Joker is a movie no one knew they wanted, least of all a diehard Batman fan such as myself, but it’s a deeply moving, disturbing tragedy about the world modernity built. It might be the most culturally important film to arrive in a long time. It does a Taxi Driver impression arguably better than Taxi Driver, while managing to be considerably darker than The Dark Knight, and delves far deeper into insanity than Jack Nicholson ever has. But at its core, this amazing production is about the most fundamental cry of the human heart. This is a tale of alienation.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy felt fresh and revolutionary for a variety of reasons, but in the end, it was the fact that it stuck so closely to the great traditional narrative structures that made it so satisfying when seen in its entirety. Each film follows a pure narrative sequence from inciting incident to breathtaking climax with such natural power that most missed the obvious meta direction of the entire project. The first film is a first act. Nothing is resolved, but only begun, as the title spells out so unironically. The second film is essentially just pure tension with no real resolution. This is the essence of Batman. In fact, it’s the essence of most super hero stories. The lack of eschatological resolution is what draws fans back to the comic book pages over and over. These are soap operas written for men and young boys, after all.
Say what you want about the third film (and many awful things have been said about it elsewhere), it does something almost no modern films even attempt to do: it lands an actual ending. It brings about genuine closure while also keeping the mythology open. The only other recent films I can think of that did this well, at least within the context of a franchise, are Logan and Rogue One.
Most films just come to an end. Nothing is really resolved. But The Dark Knight Rises really brought the characters and story full circle. That’s what a true ending does, and it’s not possible for most films to do this because they don’t have true beginnings. Nolan’s trilogy has both. It’s basically cradle-to-grave for Batman. No one has ever done that before. They’ve done pieces of the whole, but never told Batman’s entire story in a complete cycle.
A true story mirrors our own story. Not mine, or yours, but the story of life itself. The beginning to the end. And when I say beginning, I mean “in the beginning.” True stories go from Genesis to John’s Apocalypse. They are alpha and omega. All other stories are just snapshots of a wider narrative, a mere scene in a grander tale. Shakespeare’s plays all end with death or marriage. Beowulf runs until its titular character stops breathing. The Last Battle is really the Last Battle. Jean Valjean goes to heaven at the end of Les Misérables. Those are full, complete stories. That’s what Nolan did with his trilogy.
Joker is the complete antithesis to this in every way. There is almost no narrative, yet what does transpire is absolutely riveting. It’s similar to Taxi Driver in that regard. Very little actually happens, and yet it casts a hypnotic spell that refuses to let go. Both films are deeply unsatisfying, but they’re unsatisfying on purpose. And especially with Joker, we know from the beginning that this story isn’t headed somewhere happy. It’s about one of the best, if not the best, villains of all time. This story will have to be dark. It will have to be unsatisfying in order for it to sate our prurient interest.
But it’s the things Joker says without speaking them out loud that really destroy the viewer. Nolan’s take on Batman was so pure that it almost seems naïve. The character of Batman has been interpreted and reinterpreted many times and in many ways, but it’s become hard for most writers to distance themselves from the therapeutic Batman – that is, from the Batman who fights crime because he needs to or simply loves to. This version of Batman is a wounded soul who takes out his vengeance therapeutically on the bad guys. Nolan’s trilogy portrayed him as a rational actor: someone motivated by pain, yes, but ultimately by noblesse oblige. It’s ultimately not a big evolution from Adam West, at least ethically. Of course it’s much more serious, but it’s instilled with the same waspish virtues. Batman does what he does in Nolan’s trilogy because he can, and because it’s the right thing to do. Knowingly or not, Joker is responding to this directly.
Burton’s take on the character was that he’s just super weird and motivated by trauma. Which character, you ask? Exactly. For Burton, Batman is only accidentally different from the Joker, which is one of the many reasons Batman (1989) is still so much fun to watch. It’s really a struggle between two dark chaos gods. But Nolan presents Batman as inherently noble. As a true hero. Someone who, like Christ, didn’t have to assume the kenotic mantle but rather chose to. And this is the main point where Joker pushes back. It is an indictment of the pretense that noblesse oblige still exists.
