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Is Joker Just a Movie?

Joaquin Phoenix’s villain is fictional, but he has a life of his own.

Warner Bros.

Joker won’t come out in America until October 4, but after its Venice premiere this week, a critical maelstrom is already aswirl. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck—the Joker before he was the Joker—a mentally ill and broke man with a warped relationship with his mother. The trailers suggest Phoenix has brought all his febrile abilities to the role, his mental condition deteriorating before he heats up into full-on, singing-and-dancing evil.

It’s the origin story of the Joker character, inspired by the DC Comics oeuvre but significantly departing from it toward a more naturalistic style. Directed by Todd Phillips of The Hangover series, Joker depicts the villain not as a cartoon but as a near-relatable human being, driven to violence by the pressure of sheer insistent suffering, including medical neglect by the authorities (he loses access to his psychiatric medication as part of the plot).

Critics who have seen the movie are divided roughly into two camps: Those who praise Phoenix’s performance as a Travis Bickle–style virtuoso turn, and those who think Phillips has made a sympathetic movie about narcissistic male violence—about an “incel,” perhaps. In her review for Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote that “it’s not as if we don’t know how this pathology works: In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week.”

Yes, this Joker seems uncannily close to the white, male shooters of the American headlines. Yes, young, white men tend to like Batman movies. The charge of irresponsibility is easily leveled at Phillips: Is this really the time to be lionizing such behavior? Tweets like “the Joker trailer looks like ‘mediocre white guy grievance: the movie’” are multiplying, while retorts like “2019 SJWs have become the paranoid church ladies from the 1990s” flourish in their wake.

Joker is fiction. Representation is not endorsement, and the best fiction ought to bear some relation to the real world. At least, that’s the kind of argument critics could safely make before social media added a new layer to the discourse around movies. The Joker may not technically be real, but, in one sense, he is as real as any other phenomenon that drops into your feed, with opinions of Joker hardening along ideological lines before the movie is even out. If your online tribe leans feminist, then you probably follow people who have already condemned this bit of incel-ebration, while the reverse will be true for comics superfans who seek to protect their fiefdom from SJW sniping.

Will Joker really prove to be more dangerous than other movies? Can it, or any film, be judged from some kind of Archimedean perspective, when social media blurs the distinction between fiction and reality? To begin to answer these questions, it might help to study a villain we never got a handle on in the first place.

The reality is that the Joker already had a multivalent political identity, long before this new movie was conceived. He has slipped the bonds of fiction and entered our world.

In a 2016 article about Barack Obama’s time in office for The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg recorded an odd memory shared by his aides. The president had a habit, apparently, of quoting a key scene from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight to explain Middle Eastern politics. Just as Heath Ledger’s Joker had threatened the mob families’ relatively stable control of Gotham in the movie, so ISIS was an agent of chaos that posed a greater threat to the region than Bashar Al Assad. “They were thugs, but there was a kind of order,” he would say. Like the Joker, ISIS was a wildcard that threatened both establishment and criminal hierarchies, and “that’s why we have to fight it.”

The Joker in The Dark Knight played a role in this country as well, embodying the terrorist specter—irrational, unstoppable, unknowable—that dominated politics in the post-September 11, 2001, pre-financial-crisis era. He represented a masculine, alienated nihilism that posed an existential threat to the good guys, who, in the form of Batman, responded with unlawful surveillance and extra-judicial killings. Later, in the alternative universe of conservatism, it was Obama himself whom the Joker represented, with Tea Party activists doctoring Obama’s portrait to include the Joker’s white face and blood-red scars.

There may have been real-world consequences to this entertainment, too. In 2012, James Eagan Holmes set off tear gas in a Colorado movie theater during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight’s sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, before shooting twelve cinemagoers dead and wounding 70 others. The shooting was a national story, and at the time it was reported that Holmes had referred to himself as “The Joker” and dyed his hair bright red to more closely resemble a cartoon villain. Officials later refused to confirm that report, but the association between Holmes and the Joker was drawn clearly on the news, adding another facet to the Joker’s political identity: this time as carnage- and chaos-inducing domestic mass shooter.

Though Hollywood often speaks of “rebooting” franchises, there is no clean slate to be written on here. Any new movie about the character will hang in tension with these real events, and no cries of “fiction!” will ever change that.

And on the face of it, the new Joker appears to lean into those events in a way that the previous Dark Knight trilogy did not, almost as if Phillips wants to move beyond an endlessly interpretable allegory about terrorism toward a more immediate kind of representation. By placing Joker in a world more like our own for Fleck to terrorize, Phillips has changed the stakes of this villain.

Nolan’s The Dark Knight framed itself as a part of an already-existing fictional universe, the one shared by every other DC Comics movie. Batman delivers growling monologues into the night sky lit by his insignia, and he rides a ridiculous motorcycle. The other villain—Two-Face, his face literally divided in two by burns—is a throwback, as is the upstanding Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon. Nobody laughs at this silliness but the Joker, but that’s because he’s insane. We are deeply familiar with this fictional world.

I haven’t seen Phillips’ Joker, but the trailers indicate a movie that draws the line between fiction and reality in a different place—one closer to true life, and more like New York City than Gotham. This is evident in the two movies’ different characterizations of the villain’s psychology. Heath Ledger’s Joker defied any semblance of an origin story, spinning wildly different tales (the famous “why so serious?” scene) about the vivid scars on his cheeks. He simply was crazy. Joaquín Phoenix’s Joker, in contrast, has been diagnosed with a real condition called Pseudobulbar Affect, and shows a card containing that information to members of the public who are concerned by his spontaneous laughter or weeping.

Now we are in a different mode, familiar to anyone who has followed the fallout of a mass shooting, that of tracing the steps that led a seemingly ordinary man to snap. In the words of Indiewire critic Ryan Lattanzio, Joker may “speak to the people in our world who are predisposed to think of Arthur as a role model: lonely, creatively impotent white men who are drawn to hateful ideologies because of the angry communities that foment around them.” This seems to be a villain of a different symbolic order than his predecessor: A man who is part of our world, available as a role model in ways that Ledger’s Joker resisted.

Joker is a movie, and ought to be treated like fiction. But the prerelease reaction on Twitter shows that movies are social issues now, too, echoing all the arguments that pertain to other, “real” events. The question, really, is whether Joker is just a movie, or something more. All we can say for sure is that the miserable young men of this nation have proved difficult to predict.