Author’s note: This article includes major spoilers for Joker, including key plot points and the ending. Do not read it if you have not seen the film yet.
Since well before it was released, Joker has been the subject of intense controversy over its themes. Critics have likened it to an incel manifesto that validates the resentment of alienated white men, leading to a moral panic about its potential to incite real-life violence.
After watching it last week, I left the theater wondering if we had seen the same movie.
Variations of a phrase “white male rage” keep popping up in reviews, but this description misses the mark. Sure, Arthur Fleck is both white and male, but his anger isn’t rooted in either of those identities.
The two acts of violence that are the most critical to the film’s plot—the subway shootings and the on-air killing of talkshow host Murray Franklin—involve victims who are white men. But while they share those particular demographics with Arthur, he’s part of Gotham’s lumpenproletariat and they’re all members of the wealthy elite.
Arthur’s actions are not mainly directed at the traditional targets of “white male rage,” i.e. women and racial minorities, though there are exceptions. The resentment bubbling under the surface of the film that finally explodes in the end is primarily class anger.
Some reviewers have tried to impose contrived racial interpretations on Joker by assigning outsized significance to the fact that people of color are cast in certain roles, ex. the black mother on the bus and Arthur’s black social worker.
Writing for the New Yorker, Richard Brody called Joker “an intensely racialized movie, a drama awash in racial iconography that is so prevalent in the film, so provocative, and so unexamined as to be bewildering.”
He compares an early scene in the film where POC teens beat up Arthur to the false conviction of the Central Park Five and likens the subway shooting to the case of Bernard Goetz, who killed several black youth during an attempted robbery on a subway.
Brody’s analogy to the Central Park Five is spurious, but he is probably correct in saying that the film is nodding to the Goetz “subway vigilante” case. However, Brody draws the wrong conclusion from the fact that the victims were changed to a trio of white financial bros. He inexplicably argues it’s some kind of dogwhistle; that the film “whitewashes Goetz’s attack, eliminating any racial motive.”
Given how ham-fisted the film’s messaging can be at times, there’s virtually no chance that the filmmakers weren’t consciously drawing parallels between the earlier scene where the kids beat Arthur and the one in which suit-clad Wall Street bullies stomp him and contrasting his reaction.
When Arthur tells Randall that he got beat up, his fellow clown calls them “savages,” but Arthur corrects him: “No, they were just kids.” He clearly doesn’t hold any ill will against them.
A popular liberal critique of Joker is that its sympathetic depiction of Arthur as a downtrodden, mentally ill man could serve to ratify the actions of his far-right counterparts in the real world in the same manner that the “economic anxiety” of the “white working class” is can be used to rationalize why people in the Rust Belt or the Deep South voted for Trump.
But far-right “white male rage” is misdirected, whereas Arthur’s is not. Joker is rife with gray areas, but it’s pretty explicit when it comes drawing lines between deserving and undeserving victims.
When the finance goons taunt Arthur on the subway, the audience is clearly being primed to root for their demise just like 80s slasher films always included some jerk—almost always a rich white male—that everyone hoped would get his lethal comeuppance.
The difference: Friday the 13th was never told from Jason’s point of view. After spending the first half of the film commiserating with Arthur’s struggles, viewers are put in an uncomfortable place where they feel like they’re being pulled along with him over the edge.
It seems that liberals whose politics don’t have a strong foundation in class have a hard time dealing with Joker’s overt—often on-the-nose—themes of class conflict, so they default to some weak borscht about “incels” and in the case of Richard Brody, they imagine the film’s message to be implicitly racist.
Rather than “whitewashing” the Goetz case, the film’s fictional tweaking of it fundamentally changes the meaning. Goetz was treated as a hero by many for finally “doing something” about crime, a distinctly early 80s preoccupation. Arthur’s killings strike a chord with people suffering from the inequality and neoliberal dysfunction that was also so prevalent in that era.
By subbing out the victims, the filmmakers draw a comparison between street crime and the systemic violence abetted by the real-life Thomas Waynes of the world. In many ways, Goetz’s robbery by teens born into extreme poverty is more excusable than privileged Wall Street assholes bullying someone on a subway car just because they can.
The film leaves audiences not knowing how to feel about Arthur, but it allows no room for interpretation in marking Wayne a villain. In an interview after the subway shootings, Wayne expresses naked, sneering contempt for the poor, saying that their resentment for the wealthy stems from jealousy.
Likewise, there’s really no question whether Murray Franklin, who cruelly exploits and humiliates Arthur for profit, falls into the category of “deserving” victims in the the dislocated moral universe where Joker takes place.
So, Arthur’s rage isn’t “white” —it’s not aimed at people of color—but neither is it particularly “male.” While he meets the literal definition of an involuntary celibate, Arthur lacks the furious sexual frustration that consumed people like Alex Minassian or Elliot Rodger.
