“Gentlemen, I am joking, of course, and I myself know that I am not joking very successfully, but one really cannot take everything as a joke. Maybe I’m grinding my teeth as I joke.” —The Underground Man
Dismissed by many critics as an excessively violent and trashy bit of exploitation, Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) is nevertheless a complex work of postmodern art that defeats final interpretations and produces an impressive entertainment spectacle. In addition, the title character of Joker can be read as a postmodern version of Michael André Bernstein’s “abject hero”; one can, in fact, trace the development of this hero figure from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864), which stands at the beginning point of the process of capitalist modernization, through several other intermediate texts, until we arrive at Joker, standing at the end of this historical process. In this way, Joker (when read in conjunction with a range of predecessor texts from Dostoevsky forward) stands as an effective illustration of the historical model by which Fredric Jameson envisions postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism and thus as the culture that arises at the endpoint of the process of capitalist modernization.
Joker ostensibly tells the story of the classic comic book supervillain known as the Joker, a key foe of Batman, and in that sense the film can be considered an indirect adaptation of a range of Batman comics, even if the connection is extremely tenuous and even if Joker draws upon any number of other texts. Joaquin Phoenix turns in an Oscar-winning performance as protagonist Arthur Fleck, a troubled young man who begins the film as a seemingly harmless professional clown and would-be comedian but ends it as a seemingly formidable psychotic killer. As such, Phoenix’s character joins a long line of movie Jokers, including Jack Nicholson’s campy version, Heath Ledger’s insane version, and Jared Leto’s creepy version. The Joker character itself has a long and complex genealogy that includes both live-action and animated film and television, as well as a crucial role in the venerable Batman comics franchise. In fact, the character has such an extensive lineage that it is impossible to view the title character of Joker without comparing him with his predecessors, a fact that already decenters the character and sets him up perfectly to be a postmodern “hero,” a patchwork of echoes with no real substance of his own.
Much of what marks Joker as postmodern comes from its particularly complicated and extensive dialogue with both the cultural and the material past. For example, the film goes out of its way to indicate that it is set in 1981, providing numerous clues to place that setting at the beginning of the Reagan era. This setting helps to establish a number of key connections to specific historical events and to specific predecessor texts. And yet, in good postmodern fashion, Joker also resonates with the contemporary world of its own production and of its theatrical audiences, depicting an early 1980s world that looks all too familiar in the age of Trump, complete with billionaires attempting to buy elections and a general population that is fueled by an incoherent political rage. In his climactic appearance on a talk show, Arthur describes current conditions in Gotham in a way that sounds very much like a complaint about the Trump era: “Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil any more. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy.” In such ways, Joker points to important continuities between the policies of the Reagan administration and the antics of Trumpism, the latter of which so often seem unprecedented. At the same time, by eliding the differences between 1981 and 2019, Joker fails to present a coherent model of history and historical change, thus revealing its fundamental lack of any genuine historical sense, a key postmodern characteristic, per Jameson.
The year of Joker’s action, by the way, is never mentioned directly in the film, but Phillips provides so many clues to this setting that he invites us to meditate on its importance. The film begins, for example, with a radio news report that a Gotham City garbage strike is continuing on this day, identified as Thursday, October 15. A quick check of calendars shows that October 15 was a Thursday in 1981. In addition, this garbage strike (which does a great deal to set the dark, dystopian tone of Gotham City in the film) is clearly based on a garbage strike that took place in New York City in December, 1981. However, perhaps as a way of suggesting that things in the world of the film are just a bit exaggerated—or that they perhaps take place in a sort of alternate reality—the 1981 New York garbage strike ended after seventeen days, while the film begins on the eighteenth day of its strike and goes forward from there.
Setting Joker in 1981 also makes its young Bruce Wayne approximately the right age to become Batman around the age of thirty in Batman Begins (2005), the first film of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It also makes the film roughly contemporaneous with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), two films that many reviewers have identified as key predecessors to Joker. Joker itself uses other films to establish its setting in time, particularly when a theater marquee shown late in the film reveals that the theater is showing two films that were released in 1981, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (a postmodern neo-noir thriller featuring a psychotic killer) and Zorro, the Gay Blade (an adventure comedy featuring a black-masked hero who is widely acknowledged to have been one of the inspirations for the Batman character)1. It seems an odd mix of films, but perhaps that is the point: this combination suggests the mashup of disparate elements that runs throughout Joker—and throughout postmodern art as a whole. Meanwhile, this same theater also displays outside its front door a poster for Excalibur, John Boorman’s 1981 film adaptation of Arthurian legend. This link to King Arthur possibly suggests some of the mythic dimensions of the Batman universe2, but it also suggests an ironic echo of the name of Arthur Fleck, a suggestion that is then reinforced when we discover that, on the other side of the door, the theater displays a poster for the Dudley Moore comedy Arthur, also released in 1981.
