Dancing between Charisma and Politics: An Analysis of Joker (2019)

Joker (2019) is set against an exterior world mirroring the New York City of the 1980s, with its crumbling economy and neo-liberal policies, woven together with the interior world of the rapidly deteriorating mind of its protagonist Arthur Fleck, who has a mental health condition. The article analyses the mild-mannered Fleck’s transition into the slick and charismatic Joker by tracing acts of violence inflicted on him and those that he commits violence upon. Interrogating violent scenes in the film reveals how Joker glorifies and legitimises specific forms of violence, situating the story in a backdrop devoid of historical and political rootedness.

Joker (2019) opens with its protagonist Arthur Fleck, played by the virtuosic Joaquin Phoenix, putting on clown face paint, while the radio is abuzz describing the impending state of emergency in the city of Gotham. Modelled on the New York City of the 1980s, Gotham is facing the consequences of policies of “trickle-down” economics—as taxes on the wealthy were reduced to “spur” economic growth, and the country witnessed a reduction in government spending on social services. Against this gritty setting, the film tracks the journey of the awkward and mild persona of Fleck turning into the slick and stylish figure of the Joker—the supervillain from the DC Comics. Broadly, Fleck faces multiple levels of discrimination and violence in society, lashes back with acts of violence, and subsequently becomes a symbol of mass protests. Indeed, by the end of the film, Fleck is hailed as the hero of anti-establishment forces—a crowd of protestors, who have fashioned their face to mirror his persona, cheer him on. Given that the film’s popularity has increased immensely since its release, the iconic clown face paint and mask have been sighted in many anti-government or anti-establishment protests around the world (Du Cane 2020; Clark 2019). At the same time, some reviewers and audiences have criticized the film, arguing that it has presented a sympathetic account of a perpetrator of violence. In fact, one of the film’s most caustic critics, David Ehrlich (2019) called the film “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels,” saying that the film appears to justify its protagonist’s kill drive as a refusal to be a “punchline.”  So, how can we understand the film’s fluid ability to draw associations ranging from promoting incel violence to being a critique of neoliberalism, while being a film about a comic book villain?

Violence and its Discontents

The glorified images of an armed white man on a rampage in the city is an unsettling one, owing to the exponential rise of mass shootings in American cities and towns alongside its correlation to incel subcultures.[1] The family members of the victims of a mass shooting on 20 July 2012, in Aurora, Colorado expressed serious concerns over Joker’s portrayal of a murderer, especially in light of erroneous reports that claimed that the shooter James Holmes had referred to himself as “the Joker” (Desta 2019; Parker 2019).  The victims’ family members urged the film-makers to openly support the cause for gun reform while criticising the cinematic correlations between Holmes and Fleck.
While sympathetic to the victims’ family members, the film-makers maintained the position that the film does not seek to justify violence in any way. The film’s director (Todd Philips) felt that the film had been unfairly criticised for promoting violence, and defended it by saying that the display of violence in Joker is nothing new. He argued that the film does not come close to representations of violence by other famous Hollywood films such as John Wick: Chapter 3 Parabellum (2019) in which the protagonist kills 300 people (Sharf 2019). However, while Joker has been criticised for its potential to incite violent behaviour, it cannot be equated to films like the latest John Wick sequel as they both differ in their treatment of violence. The John Wick series is a carefully concocted thriller-genre film series that alludes to “Spaghetti Westerns like the works of Sergio Leone and South Korean thrillers by directors like Park Chan-wook and Lee Jeong-beom” (Donaldson 2019). It is based on a man’s hyperbolic quest for revenge against his dog’s death and features highly stylised fight sequences. On the other hand, Joker’s scenes of violence are firmly entrenched in a socio-historical setting and are intended to be hyperrealistic. Unlike the disproportionate reaction of John Wick to his dog’s death, Fleck’s murders begin as supposedly proportionate retaliation against violence inflicted upon him. The comparison to John Wick by the film-maker seems to raise the question: Are there instances in which screen violence is seen as justifiable? I argue that we need to pay attention not only to how the film portrays violence cinematically, but also how it is sutured within the film’s narrative and aesthetic setting.
By situating itself in the gritty setting of New York in the 1980s, Joker borrows from real-life situations and problems, inviting itself to be read as a critique of neo-liberalism. It shows repeated instances of violence upon Fleck, till he retaliates by killing the people who seem to have harmed him or even used or ridiculed him, sparing only those who were nice to him. The film shows Fleck’s transformation into Joker in multiple stages by taking the viewers through the various acts of violence and discrimination he encounters, while at the same time, marking changes in his personality. But, as I will show, Fleck’s transition to Joker is not a direct product of the violence he encounters; rather, it is the acts of violence he himself commits that cause a change in his charismatic abilities to turn into Joker. It is crucial to note this difference as it allows a separation between Fleck’s acts of violence and his charismatic presence as Joker—indirectly glorifying as well as legitimizing his violent streaks while leaving aside the stakes of its historical setting.