One can easily place Nolan’s trilogy in the camp of Edmund Burke. Nolan mocks the moral catastrophe of the French Revolution openly in Rises. Bane is the King of the Jacobins (pun intended). Nolan’s Batman believes in society and preserves it through non-governmental means. Joker‘s Joker claims to be apolitical, yet inspires a literal French Revolution in Gotham by the film’s end.
And this is the main reason I was not very enthusiastic about the film leading up to its release. It simply didn’t excite me. The Joker without Batman isn’t inherently interesting. Frank Miller has him laying dormant in a catatonic state in The Dark Knight Returns until Batman’s coming out of retirement brings him back to life. Traditionally, Batman is the Joker’s raison d’etre. Even in Nolan’s films, the Joker is the inevitable Hegelian antithesis (who is more pretentious? The fool or the fool who follows him?) to Batman’s attempt to bring order to Gotham. His actions create the Joker through escalation.
So, at this point, I could just say that this film has proven me wrong. Batman isn’t in it, and yet Joker is very compelling, so compelling that if we broaden the already broad shoulders of the comic book film genre to include pure psychological dramas, this would rank in the top five of all time. It’s easily the best genre film since Logan.
But, I’m not going to admit I’m wrong, because Batman is very much in this film. No I’m not referring to Young Bruce Wayne. The Wayne family plays a large part in the plot, but young Bruce simply isn’t Batman. They’re very different characters, almost as different as Anakin and Darth Vader.
No: Batman is here in the same way that the first Don Corleone is present throughout The Godfather: Part 2. Notice I said Don Corleone, not Vito. They’re also different characters.
The last scene of that film was supposed to feature Marlon Brando reprising the role of Godfather in his full patriarchal glory, but due to Brando’s typically infamous shenanigans they shot it with Vito off screen. This ended up creating a far darker scene that highlights Michael’s isolation from his family. The same thing happens in Joker. A world with only a Joker but no Batman is entirely and utterly hopeless. And that is what this film does: it drains the viewer of hope. It alienates the viewer from anything good that remains in the postmodern world.
There are essentially three different moral views of the world. The Christian view is that goodness is primary reality and evil is a deviation. Evil isn’t real, from a Christian perspective, but rather a misuse, abuse, or malfunction of good things. Then there’s the Manichean view, where goodness and evil are equal warring factions. Most people wrongly interpret Christianity as being Manichean, but the glorious truth is that Yahweh has no opposite. There is none like him. Then there’s the amoral worldview which has manifested in various ways throughout history. I like to think of this as the Lovecraftian theory. Basically, if we were able to actually comprehend the truth of nature’s indifference, we would go insane. Most superhero stories are manichean, but Joker isn’t a superhero story. It’s obviously Lovecraftian. And the strangest thing about that designation is how appropriate it feels. There’s no Cthulhu or tentacles or eldritch things in this film, but there is madness. Lots of madness.
Lovecraft is about how alien things make humans go insane because they reveal the truth that there is no meaning to life. Joker is about how social alienation can push someone already on the border to go completely mad. Lovecraft did this through the symbolism of kaiju-like ancient aliens. Humans would meet these leviathans in his stories, usually through some strange circumstances, and their tiny minds would be overwhelmed. Joker does something similar, except the leviathan that drives him to insanity is Gotham City itself. Gotham is Cthulhu. The obscene monsters of steel and concrete that we call cities have a similar effect on the human soul, but we’ve hardly noticed the growing insanity they create because they rose slowly over hundreds of years, whereas Lovecraftian terrors arise violently and suddenly. The crawling chaos of urban sprawl has alienated us from ourselves. And also unlike Lovecraftian terrors, we know exactly how and why this has happened. It’s industrial capitalism. Yes, capitalism makes it possible for individuals to be free, but freedom always comes with consequences. Capitalism has freed us from normal human interdependence.
