleck is not some calculated and rational super-villain. His revenge against his father and tormenting father figures is almost entirely accidental and unplanned; it is driven, in other words, by unconscious processes. He works through subtle influence and magic.
Throughout the film, Fleck engages in bizarre and trance-like dancing; anyone who has seen videos of the mass murderer Charles Manson will recognise dancing of this type. Indeed, there is even a meme of Manson dancing in a way very similar to Fleck in a prison interview room. This dance is a way of engaging with what could be termed psychic energy of a very negative and malicious sort.
Manson was a shaman of a sort – as was Hitler – and so we can see that this is a wicked sort of magic at work in the world. It is the magic of mayhem, murder, and a return of all those primitive instincts that we work to repress in day-to-day life. Manson, like Joker, was a man who saw himself as a psychic dump for all the repressed and unacceptable material of American society – particularly the “Golden State” of California, where his crimes took place. His dance, a dance of death, spat all this unacceptable material back in America’s face.
Joker is a film about the unconscious, a film about how those dirty and disgusting things we deny and push away from us – even possibly abuse – can spring out and have their bloody revenge on us. Thomas Wayne – the purported saviour of Gotham, so clean in public appearance – flushed away his lover and son because they were inconvenient; he thought he couldn’t be a husband to a mere servant on his staff.
What is denied, as the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung observed, returns and destroys a man.
Wayne’s most loyal retainer, the man who will become surrogate father to his son Bruce, is his butler Alfred Pennyworth. Thomas Wayne discarded one Penny – Penny Fleck, Joker’s mother – but he retained the butler Pennyworth, as a billionaire Wayne is a man who knows how much a “penny’s worth” (for monetary purposes, at least). In his youth, he carelessly discarded a “penny”, Penny Fleck, but as he has grown older and wiser he has kept Alfred on his staff (“A penny saved is a penny earned”). Alfred knows what really happened to Penny Fleck, and you could say, in keeping silent, that Alfred really has proved what a “penny’s worth” to the Wayne family.
This relationship, in turn, plays into the symbolic world of Joker: the feminine principle instantiated by Joker and his over-close relationship with his mother stands for chaos, while the masculine principle, instantiated in Alfred, the dutiful butler, stands for order. It is, accordingly, Alfred who will later guide “young Master Bruce” to become Batman, a force for order who will counter Joker’s chaos.
What is the equivalent of the denied and demonised Fleck in the contemporary West? I say it is the “anon” user on 4chan, Twitter, and the like: the anonymous troll who troubles journalists and politicians – people who tell us that they are respectable and clean, just like Thomas Wayne. There has been much talk, misdirected I think, about Joker being a film about “incels” – involuntary celibates – but, in reality, Joker is a film about “anon” versus “normies”.
This is the return of the repressed: after all, it was the “anon” users, decked out in their Pepe the Frog avatars, who summoned Joker with the #clownworld meme in the first place.
Joker has been purposely misunderstood and demonised by certain sections of the mainstream media. Joker, like all art, holds up a mirror to reality, it is not – as with a standard comic book flick (the endless Avengers)– an attempt to trade on the glamour of heroism while making a few simple didactic ideological points about the need to endorse progressive values.
Joker disturbs elite and mainstream media outlets: they fear the return of the repressed. They fear the return of the nationalistic and blood-driven (blood-soaked) instincts condemned by progressive liberalism since the end of the Second World War. And the return of these chthonic forces is driven by the palpable corruption of contemporary Western elites – the abusive and absent father(s).
What if, so the mass media fear, Joker conjures a revolt against the corrupt elites into actuality?
Absolute humiliation (and success)
You are probably aware that we live in an age of mass humiliation. Let us say, for example, that I am recorded singing a Katy Perry song to myself, as I often do, by a friend on their phone. I cannot sing: the performance is pathetic and ridiculous, but someone shares it on TikTok. It goes viral. Within half an hour, I am deluged by thousand of abusive messages – as much attention as a pop star or movie star would have received indirectly, by letter or phone call, only thirty years ago. I am a miniature celebrity – though only for being ridiculous – and, in fact, we know that celebrities never deal with being adored celebrities very well, even if they have years of practice at being in the public eye.
