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How the Joker Became Political

Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) was 2019’s most politically controversial movie, but the Joker himself wasn’t always such a political figure. How did the Clown Prince of Crime evolve into one of the most potent and divisive symbols of our time? What are his politics, and who exactly is he speaking to?

TRANSCRIPT

Murray Franklin:When we spoke earlier, you mentioned that this look is not a political statement. Is that right?” - Joker, 2019

All Joker’s Arthur Fleck ever wanted was to be noticed. In Todd Phillips’ grim origin story for the comic-book villain, we meet the Joker as an ordinary man who is slowly driven to madness—and eventually murder—by a world that’s done nothing but ignore and abuse him.

Arthur Fleck: “You don’t listen, do you? I don’t think you ever really hear me.” - Joker, 2019

Arthur’s uncontrollable medical condition has left him both isolated and exposed because the system that’s supposed to help him doesn’t seem to care.

Arthur Fleck: “You just ask the same questions every week. ‘How’s your job? Are you having any negative thoughts?’ All I have are negative thoughts!” - Joker, 2019

This psychological study has been interpreted as a political statement—something that has left the film mired in controversy since the moment anyone laid eyes on it. Critics deemed the film toxic and incendiary—the wrong movie aimed at the wrong audience, who were sure to take from it the wrong message. But what message was that, anyway? And who exactly was the film talking to?

While Phillips has explicitly denied that Joker is a political film, the heated and divisive discourse around the film proves that it is, to many viewers—even if no one agrees on what its politics actually are.

So, how did a criminally insane clown—the living embodiment of chaos—become one of the most potent and controversial symbols of our time? Here’s our Take on the unlikely political life of the Joker.

Murray Franklin: “Take your time! We got all night.” - Joker, 2019

The Pre-Political Joker

The concept of the Joker did have some political roots. The character’s frozen, mirthless grin was partially modeled on Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, about a man who was cruelly disfigured as revenge by his father’s political rival.

But from the character’s 1940 debut in Batman No. 1, through the decades of appearances and adaptations that followed, the Joker wasn’t interested in politics - he was far too concerned with pulling crazy capers and committing random acts of violence. The rare exception that proved that rule came in the 1980s, with the Jim Starlin-penned “A Death In The Family.” Released at the height of U.S. tensions with Iran, this story finds the Joker being appointed as the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations by none other than Ayatollah Khomeini. It’s a position he held just long enough to try murdering a room full of diplomats.

But the whole “Iran ambassador” plotline was quickly abandoned, and Joker never got overtly political in the comics again. That’s because, unlike Superman’s foe Lex Luthor, the Joker doesn’t hunger for power. He ridicules it.

The Joker: “What would the common folk do without my pranks and antics?” - Batman The Animated Series, 3x7

The Clown Prince of Politics

The Joker truly became politicized for the first time in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight in 2008.

Alfred Pennyworth: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” - The Dark Knight, 2008

This unusually philosophical comic-book movie asks soul-searching questions about justice, moral relativity, and human nature, and due to the timing of the release, after the attacks of September 11th and amid the War on Terror that followed, these were received as political quandaries as well.

Even though Nolan claimed to have no political intentions, The Dark Knight contains multiple allusions to 9/11 in its imagery. And Joker is even referred to repeatedly as a “terrorist.”

Harvey Dent: “Should we give in to this terrorist’s demands?” - The Dark Knight, 2008

Played by Heath Ledger with a feral and unpredictable intensity, Nolan’s Joker is not the capering Clown Prince of Crime of the campy 60s Batman TV series featuring Cesar Romero, or Tim Burton’s 1989 film starring Jack Nicholson. Unlike the Master Thieves that came before him, this Joker doesn’t even want money.

The Joker: “It’s not about money. It’s about sending a message… Everything burns!” - The Dark Knight, 2008

The Joker is out to show Gotham that society is a flimsy construct—that people only follow the rules as long as it’s in their self-interest.

