Months after the film’s release, we are now enduring Round Two of the left elite’s handwringing over Joker, the brilliant origin story of Batman’s arch-nemesis starring Joaquin Phoenix. When the movie came out, there were innumerable columns and tweets lamenting another cinematic glorification of “white male rage,” “toxic masculinity,” and alt-right incel culture. Of course, as more people saw Joker (it grossed over a billion dollars), it quickly became apparent that the film didn’t “glorify” any of those things. Nor was it a defense of Trumpism. Contrary to the suggestions of some critics, there was no misogyny or racism — in fact, one of the only humane characters in the film is a non-white woman who lives down the hall from madman-in-the-making Arthur Fleck.
So why is the legacy media again abuzz about Joker? Only to bemoan the fact that it earned 11 Oscar nominations — more than any film of last year. Personally, I don’t know why anyone gives a damn about the Oscars, which is just one more of the myriad events that Hollywood throws to celebrate itself, usually for making movies that comparatively few people viewed. But for elite figures on the left, the Oscars are especially important. Those people expect that the movies that are nominated and awarded will explicitly or implicitly affirm the woke values and secular progressive commitments that define celebrity culture. The televised broadcast of the awards show is perhaps the central annual advertisement of those values to the broader public. Thus, the media’s satisfaction with the nominees depends mainly on how many of the nominees are women and minorities and whether or not the films nominated extol the virtues of a globalist progressivism and caution against the dangers of traditional Western mores.
We see this phenomenon in the subheading of Mark Harris’s Vanity Fair piece that disparages the nominees: “Academy voters are more internationally minded now (Go, Parasite! Congrats, Antonio!), but that’s the only thing that feels like progress.” Is that the purpose of the Oscars? To signal a kind of political “progress”? Apparently so, because Harris goes on to lament the tragedy that “Three of the four most-nominated movies — The Irishman, Joker, and Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood — are stories about white men who feel culturally imperiled.” Historically, the Oscars have awarded films that depict some aspect of the current cultural moment. Justified or not, the increasingly explicit attacks on white masculinity have made a number of white men feel culturally imperiled. Odd, then, that Harris sees it as the task of the “Academy” to ensure that the depiction of this reality is not rewarded.
Over at Bezos’ Washington Post, Kyle Turner expresses his dismay by griping about how “Joker has nothing to say; seemingly beginning and ending with the idea that edginess is an end in itself. Look past the spectacle, and you’ll get little more than a nonsensical diatribe about … something?” The smart set at Salon agrees: “Joker doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about comic book origin tales or the people who gravitate toward becoming outlandish characters.” Over at Slate, they don’t even ask whether the film means anything or not. It’s too stupid to bother: “From its dumb yellow title card to its antihero’s dumb delusions of grandeur to its dumb absolute belief in its own transgressiveness, Joker is just as stupid as can be.” Turner’s conclusion is that the movie is sound and fury signifying nothing: “Joker is a dumb enough movie with politics nonspecific enough that by indicting, with skinny wide-open arms, everyone in society, the film basically indicts no one at all, so Oscar voters don’t have to feel implicated.”
There’s only one problem here: usually, journalists don’t usually spend a lot of time writing attack pieces on pointless, meaningless movies that indict no one. Make no mistake: the people complaining about Joker’s Oscar nominations (of all things) are deeply scandalized by this film. And this isn’t because the movie sucks and has nothing to say. On the contrary, there are two groups of critics waging the campaign against Joker: those who viscerally understand Joker’s message and yet deny those themes in the hope that they won’t register with its viewers, and those who cannot grasp the message of the film because they are so used to seeing great films that affirm their worldview that they literally cannot see the message of movies that don’t.
Joker, Self-Interest, and the Social Trust Deficit
What, then, is the message of Joker that has everyone so riled up? Having seen the movie a few times now, I’ve come to view it as something of a companion piece to Patrick Deneen’s recent book, Why Liberalism Failed. Given that Hollywood films are one of the most powerful ways that modern liberal ideology is sustained and reproduced, this may seem an unlikely comparison. Before fleshing out the connection, some summary of Joker is required (spoilers follow).