What hope for the ordinary person who is now hated?
This capacity to become an object of veneration or abject ridicule in a few minutes is one of the great vehicles of psychological destruction in our age. People have, quite understandably, been driven to suicide by becoming instant celebrities on social media – simply being unable to deal with thousands of people picking their ego apart over a trivial mistake or action that would have gone unremarked before the age of social media and ubiquitous video cameras.
Joker addresses this issue in the relationship between Murray and Fleck. Murray, the confident and successful television host, sees a video of Fleck’s failed nightclub stand-up routine. He plays a clip of this performance on his evening television show, ridiculing and making fun of Fleck’s attempts to entertain an audience. This moment is about our age of social media ridicule: the way we can pick an ordinary person – possibly suffering from a severe mental illness – out of obscurity and subject them to cruel and humiliating laughter.
In the context of Joker, as already discussed, this proves to be a moment of betrayal, another contributing factor to Fleck’s final breakdown and murderous attack on Murray himself.
Joker is a film rich in allusions, both spoken and filmic, to cinema history. These allusions include references to recent films in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. In particular, reference is made to the villain Bane’s catchphrase (another favourite of “anon”): “No one cared who I was until I put on the mask”.
In regard to the film’s allusive qualities, Robert De Niro’s casting as Murray is significant. As the Twitter user Unconscious Abyss pointed out to me, De Niro was the star of the film King of Comedy (1983). In this film, De Niro plays an aspiring comic, much like Fleck’s character, who kidnaps a more famous television comic – analogous to De Niro’s role in Joker – in order to get his break.
Joker recapitulates shots from King, and Murray’s own assistant at the television station seems to be modelled in appearance on the comic De Niro kidnaps in King. In other words, Joker is referencing back to a well-known film about an obsession with comedic success turned sour – though, in the case of King, the ending is relatively happy and the kidnapper gets, in a way, what he wants. It is film where the semi-ironic Twitter saying “We’re all going to make it, kings” rings true.
What remains constant is that both films concern the nature of obsession with celebrity and the way in which a criminal act – in the case of King a kidnapping – can be acceptable if it grants fame and success to the perpetrator. Fleck only makes it on to Murray’s talk show after he has killed the businessmen, though nobody knows he carried out this crime at the time perhaps we could say that this act of transgressive magic also brought Fleck to Murray’s attention.
The line between crime and respectable success is, as Thomas Wayne might know, thin and quite blurry.
Joker by gaslight
What is real today?
We’re all possessed by this question, aren’t we? From fake news to deep fakes, none of us are sure what is or is not real.
In fact, I’m not sure that any of Joker is real at all.
Fleck is himself the victim of that very contemporary activity, gaslighting. This is a form of reality denial, itself named for a Hollywood film Gaslight (1944), where a person is convinced that their perception of reality is, in fact, totally insane. In Gaslight, a husband performs various tricks to convince his wife that she is insane – in particular he meddles with the gaslight in their home and then denies that anything is wrong with it when she notices.
This issue has become very pertinent in a time when all the institutions that people used to rely on to provide a unified narrative – the Church, the media, and the education system – have been discredited or collapsed.
The mass media, in particular, used to provide, in the age of newspapers and television, a pretty uniform account of what was going on in the world. Some publications were more conservative and others more liberal or social democratic, but there was a sense that there was a basic agreement on what constituted reality – even if people thought that reality should be somewhat different. Aside from politics, millions of people sat down to watch the same soap operas every night, and these media rituals bound societies together – even watching the TV was itself a kind of family ritual, a substitute for storytelling round the fire in the old days.
Today, this is all gone.
In place of a unified social reality, we have mum in the living room looking at Pinterest, dad watching rugby on BBC iPlayer, and the kids on Discord or Fortnite or 4chan – who knows. Nobody takes their cues from the mass media anymore, and as a consequence nobody seems to be able to agree on the elementary facts of our society, let alone more abstract political questions. One person’s “fake news” is another person’s “common sense reality”.
Joker is about this ambiguity.