The Joker: “When the chips are down, these…these civilized people? They’ll eat each other.” - The Dark Knight, 2008

Like a terrorist, Joker says his goals are to:

The Joker: “Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.” - The Dark Knight, 2008

The Joker is generally portrayed as insane, which would seem to make him unfit to express a coherent political ideology. But The Dark Knight’s Joker is — though still a psychopath — chillingly logical, articulate, and strategic.

The Joker manipulates Batman into making his own ethical compromises. In order to capture the Joker, Batman deploys a city-wide surveillance system that requires hacking into everyone’s phones. And in the end, Batman takes on the mantle of villain, at least partially out of guilt for what he’s done.

Batman: “I’m not a hero, not like Dent. “I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be.” - The Dark Knight, 2008

These were issues that America was grappling within the wake of 9/11, when the nation, much like Gotham, found itself confronted by a new and unconventional evil—one that couldn’t be bargained with, that sought only our destruction — and the government responded with its own extreme measures. Some even went so far as to declare The Dark Knight a conservative film, an endorsement of the controversial actions undertaken by President George W. Bush while he waged his War on Terror. Andrew Klavan wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “Like W., Batman is vilified and despised for confronting terrorists in the only terms they understand.”

Alfred: “Even if everyone hates him for it. That’s a sacrifice he’s making. He’s not being a hero. He is being something more.” - The Dark Knight, 2008

Of course, the fact that some saw Bush as Batman didn’t stop others from recasting him as the Joker, as cartoonist Drew Friedman did for Vanity Fair in 2008. It all depended on who you saw as the true “agent of chaos.” And in the decade that followed The Dark Knight, this would only become more complicated.

The Clown That Could Start A Movement

Dark Knight screenwriters Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan deliberately didn’t give Joker a definitive backstory — because, the director said, “We didn’t want to humanize him.”

Heath Ledger’s death months before The Dark Knight’s release conferred on his Joker an aura of tragedy that only made him a more darkly compelling mythic figure. And without Ledger around to comment on the character—or to perform the usual, sanitized niceties of TV or magazine interviews—the Joker’s sinister mystique remained firmly intact.

That unknowable, legendary nature also made the Joker an especially elastic symbol, one easily applied to anyone that could be seen as a possible threat. Vanity Fair’s George W. Bush cartoon was followed just six months later by an image of newly elected President Barack Obama in Joker makeup—an image that a University of Illinois at Chicago student named Firas Alkhateeb created, he says, largely out of boredom.

But the “Obama Joker” took on a life of its own after an unknown person added the caption “Socialism,” then began posting it throughout Los Angeles, and it was soon seized on by the right-wing Tea Party movement, who used the image at demonstrations, decrying what they saw as the chaos that Obama’s policies would introduce.

Then came the most potent Joker symbol of our times. People have been drawing parallels between Joker and Trump since well before he became president. In the weeks before Trump took office, actor Mark Hamill—who voiced the Joker in the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series—debuted a character he dubbed “The Trumpster,” where he read Trump’s tweets aloud in his Joker voice. Shortly thereafter, The Daily Show aired footage from a Trump interview with Joker makeup superimposed over his face. After Joker’s release, Washington Post columnist Max Boot even went so far as to declare “We have a Joker on the big screen—and a Joker in the White House.”

Although (as we’ve seen), the Joker is a frequent comparison for any politician that someone doesn’t like, there’s a specific parallel between Joker’s alienation and the one that Trump regularly appeals to.

Arthur Fleck: “They think we’ll all just sit there and take it like good little boys. That we won’t go wild.” - Joker, 2019

Ditto the often outlandish statements and mocking rhetoric that both use to stoke resentment and, ultimately, to spark a populist uprising.

Murray Franklin: “I think I might understand that you did this to start a movement, to become a symbol.”

Arthur Fleck: “Come on, Murray, do I look like the kind of a clown that could start a movement?” - Joker, 2019

The Trump-Joker parallel spoke directly to a growing subset of people who welcomed being compared to the Joker—self-styled internet provocateurs who saw in the character a useful spokesman for their own anger and frustrations. The Joker became an enduring meme, used by anonymous trolls to express their distaste for various social justice issues, to lash out at society, or just to mock anyone who came off as overly sensitive or politically correct.