Arthur Fleck is a slight, gentle man living in an overcrowded, overtrashed Gotham City. He is mentally ill: he has uncontrollable fits of laughter, often untimely ones that occur in highly stressful situations. Arthur attends government-funded mental health counseling and has a government subsidy for the many prescription drugs that help him cope. Most of Arthur’s activity is directed toward bringing joy to others, a mission that his neurotic mother tells him he was born to fulfill. In an effort to fulfill this mission, he works as a party clown — he enjoys making people laugh. His selflessness is also reflected in his willingness to live in a small flat with his mother, working to assuage her own mental difficulties. He is also dipping his toes into the stand-up comedy scene.
In essence, Fleck is a man who feels a deep need for community. But he can’t find it — anywhere. Working as a clown advertising a going-out-of-business sale on the street, Arthur has his sign stolen by street kids, who break it on his face before beating him viciously. In response to this event, a coworker feigning friendliness gives Arthur a gun “for protection” — a gift that the coworker later uses to imperil Arthur’s situation at work, ultimately leading to his termination. Cutbacks in public funding result in Arthur losing his access to mental health services: at a final meeting, he comes close to articulating the major cause of his turmoil to his counselor. She interrupts him to tell him about the funding cuts. Pointing out that she never listens to him, he continues to unburden himself. She interrupts again to talk about the cuts, and after telling him that “no one cares” about people like him, she cuts him loose.
Arthur observes a group of young professional men harassing a woman on the train. He diverts their attention from her, and when they begin beating him, he shoots them with the gun from his coworker. It turns out these men worked for Bruce Wayne’s father, a business magnate who also happens to be running for mayor. As the news media pushes Wayne’s candidacy, citing him as the only man who can clean up Gotham, the media turns the young men into innocent victims of a seething resentment on the part of the lower classes.
The media framing of the killings as an act of class rebellion fuels a popular movement resembling Occupy Wall Street, in which people attend public demonstrations wearing clown masks (as the unidentified killer was said to wear) and carrying signs that say things like “Eat the Rich.” As the film continues, Arthur learns that his mother had lied extensively about his parentage and childhood. Fleck’s comedic hero — a talk show host named Murray Franklin — sees a terribly unfunny video of Arthur doing stand-up and mocks him on his late-night show. After viewers respond positively, Franklin invites Fleck to appear on his program. This leads to the film’s climax when Fleck debuts as “Joker” on television.
The message here — the one that left-wing commentators can’t see or won’t acknowledge — is that the carnage that fills the film’s final minutes is a logical consequence of a social order that actively undermines communal bonds and obligations. Fleck’s mental illness seems to stem from the fact that he needs community and is punished every time he seeks it. He is the victim of a radical deficit of societal trust. He can’t trust people on the street, and he can’t trust coworkers. He can’t trust his counselor, whose obligations to care only extend as far as the city budget. He can’t trust the media, who make martyrs out of the men who attacked him and misrepresent his motives in lashing out. And, further, the media foments class outrage at the same time that it openly promotes the political prospects of a man who embodies class privilege. He learns he can’t trust his mother. Finally, he learns he can’t even trust his own fantasies of camaraderie when his hero mocks him on national television.
As he is interviewed by Murray Franklin, Joker confesses that he killed the men on the train. As they discuss this on live television, Murray attempts to understand the act as a part of the class riot raging in the streets outside: “I think I might understand that you … did this to start a movement? To become a symbol?” Joker’s response is compelling: “Come on, Murray. Do I look like the kind of clown who could start a movement? I killed those guys because they were awful. Everybody is awful these days. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.” These lines on their own are enough to stoke the ire of any critic on the left: not only does Joker dismiss and diminish the class rage animating the public protests, he subtly suggests that anyone who could start such a mass movement is a “clown.” One is left to wonder: if the film endorsed the boilerplate criticism of the “1 percent” and the inherent virtue of the “99 percent,” would the critics have been able to find a theme here?