Within the story, the question of whether or not Arthur Fleck really is Thomas Wayne’s son is ambiguous. I suspect that this will be an issue of considerable debate in years to come, but for my part my instinct tells me that Penny Fleck is telling the truth when she says that Fleck is Thomas Wayne’s son.
In the first place, this is in line with the general thrust of the film – with the Flecks as the id-like repository for the elite’s repressed evil. More concretely, there is no foreshadowing that Penny is a malevolent character in the first part of the film, and this is usual filmic procedure if an apparently “good” character is later revealed to be “bad”. Further, at one point Fleck turns over a photo of his mother and finds a romantic inscription to her initialled “T.W. [Thomas Wayne]”*. And, finally, the entire theme of the film is the corruption of elites and the decay their corruption causes: it is entirely in keeping with this theme that Penny Fleck should be telling the truth about her son’s parentage.
If she was telling all the truth all along, then Thomas Wayne has double-gaslighted Fleck and his mother: when Fleck checks out Penny’s files at Arkham State Hospital he swallows the “official” narrative, presumably put about by Wayne, that his mother was a delusional woman who abused and neglected him. That is what the psychiatric and media reports in her file say, anyway. There was no denied love affair with Thomas Wayne that was covered up – only a malicious woman’s delusion. Worse still, Fleck isn’t even Penny’s real child: he’s adopted. On this reading, Fleck is literally nobody – just as we suspect that there’s nobody behind a clown’s mask.
Subsequently, Fleck smothers his mother to death in her hospital bed – it is only later that he begins to doubt the official narrative, and comes to realise that he may have been tricked into killing the only person who genuinely loved him, his mother Penny. The reality distortion created by Thomas Wayne and Gotham’s elites has punished this family twice: first by shutting them out of respectable society, and second by inducing Fleck to kill his own mother because he believed their lies.
We could imagine the following dialogue, if our world merged with the fictional world of Joker: “Are you telling me that Gotham’s most prominent citizen, Thomas Wayne, got a servant pregnant and convinced her she was mad, had her confined to a mental hospital, and then used his contacts in the press to smear her as a child abuser? Are you mad…or some kind of joker? By the way, have you met my friend Mr Epstein?”
In everyday life, from Bill Clinton and his many love affairs to Britain’s celebrity paedophiles like Jimmy Savile to the erstwhile Jeffrey Epstein, we are all familiar with powerful and influential men who have abused their positions – and, more concretely, people – and gone completely unpunished. They have been permitted to do so because they were famous and influential, so that a blind eye was turned by most – and, crucially, anyone who pointed out what they were up to was simply ignored or told they were being “mad”, or perhaps making a sick joke.
It is this particular type of abuse – gaslighting – where people are either ignored or told they are “imagining things” that drives many to incandescent anger and extreme acts. We do not expect other people to agree with us, but at minimum we expect them to acknowledge how we perceive reality – even if they think how we perceive it is incorrect. If even that is denied, then we feel murderous rage – and this is driving many of our current problems in politics and society.
Often, the person denying our reality will do so in the name of “love” and assumed concern for our well-being. It is this level of reality denial, of what the psychologist R.D. Laing called “violence masquerading as love”, that underpins either Penny’s deception of her child in the “official narrative” or, in the other reality, Thomas Wayne’s gaslighting of Penny – his use of Arkham State Hospital and the media to paint her as a child abuser.
This, in turn, dovetails with the real world #MeToo movement, and it is here that Joker can unite left and right. It is the right that obsesses over paedophile conspiracies in high places, and it is the left that obsesses over a different type of abuse of power – usually between adult men and women – in offices and workplaces. What is common to both these concerns, other than the heady mix of sex and power, is that #MeToo and paedophile conspiracies turn on the matter of believing – or not – victims.
Are the victims levelling the accusations against powerful (usually) men mad, malicious, and bitter or are they, maybe, telling the truth?
That issue is a vexed one, and it is represented in the ambiguity of Penny Fleck in Joker. Is Penny, as many will maintain, an embittered and delusional woman who covers up the child abuse she allowed to happen to her son with a cock and bull story that Thomas Wayne fathered the child?
