“Divisive” is how The New York Times describes Todd Phillips’ newly released, Joker.
It is curious that we’ve arrived at a juncture at which a film based upon an iconic comic book villain that, as the most memorable arch-nemesis of one of the world’s most popular and oldest of superheroes, has been a part of American culture for eight decades has generated controversy among film critics.
However, such curiosity resolves itself once it is realized that, unsurprisingly, this controversy, not unlike virtually all others that beset America in the year 2019, is at bottom political.
This, though, is but another way of saying that the left-leaning partisans that overwhelmingly comprise the field of film criticism have discerned something in Joker that runs afoul of their political dogmata.
Indeed, on this score, the critics are correct.
Whatever Phillips’ intentions, the fact of the matter is that his nuanced depiction of the lead character serves as an exquisite illustration of the Southern conservative writer Richard Weaver’s memorable maxim: Ideas have consequences. And the ideas imbibed by Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, the ideas that, impoverishing as they do both his mind and character, transform him into the soulless monster of comic book lore, are ideas associated with a political ideology with which the film’s discontents among the critic class tend to sympathize.
Since its release last week, there has been much chatter as to the alleged ambiguities that pervade Phillips’ box-office blockbuster. Were the events that unfolded in Joker really supposed to have occurred, or were they all figments of the fevered imagination of a mentally deranged patient who had been institutionalized throughout the duration of the film in Gotham City’s most infamous psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane?
While this is certainly an interesting question in its own right, fortunately, for the purposes of this review, they are ultimately irrelevant. The one thing that is most unambiguous about Joker is that its title character is a man who, miserable, enraged, resentful, envious, and deluded, suffers from severe mental and emotional instability and social awkwardness.
Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck is not an entirely unsympathetic figure. As he sees it—and the plot of Joker is the perspective of Fleck—the world, the world of Gotham City that functions as the fictional counterpart to the New York City of 1981, is a cold, soulless, Godless urban tundra. Gotham is not unlike any other real-life large city that has been under Democratic-rule for decades in that it is a bastion of criminality and elitist corruption, home to both a swollen underclass and a self-interested oligarchy.
Gotham is also a vast, sprawling, impersonal bureaucracy. Mental health services exist; but the mode of delivery, devised as it is by a government juggernaut, not only renders them ineffective. It is difficult to escape the impression that the government agents who are employed to assist the mentally troubled, being but cogs in the machinery of Leviathan themselves, actually exacerbate the challenges faced by their patients. One is here reminded of Ronald Reagan’s famous witticism: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Has the man who would become “Joker” always been deranged, or has he been made to become such by a cruelly indifferent society? This question, it seems, misses the point that the Gotham City of Phillips’ vision is inconceivable in the absence of people like Joaquin Phoenix’s Fleck.
More specifically, while Joker insists to Murray Franklin, the late-night television comic host portrayed by Robert DeNiro, that he is apolitical, his attitude and character dispositions, as well as those of the legions of clown-imitators that he inspires, are obviously of a piece with a leftist ideology: the implicit and sometimes not so implicit belief, expressed repeatedly with shocking clarity, that the material fortunes of Gotham’s upper class need to be confiscated and radically redistributed so as to benefit, as the egalitarian liberal philosopher John Rawls refers to the lower and under-classes, “the least advantaged;” the sheer hatred and demonization of the rich; and, of course, the eagerness on the part of self-styled “resisters” to mobilize into mobs for the sake of wreaking unmitigated violence against the persons and property of the oppressor class of wealthy white male “fascist” power-brokers—all of these distinctively leftist characteristics are on display in the conduct of Joker and his “anti-fascist” mask-wearing followers.
It isn’t Deplorables who are inspired by Joker’s murderous rage and consumed by a white-hot hatred for the rich.
Joker can be read as an examination of, not just the moral corruption for which those who cultivate the dispositions of an essentially leftist ideology are destined, but the (increasingly visible) connection between this ideology, on the one hand, and, on the other, both psychical and physical ill-health: Arthur Fleck’s emaciated body and poor posture are obviously intended to reflect his delusion-ridden mind.
However, neither Fleck nor his army of fans could so much as acknowledge (much less apply to themselves) the concept of “delusion,” for the latter presupposes a distinction between reality and mere appearance. And this distinction in turn assumes that there is such a thing as reality, an objective set of features, essences, structures that, as such, are in no way dependent upon human will. Yet it is this premise that Joker, being the penultimate existentialist that he is, unequivocally repudiates.
Nietzsche, with his declaration regarding the death of God, gave existentialism the push into its own as a distinctive philosophy that Kierkegaard, an impassioned Christian, failed to give it. It is this philosophy with its staunch insistence that ours is a purposeless, meaningless, and value-neutral cosmos that such prominent 20th century thinkers as Camus and Sartre would shape still further. Especially audible are echoes of Camus, who described the world as “absurd”: There is no image, after all, that more dramatically emblematizes the absurd than that of the clown.
Good and evil; truth and falsity; reality and appearance; beauty and ugliness; sanity and insanity; normalcy and the abnormal—such traditional binary oppositional pairings are radically undermined in Joker as the lead character ignites a bloody revolution designed to “fundamentally transform” the world (or at least Gotham City).
Whether he intended to do so or not, Todd Phillips succeeded in creating a film that illustrates as brilliantly as any film has both the philosophical presuppositions and the destructive consequences of the Zeitgeist that prevails among our cultural, political, and media elites.
Such is the magnitude of Phillips’ achievement that from this point onward, some will find it not inappropriate to refer to the left-liberal ideology of our times simply as…“Jokerism.”