That Phillips would carefully emphasize the historical setting of the film, citing four different films of 1981 in this one quick scene, suggests that this setting is extremely important. That he would bother to do so in such clever ways indicates the strange, hybrid texture of this film, which sometimes feels unremittingly dark, but which seems surprisingly playful on closer examination—in keeping with the fact that Arthur Fleck is both a professional clown and (possibly) a psychotic killer. That Phillips would so prominently use other films to establish the setting as 1981 also suggests the postmodern doubleness of Joker’s dialogue with history, which involves both an extensive (and often playful) intertextual conversation with past films (and, of course, the entire tradition of Batman comics) and a serious, if somewhat vague, engagement with material history.
However, the most important reason why Joker is set in 1981 is that this was the first year of the Reagan administration, which is clearly identified as a marker (and a final cause) of the historical events that lead to the dystopian conditions outlined in the film. The policies of President Ronald Reagan are also crucial to the transformation of Arthur Fleck into the Joker. As the film begins, we learn that Arthur is now a psychiatric out-patient, having lost his place as a patient at Arkham State Hospital (this film’s version of Arkham Asylum) where he had previously been held (and where he clearly still needs to be). Things then get even worse for him when further funding cuts deprive him even of outpatient care, sending him off his meds and spiraling into murderous insanity. The reference here, though the film does not say so, is surely to the fact that one of Reagan’s key acts in the first year of his presidency was the repeal of most provisions of Jimmy Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which had provided federal funding for a system of community mental health centers around the country. Reagan signed the bill that dismantled the 1980 act on August 13, 1981, just in time to put Arthur in the position in which we find him in October of that year. By depriving these centers of federal funding, the Reagan administration caused numerous patients in those facilities to be expelled into the streets, leading to a number of serious social problems, including a large boost in the rate of homelessness.3
Reagan’s notorious hostility to psychiatry was related to a long American tradition of viewing psychotherapy with suspicion as something informed by foreignness, Jewishness, and—especially in Reagan’s crackpot worldview—communism. This prejudice, in fact, must have been a strong one, because Reagan himself had been shot and nearly killed by an untreated schizophrenic just two months into his presidency, an experience that one might think would cause Reagan to want the mentally ill to receive proper treatment. Meanwhile, in the kind of ironic interconnections that abound in the world of Joker, Reagan’s would-be assassin, John Hinckley, Jr., attacked the president in the hope that he would thereby win the attention of young actress Jodie Foster, with whom he had become obsessed after watching her perform in, of all things, Taxi Driver, adding another element to the complex web of connections between that film and Joker.4
Taxi Driver, meanwhile, is a film that was released five years before the action of Joker, which makes it reasonable to wonder whether Arthur himself might have seen Scorsese’s film and even been influenced by it. That this might be the case (and that Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle might even be one of Arthur’s heroes) is indicated by one motif that runs throughout Joker, beginning when Arthur’s neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz) is shown signaling her frustration with the decaying building in which they live (and with her young daughter) by making a gesture that pantomimes shooting herself in the head, followed by two other occasions in which Arthur makes the same gesture back to her. Given that the film clearly indicates that Arthur fantasizes an entire personal relationship with Sophie, it also seems reasonable that her original use of the gesture occurred only in Arthur’s mind, which in turn possibly suggests that the idea might have originally occurred to him because he remembered it from the well-known moment near the end of Taxi Driver when a bloodied Bickle makes the same gesture after having failed in an attempt actually to shoot himself in the head after his ultraviolent attempt to rescue the young prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). (See Figure 1.)