After all, the official documents and media account – like Obama’s famous birth certificate – all confirm that Penny Fleck was a mad and disturbed woman who allowed her boyfriends to horrifically abuse the young Arthur Fleck. Her idolisation of Wayne surely points to some delusion…and he, a respectable and rational man, denies it all. Penny, by contrast, is just a former minor employee of Wayne Enterprises, now totally impoverished. And other members of Wayne’s staff, like the loyal Alfred Pennyworth, are willing to swear in court that the affair never happened.
Shouldn’t we trust the experts and avoid “fake news” and “conspiracy theories” about Penny Fleck?
Or, could it be, just maybe, that – given what we know about Epstein and Savile – we can’t always trust what the official documents tell us? Could it be that even responsible and respectable men like psychiatrists and social workers and news readers lie – and collude with liars? Could a journalist be bought (that’s a joke, by the way)? Could professional people lie because money and power talk silently? Could they perhaps, being human, just happen not to notice…
We all know that the king of “conspiracy theories”, Alex Jones, if he got wind of it, would be on Penny Fleck’s side. He might say that Thomas Wayne was a lizard from outer space, but he wouldn’t be deterred by mainstream media reports about Fleck’s private life or what psychiatrists (c’mon!) say in an official report. He’d dig into it: he’d interview her, even if everyone else said she was just a “mad, bitter old woman”.
The issue of Arthur Fleck’s paternity is not meant to be definitively concluded – people will continue to speculate (after all, those initials on the photo could be any “T.W.”). But the truth of the matter isn’t the point, and to become caught up in that is “autistic” – as an anon user might say. What the filmmakers are alerting to us in this aspect of Joker is that we live in a world where we don’t always believe victims – and sometimes we’re right not to. Stormy Daniels? Is she for real? The kids Savile abused? What Epstein did on that island?
Do I know? – do I really know?
No, I don’t know at all.
Life, so it turns out, is a bit like deciding whether or not you believe the character of Penny Fleck in Joker: you have your instincts and assumptions, you have a pinch of evidence, and then you decide.
As Pilate said to Jesus: “What is truth?”.
And, more than doubting Penny, we have cause to doubt the whole film.
Within the story, Fleck pursues a romantic relationship with the girl next door – a single mother called Sophie (her name, of course, means “wisdom”). After an awkward start, we see their relationship becoming stronger. Sophie even comforts Arthur when he is at his mother’s sick bed in hospital.
But, problem is, she doesn’t.
As we realise, shortly after Fleck has smothered his mother to death and then run over to Sophie’s apartment looking for comfort, she doesn’t recognise him at all – she’s terrified of him, actually. The whole relationship was a figment of Fleck’s imagination.
You could say that, quite literally, if Fleck had any wisdom at all, it was all imagined.
It may be, given that Sophie resembles Arthur’s social worker and the psychiatrist who interviews him at the end of the film, that Joker has never left Arkham State Hospital. The entire film took place in his head, perhaps during a psychotic episode.
It could be that his imagined girlfriend Sophie – a single mother, like his mother – is merely a projection of his Oedipal relationship with his mother onto his female psychiatrist. After all, Joker must be sex starved after being in Arkham all those years. His social worker could merely be how he imagines his conversations with his psychiatrist during his psychosis, a delusion that is only broken by his final lucidity in the closing moments of the film.
Wouldn’t it be just the sort of thing that Joker would imagine, that he is, in fact, the half brother of his nemesis, Bruce Wayne, the Batman?
More than this, even the nature of Joker’s mental state is ambiguous in this film. His mental illness, supposedly, causes him to express emotions at inappropriate times – particularly his distinctive and mirthless laugh. He has a card with a message to that effect to hand to people who are disturbed by his behaviour.
And yet, when the detectives investigating the subway murders interview Fleck they ask if the card is “part of his act” – meaning part of his clowning act. Fleck gives a non-committal response, and so we are left wondering whether Fleck’s peculiar laughter and behaviour are, perhaps, a calculated disguise for malevolence and not the uncontrollable force of a mental illness.