Why Does Joker Dance?

The film begins by showing Fleck, dressed as a clown, on a busy street, advertising a sale at a store that is going out of business. Fleck’s uncharismatic clownish ensemble attracts the attention of a group of teenagers who steal the sign from him, corner him in an alley, and mercilessly beat him. In a scene right after, Fleck is sitting barebacked, fixing his oversized clown shoe, as the nasty marks of the beatings on his underweight body are highlighted. The framing and angle of the shot exaggerate his frame’s incongruities and alert viewers about his crumbling body as well as mind beneath the clown costume. Fleck has a disorder that makes him burst into laughter with no relation to the emotions he may be experiencing—a pseudo-bulbar condition—most likely caused by physical abuse he encountered as a child. Governed by the policies of austerity, the city cuts off the funding to the public health programme, directly affecting Fleck as he can no longer access a counsellor or get medication. Thus, the film’s setting—the exterior world of a late capitalist city collapsing on its own structures—is interrelated with the rapidly deteriorating landscape of the interior world of its protagonist with a mental health condition. The film shows Fleck’s transformation into Joker in multiple stages by taking viewers through the acts of violence and discrimination he encounters, while at the same time marking shifts in his personality.
Fleck’s first act of violence begins amidst flickering lights of a graffiti-strewn subway car, where he encounters three men harassing a woman. Dressed in his everyday work ensemble—the joker costume—Fleck seems sympathetic to her but realized that he cannot do much to help her. As his fate would have it, he gets a bout of uncontrollable laughter, owing to his condition. The woman seizes the moment and escapes for another car of the subway, leading the men to direct their aggression toward Fleck. The three men start to attack him violently, and in self-defence, Fleck pulls the trigger of his gun at them. He manages to shoot two of them, and as the train comes to a halt, the third man runs out of the car. Instead of running away himself, Fleck runs after him and shoots him down multiple times until his body goes limp on the station staircase. From retaliating against violence to chasing down and lethally killing the third man, Fleck changes his position from being a victim to a perpetrator here.  
After murdering these three people, (whose deaths are portrayed as a welcome respite from all the violence inflicted upon him) Fleck runs to escape the police. He takes to the streets, and hides in a dilapidated bathroom. Suddenly, the film changes a beat, as the camera steadily tilts down to his feet, and reveals that Fleck has, surprisingly, started to dance. This scene marks a key moment in the film. The film’s theme music starts, harkening back to the music played during the earlier scene where Fleck was beaten by teenagers in the alley. The camerawork registers a sharp change as well, as it moves languidly to match Phoenix’s on-screen dance moves. This scene—despite being shot differently from the rest of the film and not holding any realistic connection to the film’s narrative—is staged as the first step to Fleck’s transformation into Joker.
As he dances, Fleck’s moves get more and more graceful, gathering uncharacteristic poise, and the camera starts to dance with him. Fleck finishes his dance, almost 90 seconds long, and stares at himself in the mirror with hands wide open. Next, he emerges from his building elevator with his back to the camera, his messy hair tinged with light, and the camera follows him in his determined stride down the corridor to his neighbour Sophie’s (played by Zazie Beetz) apartment. While he was creepily stalking her before, after his violent actions, he found the courage to walk up to her apartment and kiss her passionately. This change in the way he looks to us, the way the camera frames him, and the way he carries himself, signal a significant change in his personality, as he embraces his own charismatic potential. He wants to be a person people take notice of, and the film pauses to tell us exactly how to notice him while he dances. While the scene of violence on the subway is a trigger for the transition in his personality, the change actually occurs when he enters the bathroom and begins to dance.
His transformation into Joker completes in one of the film’s most famous sequences, when he dances on stairs, while on his way to the studios of the Murray Franklin show. Here, the film features Fleck in a slick and snappier version of his clown ensemble, smoking a cigarette with extra oomph, and dancing to Gary Glitter’s "Rock and Roll Part 2” song, as he dances down the stairs that he has drudgingly walked up several times in the film. The film pauses for a few minutes to show us Phoenix’s ecstatic dancing, as the music turns more sinister, and behind him we see blurred images of two policemen follow him in their efforts to arrest him.
These two dance scenes punctuate key moments of Fleck’s transformation and allow us to see that Joker is actually not a product of the discrimination and the violence he faces, but rather emerges from his own acts of violence. Despite being motivated by the discrimination he has faced and wanting to act back, his charismatic potential is activated in the film only after he himself engages in violence and killing—that is when he transforms from being a victim to the perpetrator. Take, for example, an earlier scene—in which Fleck is dancing in his living room with a gun and clumsily fires a shot by accident—which acts as a deliberate counter to above-mentioned charismatic dances. In both the dancing scenes, what remains visible is his changing charisma and the political questions of his marginalisation by neoliberal policies of the state, as well as the debilitating aspects of his condition caused by physical abuse—take a backseat. If we are not asked to celebrate the violence, we are indeed asked to celebrate the transformation—garnering indirect legitimacy for Fleck’s violent behaviour.