The Joker: “Why? So? Serious??” - The Dark Knight, 2008

Joker’s hatred of the establishment, his conviction that the world is filled with hypocrites, and especially his belief that only he can see the truth—all of these proved irresistible to people who felt increasingly powerless.

Arthur Fleck: “You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be a guy like me?” - Joker, 2019

With the debut of Todd Phillips’ Joker, that fan base finally got a Joker movie that seemingly dared to validate those feelings—to show the world as objectively evil, and the Joker as a logical response.

Arthur Fleck: “All of you, the system that knows so much, you decide what’s right or wrong.” - Joker, 2019

The Joker’s always been an outsider, wreaking havoc against the status quo. In the comics and the Batman TV series, he causes mayhem simply because he enjoys it. In Tim Burton’s film, it’s born out of petulance and wounded vanity. In Dark Knight, it’s his twisted, nihilistic philosophy.

The Joker: “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.” - The Dark Knight, 2008

And while we don’t get much insight into Jared Leto’s heavily tattooed gangster Joker from 2016’s Suicide Squad, what we do see comes off like an affectation—edginess mixed with a doing-it-for-the-Instagram brand of showing off.

But in Phillips’ film, we are at last asked to fully understand, even sympathize with Joker. In stark contrast to Nolan’s film, Joker does humanize him with a backstory. And unlike Jack Nicholson’s petty thug Arthur Fleck is presented as a meek victim of circumstance—the kind of guy who, even after he’s brutally attacked by a group of teens, offers them empathy in return.

Co-worker: “I heard about the beatdown you took. Fucking savages.”

Arthur Fleck: “It was just a bunch of kids. I should have left them alone.” - Joker, 2019

When Arthur is pushed into committing violence, it’s purely out of self-defense. Whatever good may have once been inside Arthur Fleck is corroded by the relentless oppression of being treated like he doesn’t matter — like he’s not there.

Therapist: “They don’t give a shit about people like you, Arthur. You don’t have a voice and they don’t really care what happens to you or to us for that matter.” - Joker, 2019

The film makes Arthur’s transformation into the Joker the inevitable response of a man who’s pushed past his breaking point, made evil by an evil system.

Arthur Fleck: “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a system that abandons him and treats him like trash?” - Joker, 2019

As seen in the wildly divided response to the film, how you interpret the definition of that system, and who you see as the perpetrators of Arthur’s oppression, is largely based on your own personal politics.

Some regard Joker as a clear indictment of neoliberal capitalism. According to documentarian Michael Moore, it’s a film about “the America which feels no need to help the outcast, the destitute. The America where the filthy rich just get richer and filthier.”

As Arthur’s violence sparks a populist uprising against Gotham’s elite, represented by the billionaire Thomas Wayne, Wayne himself makes the war between the haves and the have-nots explicit.

Thomas Wayne: “Until those kinds of people change for the better, those of us who’ve made something of our lives will always look at those who haven’t as nothing but clowns.” - Joker, 2019

According to this reading, Joker’s army are left-wing protesters, targeting the fascistic one percent. Washington Post columnist Sonny Bunch wrote that Joker can thus be seen as “the forefather of Antifa.”

But to others, Arthur’s murder of three men who were harassing him, with its echoes of ’80s subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz, invites audiences to view him as an antihero provoked into violent retribution by a violent world.

Joker fosters this notion through its deliberate homages to the Martin Scorsese films The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver. These movies similarly concerned lonely, disaffected men living in a grimy, dangerous New York, whose criminal acts are portrayed as both the embodiment of and reaction to, their harsh environments. Joker even casts both films’ star, Robert De Niro, in a not-so-subtle effort to evoke their dark power.

Before it was even released, some branded Joker, in the words of film critic David Ehrlich, “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels,” referring to the group of internet-dwelling misogynists who call themselves “involuntary celibates.” Although Arthur doesn’t overtly express any of those misogynistic views in the film, his romantic fixation on his neighbor, Sophie, played by Zazie Beetz, has been read as a projection of a similar attitude.