That Arthur might have been influenced by Taxi Driver points to the importance of earlier films in Joker, as well as to the permeability of the boundary between fiction and reality in Joker, as is often the case in postmodern works. Meanwhile, the possibility that he might have imagined Sophie’s gesture points toward one of the chief interpretive problems with the film—the fact that it is related almost entirely from Arthur’s point of view and filtered through his consciousness, which itself freely and indiscriminately mixes fantasy with reality. The film clearly indicates this problem early on in a scene in which Arthur is watching Live with Murray Franklin with his ailing mother (Frances Conroy), featuring the talk show host (played by Robert De Niro) who is Arthur’s great role model in his attempt to become a professional stand-up comedian. De Niro’s casting is, of course, another overt allusion to Scorsese, De Niro having played not only Travis Bickle, but also Rupert Pupkin, the unbalanced aspiring comedian of The King of Comedy, a man who also models himself after a successful talk-show host (played by Jerry Lewis). As Arthur and his mother watch the show, we suddenly see Arthur in the audience of the program, drawing Franklin’s attention and being invited on stage. Arthur even receives private off-camera compliments from Franklin, who tells him that he would give anything to have a son just like Arthur. We see Arthur and Franklin in an emotional hug—then suddenly we cut back to Arthur watching the show with his mother, making it abundantly clear that we have just been seeing Arthur’s fantasy, though it is not clear how much of this fantasy Arthur confuses with reality. Indeed, there are a number of sudden cuts in this film that call into question the “reality” of what we have been seeing. For example, we cut immediately from the apparent subway shootings to a shot of Arthur running up a flight of steps, down a street, and into a grimy public restroom, where he suddenly starts to perform a balletic dance that contrasts dramatically with his sordid surroundings. After Arthur seemingly has a confrontation with Thomas Wayne in a more upscale bathroom, we suddenly cut back to Arthur in his apartment, calling into question whether the scene with Wayne really occurred. And, near the end of the film, we see Arthur dancing triumphantly atop a wrecked car amid a crowd of adoring followers, before we cut immediately to Arthur being interviewed as an inmate in Arkham State Hospital, making us wonder whether he had been in the hospital all along. In the case of Sophie, though, the film avoids such uncertainties by insistently pointing out that Arthur’s whole romantic relationship with her was also a fantasy by replaying several scenes from that relationship, first with Sophie in the picture and then without. In this case, however, it seems quite likely that Arthur has at least to some extent confused his fantasies about Sophie with reality.
These two sequences make it clear that some of the action we see on the screen is actually only happening inside Arthur’s troubled brain. What they do not make clear is how many of the other things we see in the film might well exist only in Arthur’s fantasies. For example, Arthur’s criminal career is set in motion when he is attacked and humiliated by three Wall Street types on a subway train, then pulls out his gun and shoots them all dead, in a scene highly reminiscent of the notorious shooting, by Bernhard Goetz, of four young African Americans on a New York subway train in December of 1984. Arthur’s skill with this weapon seems unlikely, while it is also the case that this whole scene has the texture of a fantasy in that it not only endows Arthur with sudden remarkable powers but also allows him to get revenge on precisely the sort of individuals who have made him feel inferior his whole life.
Granted, these killings do seem to have happened within the film, because they seemingly trigger an outbreak of class warfare in which Gotham’s underclasses, emboldened by the shootings of these three smug, rich men, launch an all-out war against the rich5. On the other hand, it is also possible that Arthur has fantasized this problematic and politically incoherent rebellion. It is entirely possible that Arthur simply learned of the subway killings through media reports, subsequently fantasizing that he had, in fact, been the killer. We are not arguing, though, that Arthur merely fantasized that he had performed these killings; we are simply saying that it is impossible to tell whether he really killed the Wall Street guys or whether he simply fantasized that he did, perhaps then coming to mistake his own fantasies for reality. Moreover, because Arthur’s perceptions of reality are so unreliable, one could apply a similar analysis to virtually any event in the film, including such central events as his murders of his mother and of Murray Franklin.
Similarly, does Arthur really confront Thomas Wayne in a bathroom after a group of formally-dressed rich people view a highly incongruous screening of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) in the ritzy auditorium of Wayne Hall, or did Arthur just imagine that very unlikely setting? Does he really perform that manic dance (see Figure 2) to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” on those treacherous steps, thus essentially replicating the musical roller-skating scene from Modern Times with updated music?6 After all, that oh-so-familiar Glitter music is surely not diegetic, but presumably takes place only in Arthur’s head. Perhaps the dance on the steps itself, the film’s most theatrical scene, is the same?7
This sort of ontological uncertainty is also crucial to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. For example, both of these films end on unlikely upbeat notes for their protagonists, which causes one to wonder if these endings might in fact be mere fantasies on the part of Bickle and Pupkin, who are perhaps actually languishing in prison or in some real-world equivalent of Arkham. Of course, this sort of uncertainty naturally arises in any film in which the point-of-view character has an unsteady grip on reality. It might also be noted that this sort of confusion between reality and fantasy, while in these cases arising from literal mental illnesses, is also perfectly in keeping with the general collapse of boundaries that any number of observers have associated with postmodern culture in general. Brian McHale, in particular, has seen ontological instability as a key feature of postmodern texts, which tend to collapse boundaries between fiction and reality, largely out of a sense that “reality” itself is an artificial construct (37).