We could further speculate that Fleck crafted his persona as a clown to try and become a comedian, but has been, in Jungian terms, “possessed by the archetype”, and is now driven by a psychological force outside his control – almost as in cases of demonic possession. He is compelled to play the clown, and a wicked clown at that.
We cannot know, but, as I already observed, we can’t know much about anything in the contemporary world anyway – and Joker reminds us of this fact very forcefully.
Bureaucracy – ha, ha, ha
The figure of the unresponsive woman, the unresponsive black woman in particular, recurs throughout Joker. As I’ve already noted, these three characters – social worker, psychiatrist, and “lover” – could just be the psychotic Joker splitting his psychiatrist into three distinct parts in order to satisfy his sexual, maternal, and analytical needs.
Three again, you’ll notice – three white businessmen killed by Fleck in the subway, and three black women who play a bureaucratic maternal role in his life.
An interpretation of this casting decision is difficult due to the progressive Sovietisation of Western popular culture products, by which I mean that there is legal and ideological pressure for culture producers to place “formerly oppressed minorities” in prominent positions in their products regardless of historical accuracy or artistic consideration. Black women are, in the inverted hierarchy of oppression, considered to be among the most historically oppressed – and so there is attendant ideological pressure to place them in the most prominent roles possible.
However, if we assume that this casting decision was non-ideological and not coerced by Hollywood’s informal ideological security service – we cannot know for sure – then the figure of the unresponsive black woman must be a metaphor for America’s federal bureaucracy.
All three roles occupied by black women in the film – the single mother, the therapist-social worker, and the psychiatrist at the film’s end – are associated with the state. The single mother is presumably partially subsidised by the state, and the other two roles are employees of the state.
All three women ignore or do not listen to Fleck’s complaints about the world. Isn’t this the essence of all bureaucracy, and of America’s federal bureaucracy in particular? American Twitter users often speak of the “woman at the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) counter” as being a particularly egregious example of government inefficiency and unresponsiveness. Perhaps this is just American folklore, I do not know – I am not American. Nevertheless, it is a good metaphorical truth for the kind of unresponsiveness Fleck meets from government officials who are meant to help him throughout the film.
It also strikes me that, historically, the role of the black woman in America, particularly in the old South, was to be a “mammy” – a wet nurse and babysitter to white children. This is particularly evident in the film Gone with the Wind (1939), but it is a theme throughout American literature and cinema. The black woman is, symbolically, in American culture, the woman who nourishes and sustains children – especially perhaps white children, though at the expense of her own. She is, therefore, an apt symbol for the American welfare state. That her teats have run dry for Fleck perhaps reflects the fact that the American state, as a matter of ideology (white men being demonised in leftist American ideology as all being oppressors, no matter what their actual economic status), has turned away from disprivileged white men – they are particular victims of the current opioid crisis, for example.
We can take this representation as being the filmmakers showing us the coldness and indifference of the federal bureaucracy in contemporary America. The state, as Jordan Peterson might observe, takes on a pseudo-maternal role when it becomes involved in health and welfare provision. But the state is an indifferent and neglectful mother: Penny Fleck was framed as being neglectful by the powerful, but she made a genuine effort to be the best mother she could be. It is the pseudo-mother of the state that is truly neglectful of Arthur Fleck.
Three businessmen employed by Fleck’s corrupt father: they bully and beat up Fleck.
Three women employed to be stand-in mothers by the state: they ignore and disdain Fleck.
Three absent or false father figures: they trick and turn their backs on Fleck.
Joker is a film where bad things come in threes: Fleck is a man pursued by abusive troikas. As with a psychiatric patient, Fleck’s superego, ego, and id – the tripartite components of his psyche – are fractured and turned against him, and this disintegration finds expression in these trios.
Sociologically, we could say that Fleck stands for the neglected man of America: the white man of modest means who has grown up in the ruins of the hedonistic 1960s and 1970s – era of divorce, sexual excess, and concealed abuse (Jimmy Savile’s highpoint). He has been abandoned by his corrupt true father (the banks and white American elites who sailed through the financial crisis), raised by an abusive pseudo-father (stepfathers and the mass media, represented by Murray), gaslighted into believing it’s all his fault and that he is mad, and, finally, neglected and ignored by the welfare state that is meant to provide the last recourse in the event all has gone wrong.
