“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?”
Many have praised Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker as being representative of a much larger, impactful, and culturally concerning, phenomenon- and rightfully so. The tragic villain archetype that is driven to the point of insanity by a bitterly resentful society is one that an alarmingly large amount of people resonate with, including this author. The depiction of the common man struggling against the gloomily impending tendrils of nihilism that threaten to ensnare him in its ominous clutches and drag him down into the darkest, most abysmal depths of despair is incredibly chilling- not merely because it depicts the desperation that lays dormant within the core of a human being until it is awakened when pushed to a cynical radicalism, but because Arthur Fleck wrestles against it with every ounce of intention that he possesses, and still fails to retain what little there was of his sanity.
It is a point of curiosity to observe the vehement sensationalism revolving around the film, along with insistences that potential violence would be inspired by its gritty, controversial elements. Both the army and the FBI issued severe warnings pertaining to the possibility of violence relating to it. The 1980-esque grit of an impoverished conflicted and divided Gotham that teeters on the fragile veil of class warfare and political radicalism is an illustration that many within the predominantly left-wing media evidently felt would resonate too abrasively with the American public. The wide variety of responses from critics illustrate that the official narrative and mainstream perception of the film is nearly just as multifaceted as the film itself.
Although this origin story of the tragically unhinged, homicidal and clinically insane comedian differs from that which is described in the Killing Joke story arc, the plausibly realistic societal struggle that Phoenix’s Joker endures before succumbing to mental instability as a result of cynical antagonism is all the more chilling when juxtaposed with Mark Hamill’s cosmetically altered clown that falls victim to an incident in a chemical plant in the 1988 comic.
“I hope my death makes more cents than my life.”
From the riveting introduction depicting the brutal violence that Arthur is subject to while attempting to circumvent the dangers of a harsh world of economic instability, to the disturbing event in which he is forced to take the lives of two assailants who attack him but chooses to voluntarily hunt down and take the life of the third in outraged agony, the film illustrates the disastrous descent of a disadvantaged, neurologically disturbed introvert into the terrifying obscurity of isolation and despair.
The larger implications of the film, however, are more intriguing; while the individual aspect of Arthur’s existential struggle against incessant obstacles and troubles appears to appeal more towards alternative right circles, the broader political consequences of social upheaval and rioting against the wealthy elite of Gotham in the name of social justice is very much demonstrative of postmodern leftist domestic terrorist organizations, notably Antifa, an anonymous anarcho-communist domestic terror organization that is notorious for their preferred tactics of physical violence against any who demonstrate political disagreement with them. The allusion is so self-evident that one scene in the film depicts a newspaper with a headline pertaining to “fighting fascism”- presumably, the city’s wealthier populace, personified within the billionaire mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne.
Arthur Fleck remains in a position of apolitical status throughout the duration of the film, despite becoming intrigued by the upheaval that consequently results from his actions. The comically absurd mentality that he forges throughout the consistent chaos of the film is hauntingly reminiscent of modern political conflict; the experiences of societal alienation, isolation, mental illness, frustration, and the inability to connect with others in a constructive environment are experiences that many find familiarity in, and these ailments are precisely the catalyst that serves for the expansion of politically radical ideologies on both the left and the right. Unable to forge valuable meaning from the fires of civilization, they instead craft shelter from an existential storm in its ashes.
“For my whole life, I didn’t even know if I really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.”
Alternative right circles have often voiced a mentality of social isolation, severe disillusionment, anxiety, frustration and general obscurity that prevents them from being properly understood. To a degree, many of their societal criticisms are valid: 7 out of 10 people who commit suicide are white males. Mental illness disproportionately affects men, with substance abuse impacting them at a 3 to 1 ratio in comparison to women. In 5 out of 6 cases, child custody is awarded to mothers rather than fathers, with the majority of fathers receiving only minimal visitation rights.
Likewise, with several left-wing grievances; An estimated 16.9% of Americans report being financially incapable of affording healthcare, which in turn obstructs accessibility to mental health assistance. Major corporations often avoid taxes via legal loopholes and other mechanisms designed to grant them the equivalence of human autonomy.
These societal ailments are of legitimate concern, and need to be delineated upon in order to create solutions to alleviate them- however, postmodern reactionary political movements, as depicted within the film, do not legitimately provide solutions, but rather, send the dissidents spiraling downwards into an ominously bitter, masochistic chasm of nihilistic self-loathing. These hasty actions of a political rebellion attempt to serve the goal of emphasizing the cultural diseases which have long been ignored, and command attention towards displays of societal protest in a desperate effort to draw any type of emphasis towards the neglected and disenfranchised. In the film, this violent desperation culminates in the complete social upheaval and destruction of Gotham as it is torn to polarized pieces by social dissidents, all donning clown masks in honor of Arthur’s clown-like appearance, in bitter mockery of what they perceive to be an innately unjust world around them. Similar imagery has dominated alternative right in referring to modern society as a “clown world”.
“I used to think my life was a tragedy. But now I realize, it’s a f***ing comedy.”
Arthur’s plethora of delusions throughout the course of the film, including an imagined romance with a charismatic neighbor, illustrate in apt detail the desperate attempt of modern political radicals to romanticize fabricated alternative realities, like the installation of a communist regime on the alternative left, or the complete destruction of society via accelerationism on the alternative right- which, arguably, aren’t diametrically opposed in terms of their preferred methods of carrying out these extremities. In facing the abyss of bitter nihilism, Arthur, in reminiscence of many political radicals in the modern-day, turns to absurdism in desperately attempting to craft some existential meaning out of comedic chaos. In the struggle against a formidable reality, it proves an imperative for him to don a comical facade to conceal the depths of despair hiding beneath his layer of cosmetics. Likewise, the same mentality has been adopted by many radicals in the modern day; they freely adopt the facade of cacophonic comedy, eager to ignite violent upheaval. A change, any change, is deemed not just desirable, but a moral imperative.
The climax of the film, in which Arthur murders a popular television host who he previously idolized but has since been shunned by, masterfully illustrates the eventual degradation of the mental health of those who suffer from these forms of social isolation and mental illness. What initially began as a relatable example of frustrations within an unjust society swiftly escalates to the worst degree of severity, throughout the course of Arthur’s swift descent into madness.
What remains profound- and extraordinarily chilling- about the film, is its capacity to make the Joker more than a detached, impersonal character that lacks any attributes worthy of empathy or relation. Rather, the initial frustrations expressed by Arthur in his existential war against his own disillusionment with the world around him is a point of reminiscence for many.
Although many insist that the film is a demonization of those who resonate with these struggles, I feel this to be a misinterpretation. If anything, it demonstrates a tragic archetype that effectively highlights the most alarming elements of modern society, its failures, and the consequences resulting from the increasingly prominent polarity of political ideologies. In taking into consideration the world around us, and the ailments that currently plague us, it is necessary to ask, not what the ailment is, but why it has arisen in the first place. Phoenix’s masterful, emotionally gripping performance has provided a valuable way by which to introduce that conversation.
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