Liberal Freedom and the Dissolution of Community
This brings us back to Deneen’s book. Conservatives may feel some enthusiasm at the mere title: Why Liberalism Failed. But it is important to understand that Deneen doesn’t use the term liberalism in the same way that it gets used on Fox News. He refers to both the mainstream American Left and the mainstream American Right as successors to the tradition of classical liberalism: in short, liberalism (in its modern iteration) is the only game in town. Both the Left and the Right agree that the major objective of the political order is to secure individual freedom. They only differ in how they envision the fully liberated citizen.
In practice, Deneen suggests that the liberal order seeks to free the individual by dissolving any of the obligatory duties and associations that might otherwise constrain him from living whatever type of life he chooses to live. People’s lives, liberal ideology contends, cannot be determined by the desires or interests of family, their options cannot be circumscribed by poverty or childcare, and the satisfaction of their desires cannot be restricted by collective norms or values. Deneen further observes that this “depersonalization” is primarily achieved through two means: the state and the market.
Interestingly, the total lack of human connection observed in Joker is intricately connected to the state and the marketplace. The state-funded health-care system seeks to make Fleck self-sufficient — able to live independently, so that he isn’t a burden to others. Of course, this “independent living” is understood largely as one’s fitness for the labor market, and participation in that market is a validation of the economic order. “Freeing” Arthur from dependence on caregivers beyond the state apparatus ensures that when the state defaults on its commitment to care for Arthur, he has no one else he can depend on. And it’s important to note that this default is caused by the susceptibility of the state to the vicissitudes of the market: they run out of money. Of course, his situation wasn’t much better when he still had his counselor; as a representative of the state, her willingness to provide care is contingent upon her personal compensation. She understands her public work simply as a means to private economic gain.
These contradictions are again evident in the public protests against the rich. The protest itself is an expression of a communal bond — a mass consciousness. But the basis of the protesters’ communal sensibility is the shared sense that market inequities have rendered them incapable of maximizing their personal autonomy. Thus, they (together) push for economic adjustments that will provide a greater self-sufficiency, which in turn will ensure that they don’t have to depend on any communal ties for their well-being. They all wear the same clown mask that liquidates each protester’s personal identity and fuses them as a collective. Ironically, the goal of their protest is to ensure that the market will enable them to exist independently as individuals, freed from the obligations that community requires.
Deneen goes on to explain that “Liberalism begins a project by which the legitimacy of all human relationships […] becomes increasingly dependent on whether those relationships have been chosen, and chosen on the basis of their service to rational self-interest.” Such an order ensures that “personal relationships become dominated by considerations of individual choice based on the calculation of individual self-interest, and without broader consideration of the impact of one’s choices upon the community, one’s obligations to the created order, and ultimately to God.”
Joker’s achievement lies in its imagining of the man produced by a society that successfully annihilates any obligation the individual has to anyone else and any obligation that anyone else might have to the individual. Thus, the film is a kind of prophecy — it shows liberals a portrait of liberalism’s culmination. A world that is, in a word, de-humanized. As Deneen states repeatedly in his book, liberalism failed because it was too successful: true freedom requires a community that limits the sphere of individual action. But the amazing success of liberalism in dissolving every kind of personal obligation to something beyond the self ensures that the very preconditions for a liberal society are demolished. Joker is the story of a gentle man who finally learns the key lesson of liberalism and is broken by it: that total autonomy to pursue self-interest not only frees one from obligations to others; it frees others from any obligation to you. Arthur Fleck’s conversion to Joker is a chronicling of his path to becoming the man that liberalism ultimately calls for him to be. In the end, the film is a rejection of the idea that radical autonomy and “freedom” (as jointly articulated by the state and the “free” market) is a desirable outcome.
Given that radical personal autonomy remains the ultimate end of contemporary leftism, it’s no wonder that Joker’s Oscar nominations have brought howls from observers of the “Academy.” It is an attack on the entire worldview of Western secular elites. In the face of such a powerful statement, it makes sense that the objects of the critique insist that film has nothing to say. Joke’s on them.
Adam Ellwanger is a professor at the University of Houston – Downtown, where he studies rhetoric and public discourse. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released by Penn State University Press in the spring. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org