If this analysis is correct, then it is easy to see why the mainstream media – mouthpiece of the corrupt American elites – is terrified of Joker. It exposes their own corruption and suggests that almost by magic – as it seemed like magic when Donald Trump was elected – that a reckoning is coming. And that reckoning, given the level of abuse and manipulation exacted, could be a very chaotic and violent one indeed.
Such a reckoning could come about, unless radical action is taken to correct course, by those anonymous forces of chaos who operate Twitter accounts and post on 4chan. These were the people who helped deliver Donald Trump to the White House, and their techno-shamanistic “chaos magic” may not yet have run its course.
The filmmakers are not, I think, sending a crude message with Joker. It is an ambiguous work, it is a tragic work, and that is part of what makes it art: it is not a “call to action” or a “threat of violence”. It is, however, an indictment of contemporary America, and an invitation for everyone who watches it to reflect on the nature of reality and the stories we humans are fond of telling each other.
A final joke?
Joker is the film for this age: it is a film for a time when young men around the world see a Canadian psychologist on YouTube as more of a father than their own flesh and blood, a time when people speak of meme magic, and a time when the occupant of the White House is himself, quite frankly, a bit of a joker.
Trump is indeed possessed by the archetypal energy that is typical of a joker. He has come to stir up chaos by telling unpleasant truths. It is true that, as Joker himself observes, what one person finds funny is not what another finds funny – and many, many people do not share Trump’s brand of humour. Indeed, what he sees as a joke they see as simple abuse. Nonetheless, in a time of great corruption – and who cannot look at the Iraq War, the bank bailouts, and the Epstein case and not speak of corruption – a joker must emerge to stir up all the dank and dark material that respectable society has rejected and pushed to the subterranean depths.
Just like Trump, those “anons” who summoned the populist upsurge and Joker with their meme magic and talk of “clownworld” are trickster figures who have come to stir the mud. Their symbol, if they have one, is a frog – they are #frogtwitter, though like all trickster they scorn any attempt to define them. Their symbols are “Kek” the frog god, Pepe the Frog, and, peripherally, the Kermit-voiced Jordan Peterson. The frog, as has been much observed, is a liminal figure: it lives between land and water. Just as the “anon” user lives between a respectable overworld and a masked underworld on Internet, so Joker also puts on a mask to expose the ugly and dirty truths that underpin respectable society.
The clown wears a mask to critique clownworld – and, if you remember, clowns and sightings of “demonic clowns” have been much in evidence since 2016. The upsurge of this archetype, reminiscent of the painted Baron Samedi in Haitian voodoo, is alarming because, somehow, as with the painted Baron of death (and resurrection), the clown is not exactly funny – he lives between two worlds, the worlds of life and death.
You never know where you stand with the clown: is he crying behind the mask? We don’t know. We don’t know if there’s anything there at all – a bit like the empty Arthur Fleck. We only know that the clown has come to disturb the normal run of events – he as come to shake up those people that anons call “normies”. Of course, in their day-to-day life in the overworld, the anons are also normies. That is the nature of ambiguity – the nature of the clown, the frog, and the dance of life and death.
The man who puts on a mask is an ambiguous figure by necessity.
Ultimately, this poses a question of what comes next: what do you get after the mud is stirred?
The answer is, if we are lucky, to be found in Joker’s half brother – the other man who puts on a mask and, in all honesty, acts like a criminal: the Batman. He is the necessary counterpart to Joker, he is the orphan from upper world who descends to the lower world to restore order and dispense rough justice to those the police cannot deal with. Joker is the orphan who emerges from the lower world to administer rough justice to those – the elites (and also criminals, Joker is no mere rational criminal) – the police can never touch.
We are, I suppose, waiting for Batman.
But remember, as with respectable success and crime, the line between justice and anarchy is rather, shall we say, blurred…
* My thanks again to Unconscious Abyss for telling me what was written on the photo, I couldn’t see without glasses.