It always happens the same way. In the superhero comic book business, with its grueling pace where books featuring the most popular characters like the Joker are released weekly, familiar heroes change hands regularly. New writer/artist teams continually reinterpret characters, amplifying the parts of fictional histories that they like, downplaying or rewriting the parts they don't. Usually, when a team takes over one of the more widely-known characters—like, say, Batman—there's an effort to not just play the hits and immediately tell stories featuring his most famous villains. They try something new—perhaps they invent a villain of their own, or attempt something novel, like a whodunnit. Eventually, they almost always cave. Everyone's got a Joker story in them.
There's a surprising amount of malleability behind Joker's rictus grin. One of the character’s few consistent characteristics is his lack of an origin, an idea that's toyed with in The Dark Knight as Heath Ledger's take on evil clown cycles through several possible backstories, clearly making them all up. This makes Joker a cipher—give him an origin or don't, Joker is only ever really there to tell us that we should be afraid of something.
In Todd Phillips's new Joker, that fear is supposedly society, and what it has become (spoilers ahead). With lovely cinematography and a painfully dedicated performance from Joaquin Phoenix, Joker builds towards a moment when a man named Arthur Fleck finally transforms into the comic book villain and diagnoses the culture on live television, confessing to murder and telling the world that he is what you get when civility breaks down and the disenfranchised are neglected. He says he wants to tell a joke, and then kills a late night host live on the air. It's a moment that wants to be Network. It's barely Tosh.0.
The irony of Joker's climax is that its most interesting idea has nothing to do with Fleck's journey towards becoming Joker. Instead, it's the film's running thread about a slowly simmering class war that's finally started to boil over. The Gotham City of Phillips's film is on the verge of a breakdown at the start of the movie, only in need of the slightest push before descending into chaos.
Fleck inadvertently provides that push midway through Joker, when he, in full makeup as a professional clown, accidentally kills two wealthy Wayne Enterprises employees in self-defense and murders a third who tries to escape with a gun a colleague gave him for protection. It's an act that gives the malcontents of Gotham a mascot, the clown who murdered the rich pricks dovetailing nicely with the way Gotham's most famous fat cat, Thomas Wayne, derided protestors as "clowns." By the time Fleck comes out as Joker on air, the clowns have taken to the streets in a riot, ready to eat the rich.
Joker is incidental to the movement around him. It's kind of incredible how inessential he is to the biggest thing happening in his own movie. The class war doesn't need him, and the film depicting that class war doesn't seem interested in understanding it. Instead, it makes Arthur Fleck, a delusional man with a vague mental illness, a mouthpiece decrying the end of civility and a surfeit of institutional neglect that leaves the disenfranchised with no option but violence. Tellingly, Joker has no interest in any disenfranchised characters beyond Fleck and the superficial, retrograde depiction of his illness.
In fact, Fleck spends much of Joker laboring under the dead-eyed stares of the disenfranchised, a small host of black Gothamites working thankless jobs in underpaid clerical work, riding mass transit, living in housing projects. We're never given any insight into their interior lives; they're entirely omitted from Joker's depiction of class struggle. Instead, they're symbolic of society's indifference, when anyone with half a damn brain would recognize that they've been left out in the cold too.
If there's a villain in Joker, it's vaguely "the rich", but disingenuously so. Joker is disgusted with the same things the upper class is uncomfortable with—how rude everyone seems to be lately, how close the working class might be to violence, how phony shysters claim to know how to fix society's ills are working to bankrupt us all. It's a product of the Trump era in that way, setting up a flagrantly evil vision of the rich that it thinks will win the audience over to its side, only to turn the tables on viewers when Joker, fresh from killing a man on live television, escapes police custody to be warmly received by the rioting crowd.
There's a desire for pop culture not to just say something, but to also mean something specific about our culture in this moment. We're in the midst of a dramatic series of breakdowns—of political norms, of socioeconomic equality, of cultural fictions large and small that were long held to be true. We want someone to blame, and we also want to be right about what's really wrong with the world right now. Too shallow to understand its own hypocrisy, Joker blames the rich men who think they know what's wrong with the world, despite being a film from a rich man who thinks he knows what's wrong with the world.
The gun might be the worst part, though. You can follow it throughout the film—the snub-nosed weapon Arthur Fleck wields in his shocking debut as Joker is the same one his coworker gives him for self-defense at the beginning of the film. At first, he's scared of it, but he's also enticed, dancing with it in his apartment before accidentally setting it off. When he kills those Wayne employees, shock and self-defense quickly gives way to vindictive ruthlessness as he executes the third. Escaping to a public bathroom to wash away the blood, he begins to dance, and his descent is now just a matter of gravity.
Joker wants to make a big, weighty, awards-worthy statement about how things got to be so fucked up right now, but at the end of the day it's another story of a man who felt powerful with a gun in his hand. Like I said, everyone's got a Joker story in them. It's just not always the one they think they're telling.
Originally Appeared on GQ