One could, of course, argue that such unlikely events as the subway shootings appear in Joker because it is, after all, derived from comic books and is not a work of serious realism. Granted, the events of this film essentially take place before Arthur Fleck becomes the comic book villain known as the Joker, a process that still seems to be underway at the film’s end. It is not even made unequivocally clear that the Joker Arthur becomes is the same Joker who later becomes Batman’s arch-foe. Still, in Joker, the film’s title emphasizes the apparent comic book connection, as does the Gotham City setting. And the film goes out of its way to establish connections to the Wayne family, including actually showing us, near the end of the film, the iconic scene in which young Bruce’s parents are murdered in a violent mugging.
There is no doubt that Joker owes a great deal of its commercial success to the name recognition that it derives from its association with the Batman brand, though this association otherwise tends to disrupt the film’s engagement with the social and political realities of New York City in the Reagan era. The film also significantly alters details of certain historical events from which it draws inspiration. It is clear, for example, that the pivotal subway shootings in Joker (real or imagined) were at least partly inspired by Goetz case, and the film transcribes some details of that case correctly, such as the subway setting and even the type of weapon (a Smith and Wesson .38) that was involved. But it shifts the year back to 1981 and, more importantly, it reverses key terms of the attacks, making the victims not poor, black teenagers (who were all wounded, not killed) but privileged white Wall Street types (who are all killed).
Wall Street types are also central to one of Joker’s key predecessors, Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000), which features Christian Bale as late-1980s Wall Street investment banker Patrick Bateman, another apparent serial killer whose psychological problems have been significantly exacerbated by the policies of the Reagan administration and the general social atmosphere resulting from those policies. Bale also stars in The Machinist (2004) as another possible serial killer whose killings might be largely imagined8. If nothing else, films such as these suggest that Joker is not a one-of-a-kind phenomenon, but a reflection of some general trends in postmodern culture. Meanwhile, taken together, Joker and American Psycho present a dark depiction of the 1980s that runs directly contrary to the recent tendency of American popular culture—in works such as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) or the Netflix series Stranger Things (2016– )—to make the 1980s the locus of nostalgic, romanticized visions of the past, reminding us that the Reagan decade was actually the locus of a very dark turn in the history of American society.
Indeed, there were already dark elements in the American popular culture of that decade. One of the most distinctive of these was the dark turn taken by American comics, a phenomenon that was epitomized by Batman comics such as The Dark Knight Returns (1986), which includes an appearance by the Joker as a murderous talk show guest, and The Killing Joke (1988), which is an origin story of the Joker, though one that differs significantly from the story presented in Joker. Such comics crucially informed the atmosphere of Tim Burton’s original Batman movies, the first of which appeared in 1989 (with the Joker as the principal villain), and continued to exert an influence on the overall tone of the Dark Knight films. But they also serve as reminders that 1980s pop culture wasn’t all John Hughes movies, walking like Egyptians, and Belinda Carlisle finding heaven on earth.
That both Joker and American Psycho feature protagonists who confuse fantasy with reality is appropriate given that the 1980s were not only the decade of Reagan but also the first decade of full-blown postmodernism as a cultural dominant in America. The 1980s were also, not coincidentally, the decade during which Jameson developed the basic outlines of his seminal theorization of postmodernism. Interestingly, one of the key elements of Jameson’s characterization involves the notion of “psychic fragmentation.” This idea, of course, would make Arthur Fleck a literalization of the fragmented postmodern subject, the bearer of a psyche so shattered that he barely has any stable sense of self whatsoever. Jameson draws upon the work of Jacques Lacan to argue that, amid the increasing complexity and fragmentation of experience in the postmodern world, the individual subject experiences a loss of temporal continuity that causes him or her to experience the world somewhat in the manner of a schizophrenic, unable to connect one moment of experience up with the next (“Postmodernism and Consumer Society” 119).
Finally, this psychic fragmentation itself implies, according to Jameson, that the mind of the individual artist is no longer stable enough to be the source of a unique personal style, resulting in the necessity of borrowing styles from others. It is the postmodern tendency to reproduce both the style and the content of earlier works from various periods (without engaging with the implications of that material in its original context) that Jameson describes as “pastiche.” This sort of pastiche, for Jameson, involves a “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past” that reduces the past to a series of spectacles, a collection of images disconnected from any genuine sense of historical process (Postmodernism 17).
