The popular online identification of the Joker character with the incel subculture precedes Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of him—most notably (to me at least) in the “Gang Weed” meme, the origin of the “Gamers Rise Up” and “We Live in a Society” mantras. But whereas the previous Joker incarnations only obliquely relate to the incel—that is, they only really become “incel” when the Gang Weed meme appropriates them, but otherwise are simply witty, violent gangsters—the Phoenix interpretation leans in to this popular online imagining of the character, embracing the “inceldom” of the Joker by way of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
Joker fits the character study of Arthur Fleck into the plot structure of a superhero-origin-story. Thus the seemingly “formulaic” plot structure was a point of derision for a number of less-impressed critics, but this misses the point. “I literally described to Joaquin at one point […] like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like, ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it f–ing Joker.’ That’s what it was,” Todd Phillips told The Wrap. But the restrictions of the superhero-origin-story plot formula is precisely what makes “sneaking in” the “real,” the traumatic Real, movie possible, the real that’s so real it must be repressed, the real that must be avoided at all costs. The artificiality of the superhero-origin-story form tolerates this Real, it makes possible this movie in which Oedipus is overthrown, the “Beta Uprising” triumphs—because the comic book superhero-origin formula here demands only one essential characteristic: that by the end of it all, the Joker becomes who he is. The incel loser has to lose; it would be obscene to make a film that glorifies Elliot Rodger, his spree killing and his death. But that’s not the case here. Here the incel is a superhero, a superhero that cannot die.
This is one of the film’s most interesting tricks. Is Arthur Fleck of Joker actually “The Joker” of the Batman comics? Is it possible for the gangster kingpin to emerge from this character study of an imbecile so fundamentally unable to engage with the world, the language, the society around him? In interviews Phillips alluded to the possibility that Fleck is just an inspiration for “The Joker,” not the supposedly “real” one that fights the Batman (sic: the fake, comic-book cliche one). I think the consequence of this ambiguity means that we are not to understand this film as being about “The Joker” at all, but rather as a film about the incels, but one depicting the incels in such a way that it could not have been made without the framing of the Joker’s origin. Only this framing makes it possible to present the incel hero as a proletarian hero, his revolt against the family becomes a revolt against the ruling class of the entire polis, the battlefield on which he is to eventually fight his aristocratic nemesis until the end of time.
The ultimate question for critics is this: where does the “incel hero” end and the “proletarian hero” begin? The film’s fear-mongering hype was based mainly on how it was perceived that it would opt for the former, and in doing so would be dangerous, irresponsible, nihilistic, even fascist. It would inspire those hateful, ugly incels to harass women on the internet and commit mass shootings. But when the movie finally came out to wide release many leftist critics saw the elements of class struggle in the narrative and concluded that it wasn’t really about incels after all. In The Guardian, Micah Uetricht writes, “what I was witnessing on-screen bore little resemblance to the ode to angry, young, white, “incel” men that I had heard so much about in media coverage of Joker leading up to its release. Instead, we got a fairly straightforward condemnation of American austerity: how it leaves the vulnerable to suffer without the resources they need, and the horrific consequences for the rest of society that can result.”
Coming to this rosy leftist interpretation requires a focus on some of the secondary elements of the film at the expense of overlooking the essential traumatic Real of the incel Oedipal drama. It must repress all awareness of the fundamental antagonisms in family life and sexual development to fit its broader left-liberal worldview. Uetricht points to a scene in the film where Arthur meets with a black female social worker who provides him with his medication. When budget cuts axe the social program, the social worker expresses a class solidarity against the common enemy, represented by Thomas Wayne: “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur … And they don’t give a shit about people like me either.” From this exchange Uetricht confidently declares: “It is those budget cuts that drive Arthur deeper into madness.”
It is clear why Uetricht would identify this as the pivotal scene in the film. If the central problem is one of the administrative services of the social democratic welfare state, the solution is as simple as reallocating funding. The problem can be solved by voting for the right people. And it can be done without necessarily resorting to the sort of orgiastic violence that the film descends into. The moral of the story is that we should vote for Bernie Sanders.https://jacobitemag.com/2019/10/12/jokers-trick/
Mike Crumplar is a writer and editor living in Washington, DC.