The “Joker”: capitalism’s gyroscope and (im)possible escape

There have been a lot of comments about Tod Philips’s movie “Joker”: both good and bad; those that tend to criticize it for its graphic violence[1] and those that praised it for its performance, the courage to step out of superhero matrices; it has been praised as either an ingenious system or as a miserable mishmash of pointless cinematographic references.


Thus, more or less unsurprisingly, “violence” has become one of the focal points with comments sloshing around from conservative to less conservative approaches – also creating a specific performative dynamics where violence together with wider political issues and problems addressed in the movie become the center of the discussion, reflecting larger ideological conglomerates.


This is precisely why, in a certain sense, the “Joker” tears the fourth cinematographical wall in a new and very interesting way: at its core is the unbreakable connection between the movie and reality; its intention is to become a trope, signifier and political agent by itself – just like the mask of Guido Fawkes become the trope several years ago; as if the movie itself is dipped and soaked in our social and political present – even through movie “takes place” in the beginning of the eighties; and as if the movie is much more political than expected not only carrying proverbial “message” and framing the ideological reality in a new and subversive way but rather has an incentive to be the actor and agent and part of political reality. Even though it is not really clear whether this was part of marketing strategy aimed at creating political hype in order to raise its box office profits, political statement or just an “accidental” feature – it nevertheless make the movie a subject of a wider political discussion, both prompting its market success and reframing the ways we are talking about our society.

And politics truly is in the center of this somewhat arty cinematographic work: references to Reagan’s era and neoliberalism are clear by themselves, but politics has been hidden much deeper inside the genre structure the movie relies on.

Psychoanalytical hierarchy

The “Joker” invokes psychoanalysis – not only as a means to think about one Arthur Fleck, but as a method of mapping society in psychoanalytic categories; using this wider map to invoke the specter of the society when its “brakes” are gone; and, in the end, depict a higher and mid-class bourgeoisie fear of uncontrolled and uncontrollable power of classes from the bottom of the social hierarchy. In this sense, Fleck’s Gotham is a metaphor of the society itself and the metaphor of what society would look like of it lost its regulatory mechanisms in the form of violent institutions; of what societies Id looks like and what it would look like without violent regulatory mechanisms. Of course, the metaphor is simple: just like Arthur Fleck, the society is held from an anarchic breakdown of its hierarchical order only by a complex and violent but nevertheless thin and fragile layer of its disciplinary mechanisms.

Speaking of superegos – a superhero is a figure that functions precisely as a disciplinary mechanism: when the world is coming apart due to actions of the villain – just like the superego “saves” when Id runs amok – it is the superhero that saves the world ultimately disciplining it and holding it in place. But “Joker” breaks every rule and trope one has ever seen in a superhero movie even though the movie itself is placed inside one of the prominent superhero universes.

Effectively, in this story, the superhero’s universe has been turned upside down: the superhero is gone – he is yet to become a superhero; the world perpetuates itself without the main feature of the superhero – without the figure of savior; world functions as it is – not as it is supposed to function in superhero universes.

Capitalism’s stabilization systems

And the role of superheroes is central to the functioning of capitalism: thought allegedly inherently stable, capitalism is nevertheless always already maintained via political intervention. More precisely via superhero which acts only when the stability of capitalism – in Batman’s universe condensed into a city (Gotham) – is destabilized by actions of some villain. In this sense, both villains and superheroes are a necessary part of the capitalism’s ideological architecture: one (the villain) to simulate that capitalism’s contradictions are not inherent but rather come from outside of its structure, and the other (superhero) to defend it via presenting regulatory and disciplinary mechanisms as a necessity. Superheroes never fight poverty and inequality, but rather those that threaten to disbalance the capitalism – after they save it, their worlds remain worlds of slums and misery, and ultimately – and the poor are never going to be saved by superheroes. In one word: superheroes are the political factor that materializes the systems alleged stability and the artificial prosthesis for the invisible hand that holds the world together. In this sense, superhero functions as a metaphor for the state that intervenes into capitalism and the substitution for it for those that insist on its disappearance.

But the central message of “Joker” is essentially disturbing and nihilist: throughout the movie, it is never really clear what is “real” and what is Arthur’s vivid imagination – it might easily be that everything is just Arthur’s madness creating a parallel world. And if everything is just an imagination of a madman than everything that comes after this – and this is, let us remind, the entire history of Batman and its franchise – is also part of that imagination. In short, maybe the subtle message of the “Joker” is: there is no Batman, no one is going to save the world. Just as Batman’s universe uses Gotham as a metaphor for the wider society that is being destabilized and then saved by actions of the superhero – the “Joker” uses Gotham as a metaphor for the wider society that cannot be saved at all.


An inescapable system of power

But, from the position of the superhero, saving the world is only possible inside the already existing social order and “the saved one” remains where he has been the whole time: “being saved” is always already a hierarchically structured discourse.

And if we are trying to put “Joker” into the network of cinematographic references it heavily exploits, then we should comment on the frequently mentioned resemblance to the “Taxidriver”. And as far as “Taxidriver” is structured similarly as John Ford’s “The Searchers”, “Joker” also resembles this western masterpiece. But while Scorsese’s art is telling the same story of “saving” as does John Ford’s classic, only in a much more sinister way – “Joker” tells it from a third perspective.

And there is a story of power in there: in both “Taxidriver” and “The Searchers”, the savior engages into the mission of saving in order to maintain the social and symbolic position of the one that has the ability to save. And it is no wonder that both Scorsese’s and Fords saviors took the form of dominant political figures – men; and that the saved ones took the form of typical political object – women: men save the women even when it is questionable whether they want to be saved or not. In short, the condition for it is that the object of saving – the saved one – is not allowed to save itself and that being the saving is only possible from the dominant social position. That’s exactly why both “The Searchers” and “Taxidriver” leave the audience with a lasting sensation of disturbance: the saved one is saved from slavery only to end up in another one – much more tightly regulated and controlled.

The “Joker” tells a story from the position of the one that doesn’t want to be saved only to be left at the hierarchical bottom of the society and from the perspective of the subject that only accepts to “save” oneself via political action and via creating new social order – even if that “new social order” is not clearly articulated. Arthur Fleck/Joker does precisely this: in the talk show scene, he directly and violently refuses to be recognized “within” the system and shoots the popular public figure in live TV. It is precisely this that defines the Joker as having the potential to be a revolutionary figure: its politics is politics even if he refuses to define its actions as political. A pure and condensed political subject: not choosing to be the subject but rather being placed in a situation where its actions are predictable and consequence of its position inside the political sphere. But a political subject that at the same time represents both what Marx called a “class for itself” and a “class in itself”: the “Joker” is, paradoxically, at the same time both aware and not aware of its political struggle and perspectives, underlining a somewhat “unconscious” process of forming a class for itself.

The “Joker” managed something that we don’t meet very often: besides the fact that it managed to smuggle an arty movie under the disguise of a movie set inside one superhero franchise, it also managed to smuggle politics and has managed to successfully step outside the framework of all the superhero movies – it managed to intervene in our reality to be both attached and detached at the same time – and it is a true political masterpiece.


[1] Though, this violence is somewhat debatable: at the end, where is that overwhelming and graphic violence everybody is talking about? – the movie is somewhat mild, even childish when compared to laments over its violence.

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