Joker’s reliance on predecessors such as Scorsese and Arthur Fleck’s attempts to model himself on predecessors such as Murray Franklin nicely illustrate Jameson’s vision of pastiche in the postmodern text. On the other hand, Jameson’s discussion of pastiche also brings to mind another of Fleck’s predecessors, the nameless protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864). The Underground Man, another bitter and isolated loner, was constructed by Dostoevsky, a right-wing Christian traditionalist, as a demonstration of the psychic damage that might be suffered by individuals due to the incipient rise of modernity in nineteenth-century Russia. In particular, Dostoevsky presents us, in the person of his protagonist, with a spiteful, disaffected individual who epitomizes the very modern psychic phenomena of alienation and ressentiment.
Michael André Bernstein identifies the Underground Man as a key example of the modern form of what he refers to as the “abject hero,” a figure with roots that go back to ancient texts such as the satires of Horace, but who is an “essentially modern” character who “makes his first full appearance” in Denis Diderot’s Horace-influenced Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau’s Nephew, mostly written in 1761–1762, but not published until 1805) (18). The abject hero, for Bernstein, is a contradictory figure whose grandiose sense of his own worth is balanced by an equally powerful sense of self-doubt and self-loathing. With a genealogy that dates back to traditional figures such as the wise fool and the holy fool, the abject hero is also tormented by an intense awareness that his character is derivative and potentially ridiculous.
For Bernstein, the abject hero begins to take on a new and even more modern form in the fiction of Dostoevsky, whose innovation is to add to the initial abjection of this hero figure a further note of Nietzschean ressentiment, a key ingredient of the slave morality that Nietzsche rails against in The Genealogy of Morals (1887). For Nietzsche, ressentiment is the refuge of a particularly debased sort of modern character who seethes with resentment, endlessly replaying insults (real or imagined) in his head, but unable to take true revenge, thus becoming even more resentful of his own impotence and responding with repeated fantasies of imaginary vengeance instead. Nietzsche had particular praise for Notes from Underground as a literary demonstration of the kind of psychology he is describing here, and Bernstein, following Nietzsche, identifies Notes as a key text as well, noting that “in fiction, it is hard to think of any work that has chronicled the inscape of ressentiment with greater narrative flair than Notes from Underground” (102).
For Bernstein, the sense of being a mere imitator of others becomes, in the Underground Man, not only an intense awareness that even his most seemingly insightful thoughts are actually derived from the literary works he has read but a resentment against temporality itself, to which he responds by refusing to “acknowledge any moral or psychological continuity linking his present to the future” (106). This refusal allows him to assume the pose of the genuinely monstrous villain who has no remorse because he refuses to acknowledge the continuity between his past actions and his current self. This strategy, though, ultimately collapses beneath its own inauthenticity, because “he is far too lucid to believe his own pose” (106). This refusal of continuity is also doomed to fail to release the Underground Man of his sense of being, as Bernstein puts it, nothing more than “a pastiche of countless prior texts,” a realization that is made worse by the “additional burden of finding this existence-as-pastiche intolerable” (109). Even his worst suffering, which he desires to think of as monumental and unprecedented, is merely a secondary and degraded copy of the sufferings he has read about in books, a fact of which he is intensely and bitterly aware. It is, however, books that have constituted the Underground Man’s consciousness, whereas Arthur (as is appropriate for a film character) seems possibly to have been constituted by his viewing of films such as Taxi Driver, as well as modeling himself after Murray Franklin.
Read through Jameson, Bernstein’s evocation of pastiche here makes the Underground Man sound as postmodern as Arthur Fleck. However, The Underground Man differs from Arthur in that he is so intensely aware of the derivative nature of his consciousness; he is stable enough to maintain a sense of himself apart from others and to distinguish between fiction and reality. Arthur might bear considerable animosity toward others, but his flattened affect and jumbled consciousness cannot achieve the coherent emotional intensity required to generate a genuine ressentiment, something of which the Underground Man is a master. And, ultimately, the Underground Man’s ressentiment is driven by alienation, a quintessentially modern experience that Jameson has suggested is no longer possible in the postmodern era.