Aesthetics and Politics

True to its key goal of giving an origin story to the elusive character of Joker—the “king of chaos” or the “clown prince of crime”—the film brings together the fans of the DC universe with the savants of prestige cinema. Borrowing most directly from the films of Martin Scorsese—King of Comedy (1982) and Taxi Driver (1976)—Joker steers away from the aesthetic connotations of the genre of comic book movies. Joker’s Fleck is a metamorphosed version of Taxi Driver’s lonely and isolated protagonist Travis Bickle, who is out to clean up New York’s streets of its sleaze and moral corruption, and King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, who kidnaps a TV show host he is obsessed with, in order to become famous. Joker is set in the same period and space as Taxi Driver, but does away with the overt display of misogynistic and racist sentiments of Bickle. At the same time, it takes Pupkin’s obsession with fame in comedy to the extreme.
Fleck is a fan of Murray Franklin, a TV show host, and if the  citation was not clear enough, the host is played by Robert de Niro who plays Pupkin in King of Comedy. Fleck fantasises about being on Murray’s show, and gaining his appreciation and affection. Things go awry when his failed performance at a stand-up comedy show—where his condition surfaces— goes viral and is broadcasted by the Murray Franklin show for laughs and ridicule. Murray uses Fleck’s stand up performance that shows him laughing uncontrollably as the punchline for the show. The segment becomes increasingly popular, and Fleck gets invited to the show. However, at the show, he gets angered and provoked by Murray’s humiliation and shoots and kills him on air.
While the King of Comedy looks into the mad world of obsession with fame and fan cultures, and analyses the consequences when it gets unhinged, and Taxi Driver gets behind the wheels of a crumbling mind plotting to make the world better, one murder at a time, and analyses the development of those racist and psychological impulses; Joker pretends to do no such thing. In fact, by borrowing the aesthetic categories from the two films, it strips them of their political contexts, and denies any analysis of the events it seeks to portray, keeping Fleck sympathisable and likeable.
In direct contrast to other films that represent the DC Comics character Joker—like in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) played by Heath Ledger—Fleck’s actions are also not anarchic. Fleck’s subway murders of the three employees from Wayne Industries, Gotham’s biggest firm and one who’s President is running for the position of mayor, inspires a movement with the slogan “kill the rich” in Joker (2019). As protestors start embracing the clown mask, Fleck’s actions are co-opted by the masses despite the uncertainty of his own political stance. Joker’s protagonist is concurrently posed as a victim of neo-liberal policies implemented and initiated in America in the 1980s, that benefit the rich. This takes place while he deals with a series of personal issues of abuse and mental health conditions, transforming into a perpetrator of violence. All his violent actions are motivated by personal vengeance that seek to make “right” the “wrongs” done to him. Thus, Fleck’s becoming into Joker necessitates a scouring off from all context, and most importantly his politics.

