A thrilling character study of Gotham’s nihilist supervillain

Mary Wild on Todd Phillip’s ‘Joker’ (2019)

There’s a scene in Todd Phillip’s new film Joker, where Arthur Fleck, played dazzlingly by Joaquin Phoenix, silently empties out a refrigerator and climbs inside, closing the door on himself. The appliance preserves his emaciated body — a ghoulish ‘in utero’ metaphor, where Arthur is carried in the womb of a cold, dark world, eventually reborn as the villainous Joker. Fleck… an irrelevant speck drifting unattached in a cruel universe — nobody cares, baby! Groundwork is laid for a transformation that’s proven too disturbing for some quarters, as evidenced by firmly clutched pearls of the ‘concerned commentariat’, ever-eager to perform outrage and accuse a comic book film of all manner of moral corruption, echoes of The Public Enemy (1931) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) — ain’t it always the way?

Set in Gotham City around 1981, Joker ravenously references Martin Scorsese, in particular Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982). Garbage piles up on the streets and the threat of super-rats hangs in the air during the early stages of Neoliberal Economics. Rent-a-clown Arthur Fleck dreams of a career in stand-up comedy; he longs to make people laugh but remains unsuccessful, scribbling increasingly unsettling notes in a journal, searching for the funny side (in vain). Joker doesn’t feel like a typical Todd Phillips film, a director known for ‘basic bro movies’ (The Hangover Trilogy, Road Trip, Old School, Due Date) — but perhaps the interest in vulgar humour fuelled an in-depth exploration of the Joker archetype, alongside specific preoccupations linked to ‘comedy’ material that some people struggle to find amusing.

Every aspect of Arthur Fleck’s daily life is mired in difficulty. He’s a friendless weirdo caring for his elderly mother (Frances Conroy) in a drab apartment, exhibiting the socially awkward compulsion to laugh uncontrollably in serious situations — the film taps into the existential dread of linguistic utterances not matching underlying emotions, the nightmarish fate of feeling trapped in the prism of misunderstanding. We later learn that his medical condition and psychopathology resulted from severe childhood abuse and complex trauma. Phoenix stated that his performance in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (2017) enhanced his awareness of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which then informed the meaningful way in which he approached Joker.

A pattern emerges in which Arthur Fleck is either brutally beaten up by thugs, or painfully ignored in Kafkaesque systems. The expressionist filmmaking gives us a view into his mind, we see the world from his perspective, and it’s an ugly place. Even his social worker, someone whose job it is to actively listen and reassure, can’t seem to muster empathy for the challenges Arthur faces — she acts surprised when he speaks about stand-up comedy, even though he’s sure he mentioned it before: “You don’t listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job? Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts.” At one point, Arthur walks smack into the glass pane of a door that does not open because the sensor fails to detect him, as if he’s not really there. The film’s texture builds up to convey an experiential reality where he feels like a non-person, a shadow, unseen and unheard. The comedy is an attempt to register at a social level, make human connections, but nobody gets his jokes — nobody gets him.

Much noise has been made about Todd Phillips supposedly crafting Joker as an “incel” movie — many reviewers have ridiculed the film, claiming that Arthur Fleck is a pitiful male; a loser who believes the world owes him something — but there are no persuasive arguments for drawing divisions along gendered lines. This is a no holds barred portrait of a vulnerable psyche collapsing under the weight of a societal taboo, as per one of the lines in Arthur’s joke book, “The worst part of having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.” There’s a perpetual reminder that he’s a “freak” causing people to feel uncomfortable, that he’s embarrassing to be around. For years, Arthur’s coping response to being belittled and harassed has been to either “freeze” or “flee ”, do nothing or run away. The watershed moment is when he foregoes the path of least resistance and fights back against bullying Wayne Enterprises businessmen on a subway train, murdering them at gunpoint. When news spreads that an unidentified clown is the primary suspect, the violent act takes on heroic significance in the eyes of the downtrodden masses. Embarking on the Joker transformation, Arthur observes, “In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice.”