As Jameson points out, “alienation is, first of all, not merely a modernist concept but also a modernist experience (something I cannot argue further here, except to say that “psychic fragmentation” is a better term for what ails us today, if we need a term for it)” (11). Psychic fragmentation certainly describes the predicament of Fleck, whose individual psyche is so shattered that he has no sense of self stable enough to even experience alienation. The Underground Man, on the other hand, might experience a certain psychic fragmentation, but he at least has enough of a sense of his own identity to be able to position himself as a stable entity in opposition to everyone else. The Underground Man is crippled not from an inability to distinguish between reality and fiction but by an awareness of the difference so powerful that it overwhelms him, leaving him bitterly resentful of the fact that he must live in reality when in fact it would be much easier to be a character in fiction.
Bernstein suggests the works of twentieth-century French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline as embodying a world of abject violence that the works of Dostoevsky only posited as a possible future, leading ultimately to the rise of a real-world abject hero in the form of Charles Manson. Drawing upon Jameson’s historical narrative of modernization, though, we would suggest T. S. Eliot’s Prufrock as the natural successor to Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, as the fully modern version of the resentful abject hero of which the Underground Man, still rooted in many ways in the quasi-medieval world of nineteenth-century Russia, was only a proto-modern and predictive form.
Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” first published in 1915, has been linked to the work of Dostoevsky at least since a 1945 essay by John C. Pope. The poem can be seen as an announcement of the arrival of a genuinely modernist form of poetry, not only because of its many formal innovations but also because of the quintessentially modern nature of its protagonist, a balding, middle-aged man so self-conscious that he is virtually paralyzed. In many ways, he is a paradigmatic version of Bernstein’s abject hero, and his poem, like Notes from Underground, is essentially an interior monologue outlining the bitter, conflicted, and alienated nature of its protagonist. Riddled with allusions to the cultural past, “Prufrock” identifies the mind of its protagonist as being as much a patchwork of quotations as is the mind of the Underground Man. The poem is also filled with contradictions, as when Prufrock will at one moment wonder if his slightest action might “disturb the universe,” then at the next moment compare himself to an insect specimen “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” recalling the frequent use of insect imagery in Notes from Underground.
Prufrock, in short, shares a great deal with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, though he perhaps seems even more paralyzed, even more alienated, even less likely ever to take real action. Where Prufrock differs most strongly from the Underground Man, though, is in his very modern relationship with time. For Bernstein, the resentment shown by Dostoevsky’s character toward temporality itself has to do with the inexorable march of time, which has already gone on so long that he himself is inevitably belated, a situation that is crucial to his sense that his own thoughts are merely a patchwork of quotations from the thoughts of others who came before. Prufrock’s consciousness, however, is beset by a more modern sense of belatedness, informed by the sense of having so many predecessors, but also by the idea that the thoughts and words of these predecessors are no longer really relevant in a rapidly changing world, leaving him with the responsibility to come up with something new, a responsibility he knows he cannot live up to.
Prufruck’s ressentiment also seems muted in relation to that of the Underground Man, though his alienation, a key product of capitalist modernization, is significantly more advanced. The Underground Man has trouble relating to others, but he is at least able to imagine a variety of fictional interactions. Prufrock, on the other hand, is unable to imagine anything other than remaining trapped in the same indecision that has helped to make him so alienated in the first place. The implied resentment that he expresses toward haughty women pretentiously discussing Michelangelo at tea parties has no real emotional intensity, because the women are too foreign to him to become the objects of any true feelings.
These differences can be attributed to the fact that both the Underground Man and Prufrock are the products of capitalist modernization, but Prufrock is the product of a world in which modernization is far more advanced, in which capitalist modernity has, in fact, become hegemonic, even if vestiges of earlier forms of social organization are still gasping for breath in the margins. Both Dostoevsky and Eliot, we should point out, are producing genuinely original work that, no matter how much it draws upon the past, largely escapes the self-as-pastiche predicaments of their creatures. However, by the time we reach films such as Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, we are beginning to enter an entirely new, postmodern, era, when capitalist modernization is beginning to establish true cultural dominance, though vestiges of the modernist past still remain in the person of distinctly original artists such as Scorsese and some of his New Hollywood contemporaries.
Joker, on the other hand, arises in a fully postmodern context, when, per Jameson, we have entered the era of complete capitalist modernization. The setting is entirely urban; all vestiges of the traditional and the natural have been swept away in favor of an insistence on the artificial and the new, though this new is itself a superficial form of innovation that achieves its sheen by putting a new coat of paint on the innovations of the past. The principal hint of nature we see in the film is in a glimpse of the well-kept grounds of Wayne Manor, which serves to emphasize the protected bubble in which the Waynes live, but which does not contain anything truly natural. Rather, these grounds contain a highly controlled, highly owned version of nature. In this world, art and culture—and even nature—have joined everything else in the march toward total commodification. In this world, Fleck can no longer maintain the psychic stability to experience alienation or sustain feelings of ressentiment. Though he is a character of the 1980s, he is a character in a work of the twenty-first century, and it shows in the way that his psychic fragmentation has advanced well beyond that of his ostensible near contemporaries, Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin.