Of Whiteness and Masculinity

Since Fleck’s internal journey is extensively tied to the external social order, the film has been deemed as a critique of neo-liberal policies in America (Lee 2019). Fleck may be a direct victim of political policies of neo-liberalism as he faces the cut in social services funding, but the film remains totally opaque to the ways in which those policies affect other people, especially those not sharing his whiteness. The film’s disengagement with political issues trickles down into its engagement with issues of race, which is treated from a white gaze. As several critics (Brody 2019; Searles 2019) have noted, all the black characters in the film either have no substantial role to play, or are not really presented as real people: the social worker, the woman on the bus, the clerk at the hospital, and finally the neighbour—who happens to be an object of his fantasy. Rather than an interrogation or problematisation of Fleck’s actions and the role of his race, Joker in many ways “justifies” his violence, thereby taking for granted (and naturalising) his whiteness. The teenagers who beat Fleck at the beginning of the film are referred to as “savages” by Fleck’s co-worker in a matter of fact tone, to which Fleck’s nonchalant response is “they are just kids.” Discussing this instance of violence by non-white teenagers as an example of racial whitewashing in Joker, Richard Brody (2019) has argued that the film “draws its incidents and its affect parasitically from real-world events that were both the product and the cause of racist discourse and attitudes and gave rise to real-world racist outcomes of enduring, even historic, gravity.” The film pretends to be set in its gritty landscape of historical New York, but at the same time smoothens the racial edge of the instances it seeks to portray. A key scene from the film, that is cited in positive reviews of the view, (Uetricht 2019) offers a counterpoint to Brody’s claim. In the scene, Fleck’s (unnamed) black social worker (played by Sharon Washington) says, “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur, and they don’t really give a shit about people like me either.” While this scene seems to suggest class-based solidarity across racial lines, it firmly remains at the level of rhetoric. Nowhere else does the film draw together Fleck with other people, in fact, he actively shows zero interest in the plight of anyone else but himself.
Jourdain Searles (2019) insightfully notes, “Phillips knows that in order to set his work apart from the white New York City of Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach films, he has to include people of color as symbols of what is ‘real.’” This superficial commitment of the film to remain true to its setting, shows that the film blunts its political edge by either whitewashing events it references as Brody has suggested, or hiding behind the facade of speaking about class politics and the chasms between the city’s rich and poor. The critic Lawrence Ware (2019) analyses this further and says, “A black man in Gotham City (really, New York) in 1981 suffering from the same mysterious mental illnesses as Fleck would be homeless and invisible.” Fleck’s whiteness is a “force field” that insulates him from the consequences that a non-white man would face, as Ware says “A black man acting as strangely as Fleck does” would not have access to a TV show like that (Ware 2019). The film’s engagement with issues of race from a white gaze draws an internal incoherence in its narrative, as the fact remains that Fleck most likely would not be able to become the popular icon—Joker—both in the film and beyond, if he was not white.

Appreciation in India?