But here’s the kicker: Fleck doesn’t want to lead a political movement, or be a figurehead for social progress — when he’s asked if he supports the revolt against the wealthy he says, “I don’t believe in any of that. I don’t believe in anything!” Multiple traumas and learned helplessness have caused him to lose the will to search for meaning. The Joker is a bona fide nihilist; he denies that positive change can be made and has come to terms with life being entirely devoid of objective purpose or intrinsic value. He’s a supervillain, rejecting morality and relying on humour to combat the pointlessness of existence. He embraces the morbid ‘randomness’ of the universe, co-opting the admiration of his followers to inspire chaos and absurdist crime sprees. When critics disparage the film for “lacking a moral centre” and being “purposeless”, they’re missing the broader philosophical stance of the Joker. This character does not seek to solve the problem of a narrative — his outlook is deliberately ambivalent. Class war is breaking out all around him but he’s got no skin in the game, he’s given up the ideological ghost. He remains apolitical, but at least he’s no longer invisible — there’s something in him people recognise and relate to. It’s an authentic position to depict, convincingly close to the way the average or dispossessed person sees the world.

At the risk of breaking the “Goldwater Rule” (the psychiatric principle that it is unethical to diagnose public figures or fictional characters who have not been formally examined in person), it is possible to attribute certain mental disorder symptoms to the Joker. There is evidence of a psychotic structure (i.e., delusions, hallucinations, derealisation); there may also be a personality disorder. Arthur Fleck’s mantra is that he wants to make people smile, to bring happiness to the world. It’s the reverse of narcissism, there’s an underlying altruism displayed initially; he wants to help others and contribute to society in a positive way. The tragic twist is that his humour doesn’t resonate with the public, he becomes the butt of other people’s jokes! When Arthur realises he’s being made fun of, the realm of comedy becomes weaponised. He transforms from a withdrawn introvert (i.e., Avoidant Personality Disorder) to a bombastic showman (Histrionic Personality Disorder), diving headlong into psychopathy, where we see the Joker committing unspeakable crimes merely for laughs. The Jungian concept of the ‘Jester’ is a fun-loving archetype that is at peace with the contractions of the world, using humour to expose hypocrisy and upset the balance of power. The Joker is reckless and irresponsible, exhibiting vices and deviant behaviours (anything defined by a lack of impulse control); he represents the wild, crazy ride.

A very rock and roll movie, it’s exhilarating to see Arthur Fleck’s emotional hellscape reflect the ‘crazy’ environment he occupies, reminiscent of counter-culture classics like Network (1976) and Falling Down (1993). The conflicted response of the media class to it is fascinating, and contrasts sharply with jubilant reactions from guilt-free ordinary cinema punters. In Sigmund Freud’s Civilisation and Its Discontents (1930), inconsistent aspects of ‘polite society’ are discussed, particularly the tensions between an individual’s quest for freedom and society’s demand for conformity — “It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilisation is built up upon a renunciation of instinct.” When we internalise cultural norms and expectations, our ability to satisfy drives becomes inhibited; repression is required. We must accept the rules of society as binding — to go against them is to risk expulsion from the group. ‘Leading lights’ of the film industry are determined to call out the utter contempt for civilisation at the heart of Joker, because “we live in a society” (to coin a phrase!) But might they be unconsciously reacting to a universally shared neurosis that grows out of the pressure to cope with society’s ideals of righteousness and order? I used to think that film criticism was a tragedy… but now I realise it’s a comedy!

The ultimate paradox is that civilisation, created to eliminate loneliness, becomes a source of unhappiness, breeding resentment, hostility and aggression. This is too painful to confront, so instead the ‘great and the good’ chooses to double down on aspirational values, urging that none of the “great unwashed” strays too far from the social contract to “be better”. However, we mere spectators have the luxury to sidestep Superego demands for a couple of hours, we’re free to enjoy the catharsis a film like Joker offers, a release from the drudgery into the murky unknown of revenge fantasies and uncouth jokes… a purely escapist, fun and mischievous cinematic experience!

Showing in cinemas now

Mary Wild

By Mary Wild

Mary Wild is the creator of the Projections lecture series at Freud Museum London, applying psychoanalysis to film interpretation. Her interests include cinematic representations of mental illness, the doppelgänger and the unconscious in the genres of horror, science fiction and documentary. Mary also co-hosts the Projections Podcast with Sarah Kathryn Cleaver, available on all podcast apps.