This is a fantastic and realistic super-villain origin story. It was beautifully crafted with a great soundtrack.
Think of the simplest object in your apartment that gives you joy. Arthur Fleck didn’t have a single thing like that. His life was a misery at home, a dingy apartment filled with his mother’s madness and sadness.
When I got home from the movie, I dumped my remaining peanut M&M’s into a ceramic pumpkin. It made me think that Fleck didn’t have anything that brought him any joy, not even a little bit. That ceramic pumpkin is a tiny thread in the weft and woof of the fabric of my life. It’s there because I live with someone who decorates my home and, occasionally, puts candy into a seasonal ceramic container (in December, it’s a Santa Claus—head whose hat comes off).
Fleck—and the people he represents—doesn’t have anything like this, even in the tiniest details. Nothing. He got no joy from life, not for lack of trying. The world didn’t care. His home was a claustrophobic reminder of his sadness; the outside world was a tricksome trap alive with real danger around every corner. I live a life of joyous wealth—I’m so used to it that I often forget to count my blessings, to consider how many details contribute to making it very easy for me to not be depressed. Fleck has none of this. He is a raw nerve, a book of matches waiting for a spark.
When life is good, it’s really good. When it’s not, everything sucks and everything that brings joy flees before your bad karma. When you live at the edges of society, the opportunities are not just few and far between, but nonexistent.
It’s not what they say it is
I’m so glad they managed to make it like they did, without conceding to actual or perceived audience demands. I think that making this kind of film into a super-villain origin story allowed the writers to tell the story with less recrimination because they can claim that it was because he was becoming the Joker. The movie, though, is only tangentially related to comic books. It’s not a comic-book movie in nearly in any way.
People would have rather have their psychotics be appealing and charming. To cause a psychotic break like the Joker’s would take some violence. My viewing partner had to swallow hard during Arthur’s assault on the big clown guy in his apartment, but understood that it was necessary for the story. Arthur was a really nice guy and then he…breaks. It has to be sudden and sharp break with his previous reality in order for him to change from a meek, downtrodden man to the devil-may-care joker who “just wants to see the world burn” (to quote Heath Ledger’s Joker of many years ago).
That there are people being paid big money at media organizations to promulgate the idea that the movie exhorts incels and red-pillers just proves that ours is a society that will burn at the hands of a Joker sooner or later. They didn’t understand the movie at all. It’s a warning that in a society as cruel and evil as ours, it is inevitable that an excrescence like the Joker will boil out of the offal bath of our morals. It’s not a question of if, it’s when. In that much, Arthur was right.
Arthur Fleck reminded me a bit of Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master. The heavy use of the unreliable narrator reminded me a bit of Elliot from Mr. Robot. The director was subtle: he didn’t make a meal out of young Bruce Wayne sliding down the bat-pole on the playground. He just let it happen and moved on. Even that scene tried to show what an outside observer would have termed paedophilia—-it wasn’t; Fleck thought the boy was his brother.
Phoenix was amazing. Watching his broken body straighten and inhale with a heretofore unknown confidence as he becomes. There were so many small details: like his nails were mostly gone, a sign of a chronic nailbiter, but we never actually saw him bite them.
Fleck’s relationship with his mother was not healthy—for either of them. His mother had very clearly suffered a mental lapse from which she never recovered. I’m almost certain that the adoption story was a lie. There is no way that Penny Fleck would have been allowed to adopt, if only for the reason that she would have been a single mother in the 60s. The child was hers and the father was almost certainly the odious Bruce Wayne, who was eager for any flimsy story to use as broom to sweep Penny under the carpet.
Handling societal decay
Soon after seeing the movie, I read the articleIn Russia, the Ultimate Scary Story is about Losing Your Coat by Jennifer Wilson (The Paris Review), with the following passage:
“Akaky, whose old coat is too tattered to withstand the frigid air, begins saving for a new one, forgoing the small pleasures that make his otherwise dreary life pleasurable (drinking tea, lighting candles in the evening). But Akaky comes to find joy instead in the dream of a new coat: “it was as if his very existence became somehow fuller, as if he were married, as if some other person were there with him, as if he were not alone but some pleasant life’s companion had agreed to walk down the path of life with him—and this companion was none other than that same overcoat.””
I wonder if a different society—perhaps Russians, who regularly wrote literature in this vein, about suffering and surviving and persevering—would understand Joker differently. From the Russian writers I’ve read, they seemed to understand the existence of poverty on Fleck’s level, a poverty that is not only financial, but also one of the soul. His only companion is a joyless madwoman who constantly exhorts him to be happy. He is bound to her by societal obligation and habit. He has no chance of ever finding romantic happiness.
Back to the story about the coat:
“We share in his horror when, on his very first day wearing his new coat, Akaky is robbed of it. To make matters worse, as titular councilor, he does not have enough pull to get the authorities to take his case seriously. The cold air and society’s indifference sends him to an early grave, but soon afterward, a rumor begins to spread throughout the city: “A dead man had begun to appear at night in the form of a clerk searching for some stolen overcoat.” In death, Akaky gets his revenge. Gogol’s story could be classified as what Wellesley professor Kathleen Brogan defines as “cultural haunting.””
This is almost literally the story arc in Joker. Only Joker didn’t die first—he transformed and lit Gotham on fire.
The article ends with a warning:
“As we commit ever-new forms of violence, such as the destruction of the environment, we will take on new hauntings.”
The destruction of the environment is a violence almost too large to comprehend, but more prevalent and poisonous in the quotidian is small or soft violence. like disregarding or exploiting the suffering of others. Though Arthur was beaten a few times, this was easier for him to understand than the casual cruelty and indifference that is almost more violent, if only because you can’t fight it. You can just sit there and take it and lose.
Elite fear of revolution
With a world as miserable and uncaring as the one in which Arthur finds himself, what do we expect to happen? 99.9% of these misbegotten souls simply subside noiselessly into the mists of history, but the uncaring world can’t get away with its behavior forever. The Joker is an inevitable excrescence of a poisoned world. It’s not an excuse; it’s a reason. No wonder America’s afraid of this movie. They’ve built the powder keg. It’s only a matter of time.
Some are afraid that the film will inspire murderers and riots, empowering the downtrodden—or those who think they are. Or at least they say that’s what they’re afraid of. What they’re really afraid of is that people will realize the Fleck wasn’t even evil. He’d just been fucked over by a society that doesn’t care, that allocates all of its resources to its elites (including the often-rich media) and lets everyone else boil in a Garden of Earthly Delights. They’re afraid that people will actually wake up. That they’ll see that the message isn’t one of violence, but one of knowledge and awareness.
The State had a chance to prevent the Joker’s arrival, but it chose callousness instead, ruthlessly cutting off his benefits and his medication.
Instead of inspiring feelings of violence, the movie inspired compassion for those with mental illness, feeling outcast, societal frustrations.