Arthur certainly has trouble connecting with people (a fact he seems to feel is mostly their fault), and he seeks to remedy this by becoming a comedian, which he hopes will make him less invisible, but which ultimately makes him an object of derision given that his idea of what is funny seems very different from everyone else’s. “Comedy is subjective,” he declares in his appearance on Murray Franklin’s show9. This aspect of his character is also illuminated by the fact that he consistently laughs at different things than do other people, whether he is genuinely laughing, pretending to laugh, or laughing as the result of a psychological disorder. But the fact that Arthur’s laughter is out of sync even with his own sense of humor and not just with everyone else’s suggests that he is not simply alienated from other people but that his own feelings and responses are scattered and inconsistent, suggesting his psychic fragmentation. He is also a man almost totally without introspection, as opposed to the pathologically excessive introspection of the Underground Man—another sign that Arthur is a postmodern decentered subject.
The very fact that Arthur is a character in a film (while the Underground Man and Prufrock are characters from literature) is itself of considerable significance. For one thing, Joker’s relationship with its predecessors begins to suggest a model of cultural history on which we do not have the space to elaborate here, other than to note that the oft-cited progression from realism, to modernism, to postmodernism can now be supplemented by a parallel progression in media from literature, to film, to television (though with a considerable amount of overlap and complication). Among other things, this model suggests one reason why Joker might need to be set nearly forty years before the time of its release, placing it back in a time when film was still modernist and still had a cultural power that has now been largely supplanted by postmodernist modes of television and new digital media, whose techniques have also infected film itself. This situation is hinted at in Joker in the way television screens frequently creep into the film, culminating in that striking moment just after the apparent shooting of Franklin when the mise-en-scène is suddenly overwhelmed and replaced by an entire wall of television monitors (see Figure 3).
If nothing else, the fact that Joker is a film brings in a visual dimension that is lacking in Notes from Underground and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” For example, the visual presentation of Arthur is dominated by his clown makeup (which is anything but the “happy” that the nickname his mother gave him indicates) and by his emaciated body, both of which help visually to establish his status as an abject hero. Indeed, Phoenix’s pained, expressive face, combined with that depleted body, makes his character appear abject, even without the makeup (see Figure 4). Meanwhile, the other most striking visual aspect of the film is its various shots of Gotham City, which—punctuated by the garbage bags that line the sidewalks due to the garbage strike—help to establish the fact that the city is in a grimy, dystopian state of decay (see Figure 5). The film also includes a number of other visual cues, such as the striking number of shots of stairways, which emphasize the hierarchical layering of Gotham society, much in the same way that stairways are used in the contemporaneous South Korean film Parasite (2019). In its architectural presentation of a vertically layered society, Joker is also reminiscent of another early-1980s film, Blade Runner (1982), one of cinema’s great representations of an urban landscape. As David Desser pointed out long ago, the Los Angeles of Blade Runner is laid out in terms of a vertical stratification that mirrors the class structure of the society10.
Much of what makes Arthur a postmodern character is summed up by his (apparent) appearance on Franklin’s show, in which he begins by assuring the host that his clown makeup is not meant to be a political statement or to link him to the clown-masked rioters currently roaming the streets of Gotham. “I’m not political,” he says, in what might be the mantra of the postmodern artist. “I’m just trying to make people laugh.” In the same way, claiming responsibility for killing the Wall Street guys, Arthur assures Franklin that he did not do it as a political statement or to start a movement. He did it simply because they were “awful.” Meanwhile, in an analysis that suddenly veers toward the political, but is ultimately just a sign of his own sense of barely existing, he wonders why everyone seems so upset over the deaths of these three affluent young men, suggesting that no one would care were he himself to be lying dead on the sidewalk. Soon afterward, Arthur ends his spot with what seems like another turn toward a political understanding of his predicament, but is really just another personal gripe: “What do you get when you cross a mentally-ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash? I’ll tell you what you get. You get what you fucking deserve!” He then pulls out a gun and shoots Franklin dead on the spot.
