This essay contains plot points about “Joker,” up to and including the ending of the film. Complaints about spoilers will be met with a dose of Smilex gas to turn your frown upside down.
Worries that “Joker” — the new movie from Warner Brothers documenting one possible origin of Batman’s nemesis, the Clown Prince of Crime — would spark violence from disaffected young men in the “incel” community, were remarkably overblown. There was no violence and the film broke box office records. More importantly, though, the Joker isn’t an inspiration for incels at all.
Rather, the movie positions him as the forefather of Antifa, the loosely organized left wing collective that has gained new prominence in the Trump years for its sometimes-violent clashes with rightwing protesters.
By film’s end, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) has inspired a mass protest movement, alright. But it’s one that’s aimed squarely at the one percent. Fleck’s murder of three investment bankers becomes a flashpoint, pitting Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) — a billionaire pol and would-be mayor who simply wants to make Gotham great again in the face of decline, corruption, and violence — against a group of masked bandits wielding “RESIST” signs and whinging about fascism.
Indeed, “Joker” is one of the more fascinating documents of our time: Warner Brothers has spent $60 million making, and God only knows how much marketing, a movie in which Antifa kills Thomas Wayne and, we presume, creates the Batman. It’s no wonder the provocateurs at Venice rewarded the film and its director, Todd Phillips, with the Golden Lion, while the stiffs at TIFF sniffed.
Phillips’s and Phoenix’s Joker is not a mastermind so much as a symbol. He has no minions, exactly, but the streets by film’s end are filled with those whom he has inspired with his acts of vicious retribution, including the assassination of a talk show host live on the air. Phoenix portrays the Joker as an agent of chaos — alternately dancing with nimble grace and running from cops with a sort of slapstick shamble; laughing uncontrollably as a rictus of sadness animates his face — and as such, he’s no architect of destruction. Rather, he’s simply a flashpoint.
There’s a shot toward the end of “Joker” that echoes a previous iteration of the character: his head against a cop car window, staring out, he sees the chaos he has caused and begins to smile. One can’t help but think of Heath Ledger’s head out the window of a cop car, taking the wind in his hair like a dog whose owner has let him up in the front seat. But the differences between the two characters are vast. Whereas Ledger’s Joker claimed to be an agent of chaos all while setting up infinitely intricate plans and plots, Phoenix’s Joker is that chaos.
If Phillips is a director whose main concern is cruelty — and I say that as someone who enjoys the comedy of cruelty and crudity that Phillips has cultivated — Christopher Nolan is a director whose main concern is identity. And in “The Dark Knight,” he uses the Joker as a means of getting at the identity of Gotham’s citizenry: is it, at heart, vicious and base, and thus beyond redemption by a masked vigilante? Or good and noble, and thus worthy of said masked hero absorbing the sins of the city?
The answer by the end of “The Dark Knight” is “good enough, for now.” Nolan’s movies in general come across as extremely skeptical of Gotham’s public. In “Batman Begins” the masses are literally weaponized and turned against each other via the Scarecrow’s (Cillian Murphy) fear-inducing chemicals. In “The Dark Knight Rises,” we see they need little encouragement from Bane (Tom Hardy) to start ransacking the homes of the wealthy. And even in “The Dark Knight,” we see them try to kill a whistleblower at the Joker’s behest, but by film’s end they refuse to cross the line into outright mass murder. One cheer for Gotham, I suppose.
But it’s Tim Burton’s “Batman” that comes closest to understanding group psychology. There’s a funny moment when the Joker (Jack Nicholson), who has hijacked a press conference about Gotham’s cancellation of the town’s bicentennial parade, finally gets everyone’s attention. We’ve seen a cross-section of Gothamites — blue collar workers, punkish bikers, lowlifes in a bar — studiously ignore their TVs despite the strange things transpiring on it. Until, that is, the Joker says he’s going to be distributing $20 million, cash, to anyone who shows up. This piques their interest! This earns their attention. This gains him admiration.
And, at the end of the day, this has always been and may always be the most compelling iteration of the Joker. Incels, Antifa, agents of chaos: that’s all interesting and timely, but temporary. The simple fact of the matter is that few of us are looking for a symbol. We just want a guy who will slap on some makeup, tell us what we want to hear, and throw some money our way.