To fully understand how poignant and powerful that theme is to our current cultural moment, you would need to read Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites. Despite being a posthumous work that is over two decades old, it has become more relevant, more prescient, and more tragically prophetic. Tim Carney’s much more recent book Alienated America follows in Lasch’s footsteps by chronicling the tragic condition of many contemporary Americans – unsurprisingly, the same Americans that signed onto “The Audacity of Hope” and “Make America Great Again” as messianic presidential programs.
Fundamentally, what Lasch and Carney argue is that society has become far too atomized at pretty much every level, except for one: the elite level. To put it simply, our elites do not practice what they preach. They pretend that there are no consequences for things like no fault divorce, yet they themselves do not get divorced. And divorce has come to dominate the non-elite sectors of America with disastrous consequences. The elites try to pretend that having babies outside of marriage is perfectly acceptable, but it’s become so clear that this is a disastrous way of life that even the great and mighty Washington Post, the slayer of presidents, has admitted Dan Quayle was right and Murphy Brown was wrong.
The problem with the elites, according to Lasch, isn’t as simple as just capitalism or socialism. His critique is far more nuanced and harder to comprehend. Lasch continues the long Conservative tradition of criticizing the effects of industrial capitalism without proposing the extreme of socialist policies. Carney found that the segments of America that were most susceptible to MAGA were closest to the draught of social capital that has become normal for most Americans. The elites are swimming in social capital. And non-elite areas of America that are heavily invested in their communities were also immune to the radical populist promises of Obama and Trump. Connection is the best defense against alienation.
Joker really puts a huge exclamation point on that analysis. In fact, the subtitle to the film could’ve been Why Steven Pinker is Wrong or The Myth of Progress. The best explanation for this comes from Sebastian Junger’s little book Tribe:
“There’s no use arguing that modern society isn’t a kind of paradise. The vast majority of us don’t, personally, have to grow or kill our own food, build our own dwellings or defend ourselves from wild animals and enemies. In one day we can travel a thousand miles by pushing our foot down on a gas pedal or around the world by booking a seat on an airplane. When we are in pain we have narcotics that dull it out of existence, and when we are depressed we have pills that change the chemistry of our brains. We understand an enormous amount about the universe, from subatomic particles to our own bodies to galaxy clusters, and we use that knowledge to make life even better and easier for ourselves. The poorest people in modern society enjoy a level of physical comfort that was unimaginable a thousand years ago, and the wealthiest people literally live the way gods were imagined to have.
The whole point of Junger’s book is that humans flourish when in a tribe. Tribes form from necessity. Capitalism and socialism are both designed to remove necessity. Joker is an artistic incarnation of that “And yet.” We all know that stuff simply cannot make us happy. A long life lived alone isn’t a desirable thing. In fact, it’s a precursor to hell.
There are many amazing moments in this film, but the most gut-wrenching ones aren’t the violent murders. In some ways, those feel like a relief because the Joker is acting naturally. No, the most disturbing moments, the ones that sting like a gadfly, are more subtle and intimate. The one that stung me deepest involves the Joker’s journal. He’s writing in it and the camera pans up, showing large, horribly written words: “The worst part about having a mental illness is people expect you to behave as if you don’t.”
To paraphrase Tim Keller, most Americans are depressed because they’re depressed. They’re depressed because they don’t want to be struggling with depression. Their own depression is what is depressing them. Because a modern society is supposed to be a happy society. And folks like me, who struggle with mental illness, know that we’re not allowed to be honest about how little we want to live. We know the anxiety we feel all the time isn’t acceptable for small talk.
But the Joker is so odd that he can’t meet basic societal expectations. He tries to fit in, but simply can’t. So he embraces his dark side. He stops taking his meds and just lets the illness take over.
Phoenix does this with so much pathos that the viewer is actually rooting for the Joker by film’s end. Not because he’s an antihero, but because he’s so miserable, and played so empathetically, that seeing him “happy” feels good. And it seems that killing people makes him happy. That is what makes this film a masterpiece. It isn’t just a tale of alienation. The film actually alienates the viewer from their own humanity by the end.