His unhealthy obsession with and delusions about his neighbor Sophie are childlike and asexual. Arthur fixates on her because she’s the only person who ever showed him the slightest bit of humanity. He mostly fantasizes about having someone who supports him (going to his stand-up show) and shows him affection (holding his hand at the hospital).
The audience never learns what happens after he breaks into her apartment, and it’s revealed that their relationship was entirely in his head. Sophie becomes Schrödinger’s cat, either alive or dead depending on what each viewer thinks the film is trying to say and wants to believe about Arthur.
If it’s consistent with the film’s distinctions between those who “have it coming” and those who don’t (see the scene where Arthur murders Randall but lets Gary leave unharmed), then Sophie is alive. In any case, Sophie’s rejection—if you can call it that—isn’t what drives Arthur over the edge.
One could point to the scene where Arthur suffocates his mother with a pillow as an expression of “male rage” but here is where the film’s ambiguities come into play once more.
While there’s never a definitive answer on the question of whether Thomas Wayne is Arthur’s father, he finds a picture of his mother Penny with a note on the back that reads “You have a lovely smile -TW,” implying that she might have been telling the truth about the affair. (an interpretation supported by the actor who played Wayne based on conversations with the director.)
In the scene that immediately precedes Penny’s death, when Arthur is at Arkham examining the records of his mother’s hospitalization, he reads that he suffered abuse from his mother and her boyfriend, who is never named.
So if this theory is correct, Wayne not only gaslit and institutionalized Arthur’s mother but also abused him and consigned him to a life of destitution.
In this light, Penny’s death is truly tragic. Arthur’s wrath is misdirected. As so often happens in real life, the rich and powerful are insulated from their actions while the poor vent their anger on one another.
The only other woman Arthur kills is the psychiatrist in the final moments of the film. She’s the only murder victim who is framed as unambiguously “undeserving.” This scene signals that the transformation is complete—that he has finally become the Joker, who murders indiscriminately.
Now that it’s been established that class rage is the main motor behind Arthur’s downward spiral into a psychopathic monster, that still leaves the question: Does it promote violence?
But as with any film like this, one has to differentiate between depicting and glorifying, reasons and excuses.
The audience is made to feel for Arthur’s legitimate grievances, then shocked and horrified by his actions—even when the victims are “deserving.” One would be hard-pressed to argue that Arthur’s sudden and brutal stabbing of Randall made the violence look sexy in any way even if the guy was a total dirtbag.
Audience members who had been anxiously waiting for Arthur to lash out at those Wall Street goons probably felt a tinge of guilt moments later when he was standing over the last one listening to him plead for his life.
Describing the social milieu in which people live and how it influences the decisions they make doesn’t strip away their agency or let them off the hook.
Karl Marx once wrote that people make their own destiny, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already.”
He was making a philosophical statement that humans have free will but with constraints. To paraphrase Marx, the City of Gotham “weighs like a nightmare” on the brain of Arthur Fleck.
In the end, though, whatever messages—intentional or otherwise—contained in Joker are ultimately subordinate to the concerns of storytelling. While it’s understandable that some folks have a problem with making a psychopathic antihero sympathetic, there’s really no other way to tell this origin story and make it interesting.
Characters need an arc; they need to start in one place and end somewhere else. The origin of Tim Burton’s Joker was much less problematic—but it was boring as hell.
He was already a bad guy, a sociopath, before Batman threw him into a vat of chemicals. After, he’s just a sociopath with a bleached white face, neurological damage and a penchant for dancing to Prince songs. It’s not a long trip and it doesn’t really say anything.
Todd Phillip’s Joker not only re-contextualizes Joker’s origins but also Batman’s as well. It takes the story from the Manichaean dichotomy of good and evil where most superhero tales are set and places it in a moral limbo that more closely resembles the world in which we all actually live.
Batman is the symbol “Gotham needs.” He punishes the bad guys, bringing justice and order. But when looked at another way, he’s a billionaire who uses his massive wealth to augment the coercive power of the carceral state. He’s part Bernie Goetz, part T. Don Hutto.
By that same token, the Joker speaks to something Gotham also desperately needs. The riots unleashed by the subway murders and the killing of Murray Franklin are rooted in legitimate grievances. They’re the inevitable violent change that comes when peaceful change is impossible.
Though it’s unclear whether Joker and Batman are actually blood relations, they are both the heirs to the world that Thomas Wayne and men like him created. And neither offers a great response to the social roots of Gotham’s problems—whether its endless violent upheaval or harsh “tough-on-crime” justice delivered by a masked vigilante.
Joker has been called rightwing, but by far, it’s the least reactionary film in the entire Batman universe. Nothing could be more progressive than its core message: Monsters are made, not born.