The recent film Joker has the potential to help viewers better understand the horrors of the capitalist system we inhabit—unemployment, inaccessible health care, and widespread inequality. Instead, it presents Joker as a demented, if relatable, villain.
We get an inkling of who Joker could be after Arthur Fleck’s murder of the three wealthy Wall Street abusers on the subway. The murders, which come across as an awkward Hollywood nod to #MeToo, seem to awaken the people of Gotham to the realization that they are exploited by wealthy elites like Thomas Wayne. Their protests and riots invoke the political struggles of our own time while Brett Cullen’s depiction of Wayne borrows heavily from Trump’s authoritarian persona. Wayne’s rhetoric and style clearly mimic Trump’s bluster while his pronouncement that only he can save Gotham nearly plagiarizes Trump’s “I alone can fix it” 2016 convention speech.
The plot seems to build towards a vision of Joker as a heroic everyman whose struggle with debilitating mental and cognitive illness reveals the failings of the neoliberal state. Gotham’s healthcare system faces chronic cuts while the Waynes remain insulated on their idyllic gated estate waging a faux-populist campaign against the withered remains of the social safety net. Wayne calls Gotham’s disaffected protesters clowns and brags that electing him will allow them to make something of themselves.
But as the streets fill with clown-masked “resistance” protesters, we learn that Arthur is indeed deeply mentally ill and suffering through a break with reality. Arthur’s frustrations as a working-class clown groveling for scraps before Gotham’s elite become the ravings of a madman. Worse still, the film plays on longstanding ableist stereotypes of those struggling with mental illness as dangerous. In reality, we are the ones who endanger Arthur. We cut his access to medication and treatment while our tendency to discriminate against those diagnosed with mental illness makes it nearly impossible for the Arthurs of our world to earn a living wage.
Imagine a Joker who dares to point out the madness of our society, which could easily meet the needs of its exploited and oppressed poor, but chooses instead to incarcerate or abandon them. Such a Joker might declare, reasonably, that “Crime is naught but misdirected energy.”
“What does society, as it exists today,” Joker would ask while standing on the wreckage of social hierarchy, “know of the process of despair, the poverty, the horrors, the fearful struggle the human soul must pass on its way to crime and degradation?”
Such a Joker might note that the state is intrinsically violent and oppressive, created to do the bidding of wealthy elites. “It is well to consider that laziness results either from special privileges or physical and mental abnormalities,” our Joker might respond to charges of madness. “Our present insane system of production fosters both.”
This Joker existed. Her name was Emma Goldman and, unlike Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, she was a deeply committed anarchist and who saw crime and violence as the necessary product of elite exploitation of working class folk. As Zazie Beetz’s Rosie Drummond observes, the apartment building she shares with Arthur is “awful, isn’t it?” Imagine a Joker who draws inspiration from the contrast between their garbage-choked living conditions and those of the Waynes.
Instead, Joker gives us a vision of the potential of this rainbow coalition and then spins it as imaginary—a fantasy produced by Arthur’s break with reality. And in the end, Joker’s class-conscious followers fight one another on the subway before descending into madness themselves in the film’s final, destructive frenzy. They become, as Wayne and his followers called them, animals and clowns.
We have, apparently, a “distressing” Joker who is too dark because no Batman shows up to fight to preserve the neoliberal order. The real problem with Joker, reviewer Johanna Robinson observes almost unbelievably, is its “feeling of untethered free fall into moral bankruptcy” at the hands of Joker and the violent, anti-elite protests he inspired in the streets. Never mind the decrepit conditions Arthur, Rosie, and millions of other Gothamites endure at the hands of an unrestrained wealthy elite.
We need a Joker who rejects the crumbling capitalist order, not one who reinforces it.
This easily-dismissed Joker is the real failure of the film. But perhaps there is a silver lining in the hopelessness Robinson observes — “in Joker, no one is coming to save us at all.” In Joker, as in our communities, we must work together to save ourselves.