In India, Joker found itself amidst the controversies around the Telugu film—Arjun Reddy (2017) and its Hindi remake Kabir Singh (2019). Film actress Parvathy Thiruvothu called out Arjun Reddy for glorifying its misogynistic and abusive male protagonist, while praising Joker in comparison.[2] Unabashedly violent and radiating toxic masculinity, the medical professional Arjun Reddy douses himself in alcohol, drives himself to unconsciousness and incontinence and acts violently towards everyone around him, including many women, after his volatile romance with a younger student fails due to family interference. Thiruvothu argued that unlike Arjun Reddy, Joker does not allow the audience to applaud the protagonist’s violent streak in the same way. While Thiruvothu accurately pinpoints the toxic masculinity (and does not name the casteist implications) in Arjun Reddy that is being celebrated at dangerous costs, her analysis appears short of critically examining Joker.
Thiruvothu’s praise of Joker downplays Fleck’s “subtle” sexism and potential for violence even if the film does not overtly justify violence against women, or endorse the “casual” sexism that pervades a film like Arjun Reddy. The films share an aesthetic presentation that glorifies its violent protagonist, and repeatedly justifies the violent actions of the protagonists as a by-product of being a victim of social discrimination. Both the films, fluidly interchange their protagonists between the position of being perpetrators and victims: if Reddy is a free spirit caught in a hypocritical and morally oppressive society (in spite of openly displaying misogyny himself), Fleck is a man with a mental health condition who does not get the care he needs from the state, faces violence repeatedly in his daily life; and lashes out as he desires to be popular and appreciated.
If Joker did feature any violent actions against women, it would have placed itself in the lineage of Joker’s interpretation in films like the DC film Suicide Squad (2016), which proudly features the toxic masculinity of the comic book protagonist through an abusive relationship with his girlfriend. However, Joker is a film that ostensibly attempts to be self-aware by distinguishing its portrayal of masculinity from the Joker of Suicide Squad. Thiruvothu may be right in claiming that Joker is not a film that justifies violence against women or the “casual” sexism that pervades a film like Arjun Reddy. But, at the same time, the similarity of Reddy’s toxic behaviour with Fleck is unmistakable. Fleck fantasises a relationship with his neighbour Sophie. He stalks her, and enters her apartment without her permission, threatening her safety along with her little child. Some viewers and critics assumed that Fleck kills Sophie in the film, and in light of this interpretation of the film, the film-maker clarified that no violence is committed against her. According to Philips, Fleck only kills people who have “wronged” him (Yaniz Jr 2019). But, as the film leaves Sophie’s fate unclear to the audience’s imagination, no post-facto invocation of Fleck’s code actually holds up. Fleck is undeniably a threatening figure in Joker who bears the potential of being violent towards women who reject him or ignore him. Joker successfully hides the looming threat of violence against women in its shadow spaces offscreen and systematically steers away from sexist as well as racist violence by its protagonist, to retain Fleck’s likeability.
Joker’s politics is deliberately designed to appear vague and benign, whether in terms of hiding its sexist violence, its treatment of race through the white gaze, or its ambiguity toward the anarchist political movement that hails Joker as its signifying face. The character of Joker never signifies any particular ideological position at any time. By drawing its aesthetic backdrop from Scorsese’s films, albeit without their political nuance, Joker invokes the trope of interconnectedness between its setting and Fleck’s own personal journey, without actually presenting an analysis of it. It seems that Joker desires to be appreciated as a prestige film for its socially gritty aesthetic, but at the same time does not want the burden of social responsibility that comes with it. Instead, it systematically pauses to show us Fleck’s dancing and his other charismatic acts that elicit his transformation from a victim to a perpetrator of violence. The two dance sequences in the film turn Joker’s persona into an empty signifier, untethering the character from the traces of violence he has committed. Thus, the film makes room for attaching one’s preferred interpretation to the film’s premise, ranging from a plethora of relations like its correlation to incel violence, a critique of neo-liberalism, a standard-bearer for left politics, and so on. Perhaps, the concern about Joker should not be about how it may incite a vulnerable viewer to commit acts of violence, through its glorifying portrayal of violence. Rather, it should be about how it actively peels off every political and ideological context from its aesthetic presentation of the Joker. The film pretends to be a critique of neo-liberal policies committed to the cause of the disenfranchised, but what it actually gives us is an empty signifier in a painted face and a red suit.

The author is thankful to the anonymous reviewer and would also like to thank Sean Batton (at the University of Chicago) for his generous feedback.
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