Arthur’s complaints might be personal, but his characterization in the film has quite broad implications. In presenting us with the character of Arthur Fleck, Joker provides us with another data point with which we can trace the abject hero as a function of the historical evolution of capitalist modernization and, consequently, of the bourgeois subject produced by this process. Characters such as the Underground Man, Prufrock, Bickle, Pupkin, and Fleck all seem designed as examples of Lukácsian typicality, essentially allegorical figures who are the products of particular forces at work in their historical contexts. Moreover, these characters constitute a family group in that they are representative examples of essentially the same phenomenon: the impact of capitalist modernization on the stable bourgeois subject that capitalism itself had originally produced. Reading them in sequence helps to trace a narrative arc that usefully illuminates the process of capitalist modernization from its embryonic form in Dostoevsky’s nineteenth-century Russia to its fully developed form in Todd Phillips’s twenty-first-century America, with stops along the way for the modernist world of T. S. Eliot and the emergent postmodern work of Martin Scorsese.
1 Standard DC Comics continuity holds that Bruce Wayne’s parents had been killed just after they and eight-year-old Bruce had attended a screening of the 1940 film The Mark of Zorro, though in some versions the film involved is the 1920 silent film of the same title.
2 It also suggests one cinematic connection to that universe, in that the film Batman v Superman (2016) also shows the Waynes being murdered outside a movie theater that is displaying a poster for Excalibur. See Curran for a discussion of this apparent “Easter-egg” connection. This connection also suggests that the timeline of Batman v Superman is roughly the same as that in Joker.
3 For more information on this phenomenon, see Torrey.
4 In addition to such high-profile shootings as that of Reagan and that of John Lennon (only three months earlier), 1981 was also a time when popular fascination with the newly-identified category of the serial killer was reaching a peak, kicked into motion by the shocking Manson Family murders of August 1969 and driven by subsequent events such as the 1974–1978 murder spree of Ted Bundy. Of course, the serial killer who bears the most direct relationship to Arthur Fleck is John Wayne Gacy, who committed a series of grisly murders between 1972 and 1978, for which he was sentenced to death in 1980. Notably, Gacy also sometimes worked as a rent-a-clown, and his typical clown makeup was a model for Fleck’s Joker makeup. Gacy used the name “Pogo” when working as a clown; in Joker, Fleck tries out his stand-up act in Pogo’s Comedy Club, acknowledging the link to Gacy.
5 Joker gestures toward class politics, emphasizing that Arthur’s problems are largely economic, while the ultra-wealthy Thomas Wayne, typically a positive figure in Batman lore, is here a thuggish oligarch whose move into politics has been compared by some with the career of Donald Trump.
6 Modern Times, Chaplin’s first sound film, is partly about the transition to sound film and, by extension, about the important role played by technological change in the evolution of cultural forms. It thus provides a gloss on Joker at a number of levels, in addition to the fact that Arthur Fleck is a sort of debased, abject version of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Joker, incidentally, acknowledges these connections, not only in the scene in Wayne Hall, but also in the playing of Jimmy Durante’s classic rendition of the song “Smile” during Arthur’s comedy-club performance. The lyrics to that song were written in 1954, but the music is based on a theme written by Chaplin that, in fact, appears in Modern Times.
7 These steps appear several times in Joker. (The actual steps are located in the Bronx and became something of a tourist attraction after the release of the film.) Visually, they are highly reminiscent of the Georgetown steps in The Exorcist (1973), down which Father Damien tumbles to his death. But stairways have been a prominent image in film, laden with symbolic meaning, at least since Battleship Potemkin (1925).
8 For The Machinist, Bale lost copious amounts of weight in order to appear emaciated, much as Phoenix did for Joker.
9 Arthur is also unoriginal in his comedy. His only good joke, for example, is cribbed from long-time British comedian Bob Monkhouse, well known for the quip, ““They all laughed when I said I’d become a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”
10 Interestingly, Blade Runner, released in 1982, is set in 2019, essentially reversing the temporal situation with Joker, which was released in 2019 and is set in 1981.
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Curran, Brad. “Joker Does Have One Connection to Batman v Superman.” ScreenRant (September 9, 2019). https://screenrant.com/joker-batman-v-superman-connection-excalibur-poster/. Accessed February 11, 2020.
Desser, David. “Race, Space, and Class: The Politics of the SF Film from Metropolis to Blade Runner.” Retrofitting Blade Runner: Issues in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. 2nd ed. Ed. Judith B. Kerman. University of Wisconsin Press, 1997, pp. 110–123.
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