That reputation only intensified once actual incels began suggesting on web forums that Joker might inspire some of their members to commit another mass shooting, prompting the U.S. Army to issue a warning of a possible attack.

Such discussion was especially charged in the wake of the 2012 incident in Aurora, Colorado when a man opened fire on a crowded theater during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.

While fears that this new Joker movie would incite violence fortunately never came to fruition, they helped to cement Joker’s reputation as a potentially dangerous movie—one that speaks to the growing numbers of men who feel disenfranchised and “forgotten.” CNN’s Jeff Yang even suggested that Joker might be a political parable for our age, “an insidious validation of the white-male resentment that helped bring President Donald Trump to power.”

All of this rancor and divisiveness was only intensified after Phillips reacted to criticisms by deriding the “woke culture” of the “far-left” that had preemptively condemned his movie, saying “there have been a lot of think pieces written by people who proudly say they haven’t even seen the movie and they don’t need to. I would just argue that you might want to watch the movie.” Both he and star Joaquin Phoenix would have several tense confrontations with the press over whether the film was deliberately stoking tensions, or if it might encourage them to boil over into real-world violence.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. responded to the growing criticisms by issuing the statement: “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

Much of the political controversy surrounding Joker is really about a question that dates back to his earliest days when he first ran afoul of the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s. Does enjoying the Joker create a desire to emulate him? And if a character seemingly unmoored from any known ideology—who’s just plain crazy—can be adopted as such a versatile political symbol, what is it, exactly, that people are responding to?

In the Joker’s every incarnation, some things always remain the same. The makeup and the clown suit. His weirdly symbiotic connection to Batman. And more than anything, his bottomless need for attention. Deep down, it always has to be about him.

On a very basic level, that demand to be seen, to bring everyone into his world—to not be ignored—is inherently political. It’s about the need for recognition.

Arthur Fleck: “For my whole life I didn’t even know if I even really existed. But I do, and people are starting to notice.” - Joker, 2019

This, along with Joker’s general disdain for the ruling class, is what makes him such an attractive tool for political messaging. Take away the killing, the sadism, and the insanity, and the Joker stands in for anyone who feels like The Other — anyone who poses some sort of challenge to the status quo.

This can be expressed as both a negative and a positive. The Joker can be a destructive clown who threatens disorder and chaos, his makeup slathered across politicians as disparate as George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Boris Johnson. Or he can be the face of liberation for the disenfranchised, turning up on masks worn by anti-government protestors in Hong Kong, Chile, and Lebanon.

In the end, Joker is kind of a walking Rorschach test. He is the reflection of your own alienation, whatever form that takes. Joker can be the soul-sucking emptiness of Reagan-era greed:

The Joker: “And now, folks, it’s time for “Who do you trust!” Hubba, hubba, hubba! Money, money, money!” - Batman, 1989

Or the guilt, paranoia, and numbing detachment of post-9/11 America:

The Joker: “If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan…’” - The Dark Knight, 2008

Or he is the simmering discontent of our polarized age, where it seems like everyone is always at each other’s throats:

Arthur Fleck: “Have you seen what it’s like out there, Murray? Everybody just yells and screams at each other. Nobody’s civil anymore. Nobody thinks what it’s like to be the other guy.” - Joker, 2019

This iteration of the Joker’s need for attention reads as a cautionary tale about what happens when many in society feel neglected, left behind, unseen and unheard.

But the ultimate meaning and the message Joker conveys is often as mixed-up as he is.

Murray Franklin: “What’s with the face? I mean, are you part of the protest?”

Arthur Fleck: “No. No, I don’t believe any of that. I don’t believe in anything.” - Joker, 2019

It’s deliberately left open to interpretation, allowing anyone who feels marginalized to identify with and, occasionally, draw power from him —anyone from a protestor, to a pissed-off teenager, to the President of the United States. Joker is politics in its most elemental, emotional, and theatrical sense, reducing it to rebellion, to sound and fury—and, yes, to chaos. In other words, it turns politics into one big joke.

The Joker: “Comedy is subjective, Murray, isn’t that what they say?” - Joker, 2019