Joker is the must-see movie of the moment. That rare type of movie that succeeds in mirroring the cultural moment in which it was made, as Taxi Driver did in the seventies and Fight Club managed in the nineties.
It tells the story of Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who, after years of alienation in a Gotham City that has lost all moral order, submits to nihilism. As Joker, Arthur finds purpose in chaos and destruction, acting out with increasingly extreme episodes of violence.
Joker is an intense and disturbing but also beautiful cinematic experience that touches on many themes. Mental health, isolation and abuse being some of the most important. Everyone it seems has something to say about the movies cultural significance, splitting opinions, particularly along political lines, in ways that to my mind there is no precedent.
The left informs us Joker is a comment on class warfare and the grandiosity and failures of capitalism; others condemn it as a rallying cry for armies of incels waiting for such an anti-hero to justify going on the attack. The right heaps praise, calling it a middle finger to the ‘woke’ establishment and a fuck you to PC culture.
Admittedly, Joker dips its toe into a wide variety of political pools, but takes no particular line. A distinct political position would do a disservice to this story of a disturbed and tragic man. As Arthur himself says, “I’m not political”.
The movie is a cultural touchstone and savage comment on a fragmented and atomised society that is missing a moral code to bind it and the dangers that await when citizens descend into moral nihilism. Joker and the Gotham he inhabitsarea 21st-century rendering of Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous statement about society without God at its foundation:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?”
Nietzsche, an atheist, meant by this statement not that God has actually died, but instead we have killed the idea of God. And with it the axiomatic basis for morality, value and order in society.
God provides us not only with an understanding of how the world is but also offers a guide to how we should act in it. Without God, there is no meaning for our existence nor guiding principle to our actions. Nietzsche recognised in such an environment society’s slow fall into nihilism was inevitable. Joker is the latest and a supremely evocative cultural embodiment of this decline.
Arthur asks his therapist, “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?”, as Gotham crumbles around him. In our universe, of which Gotham is, of course, a simulacrum, the answer is also yes. Everywhere we look, there are symptoms of our own fragmentation and atomisation. Political turmoil feeds our sense of alienation and is reflected at us in culture, then back again. Predatory capitalism breeds gross levels of income inequality, gender conflict divides the sexes, and our youth grows increasingly violent. As Nietzsche foresaw, we have slipped slowly into a profoundly nihilistic age.
Joker should be read not as a political rallying cry, but taken as a warning. Joker’s destiny is to become a figurehead for the angry and dispossessed. An agent of nihilism who wants to watch the world burn. The violent “Kill the Rich” movement he sparks promises anti-capitalist readings. Similarly, Arthur, as a much-maligned and disenfranchised white male, the crisis of masculinity might be taken as the main theme. To me, these interpretations are just symptoms of the real underlying sickness of Gotham, our society and the central theme of the movie — nihilism in the absence of an ideal and values fit enough to bind us across culture and political leaning.
Nietzsche suggested a way out of nihilism — by creating our own values as individuals and becoming gods ourselves. The man of the future, the Übermensch, would build meaning in life by will alone and understand that he is responsible for constructing his life purpose. Nietzsche, however, also knew this to be a distant goal for man and one that most would never reach, leaving the path of nihilism as one many will eventually follow.