Earlier this week, I finally had the opportunity to watch Joker, the movie that DC got right (I also watched black-and-white indie film The Lighthouse, which I also heartily recommend). It’s one of those films that has stuck with me, as I keep contemplating its title character’s woeful arc.
That’s unusual for a superhero movie. I’m not a film snob, and I enjoy the action-packed, high-gloss hilarity of [insert Marvel Cinematic Universe movie here]. But I’ve usually forgotten most of the details of those superhero movies by the time I get home from the theater.
Joker is different. Indeed, I wouldn’t even call it a “superhero” (or even a super villain) movie. Yes, it’s the origin story of the The Joker, Batman’s greatest rival. It does follow some of the tropes of the standalone superhero flick: the discovery of the character’s powers (in this case, a 38 Special and mental illness), his utilization of those powers, and his full acceptance of his new role.
But it’s more than a superhero flick. It’s the brooding, angsty cry of a generation.
That’s the point Milo makes in his essay-review of the film, “Why I’m Counting on ‘Generation Joker.’” Milo argues that Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the titular villain is a symbol for “what happens when the disaffected male fails to find that higher calling and instead wallows in the destructive power of manhood, wrenching apart institutions and power structures for the sheer hell of it.” Boy, is it ever.
That disaffection pervades Joker. Arthur Fleck is repeatedly beaten down by life. He is a pathetic character saddled with a senile, loopy mother, and he struggles with a bizarre mental illness that causes him to laugh hysterically at inopportune times.
In spite of these handicaps, he legitimately tries to make his life better, in his own pitiful way. He struggles with his own inner self, to be sure, but most of his defeats are external: a group of street hoodlums who beat him up while he’s working a sign-twirling clowning gig; an officiousness, jaded social worker who just medicates his problems; a disingenuous coworker (probably a common sort in the world of rent-a-clowns) who is partially responsible for Fleck’s descent (or ascension, depending on your perspective).
All of that is cast against a background of social and economic decay and inequality. The ruling class of Gotham is clearly unsympathetic to the plight of its citizens. Thomas Wayne—father of Bruce—is running for mayor, and castigates the underclass as “clowns,” much like Hillary Clinton’s derogative “deplorables.” Like the Deplorables, the people of Gotham embrace the “clown” identity, including (tragically) Fleck’s murder of three Wall Street types.
Fleck’s evil act would be condemned and rejected in a healthy society. In the context of Gotham’s desperation, however, it makes the faceless Joker a folk hero, inspiring Occupy Wall Street-style protests (and more street carnage).
Hollywood loves casting evil bandits as misunderstood anti-heroes. But Joker speaks to real disaffection (even during a time of unprecedented economic growth). To quote Milo at length:
Like masculinity itself, Joker is equal parts beautiful and terrifying. It is a warning about the consequences of a godless world of runaway capitalism and easy mood fixes. It is a movie about a society that has become corrupt and degenerate and turned in on itself, saturated with sex, pornography and prescription drugs. Young men have become completely dissociated from their own lives, and from any sense of worth. It is a society that many of us would recognize.
We are reeling from a disaster still unfolding: the unmaking of reality at the hands of millennial progressivism, which has shredded common-sense truths about gender and even dissolved national borders. This is how Fleck, ageing and single in the 1980s, can speak to disorientated 19-year-olds today, who similarly see no economic or romantic prospects for themselves.
Male disaffection is now multi-generational, and multi-ethnic. Young and old alike are lost. This is not limited to the involuntarily celibate. I, too, am lost. You, reading this, are most likely lost…. We are ready to do something about it.
It is so crucial to address these issues. A society full of single, directionless men is a recipe for disaster. China is deeply concerned about that problem in its own society, where it’s longstanding One-Child Policy (coupled with China’s obsession with male children) created a massive gender disparity. We don’t have quite the same problem, but radical feminism and the demonization of masculinity have resulted in a similar situation: too many single young men with diminishing economic or romantic prospects.