An early scene in Joker (2019) shows Arthur Fleck scrubbing the back of his mother Penny (played by Frances Conroy, the matriarch of Six Feet Under) as she sits naked (as one usually is) in the bath. The film doesn’t overplay the suggestion of emotional incest, but layers it into the palimpsest of inconsistent motives behind the Joker’s antisocial mania: speaking from the audience of Murray Franklin’s talk show, Fleck declares that he’s been “the man of the house” for as long as he can remember, and takes very good care of his mother. This harks back to Psycho, obviously, but also resonates with a more recent portrayal of derailed and vengeful masculinity, Harry Treadaway’s impishly malevolent Brady Hartsfield in the Audience TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr Mercedes.
Hartsfield is a kind of male witch, a malefactor who uses unnatural powers to harm others through spooky action at a distance. Initially those powers are technological, as he plagues detective Bill Hodges with cyber-intrusions from an arsenal of keyboards and monitors in his mother’s basement, but he is later able to possess others and make them do his bidding while lying in a coma, and may (in the third season, recently started) be continuing to exert a malign influence from beyond the grave. His major crimes, however, are acts of arbitrary mass violence: he steals the Mercedes of the title in order to drive it at high speed into a crowd of hopefuls waiting outside a jobs fair, and later plots a bomb attack on a local festival. In this way he bridges two images of the troll as public enemy, both vicious cyber-bully and terrorist mass-killer. His relationship with his alcoholic mother is explicitly incestuous, but again this is presented as a factor in his derangement rather than a root cause: there is something primordially wrong with him, which the abuses he has suffered serve only to nurture to fruition.
Can the same be said of Arthur Fleck? Joker heaps indignities upon his head, to the point (some have feared) of providing the villain with just cause for his campaign of retribution against an uncaring society. As an origin story, its task is to show the birth of evil, the tipping point at which the individual cracks and an impersonal, archetypal malignancy enters in and takes over. This doesn’t work if he is really a righteous avenger correcting an injustice by punishing those responsible. And that is what his murderous snarl at Murray — “you get what you fucking deserve!” — implies he believes he is doing. The film is supposedly dangerous on account of the catharsis this retaliatory explosion offers, to those in the audience who might similarly feel abandoned, trodden on, and inclined to do something gratifyingly violent about it. It violates the taboo which guards the moral incoherence of all American stories about supervillains: the correlate of the villain’s motiveless malignancy is the fundamental innocence of society, its right to continue as it is. Only an evil originating outside of that society can possibly explain the desire to harm it. But this fantasy of innocence is bound to collide with the gothic underpinnings of Batman’s moral universe: Gotham is a city of endemic corruption and decay, and its villains are endogenous, home-grown, expressions of a universal sickness.
I think that Joker, correctly and canonically, has its cake and eats it on this score: Fleck is a loose cannon, not a targeted instrument of holy wrath, and the unreliability of his point of view is stressed throughout the film. In the end, of all the people he could have murdered, Murray is objectively an arbitrary choice of victim: any representative of the generalised cruelty and indifference of society would have done as well. Subjectively, however, the choice is anything but arbitrary. Fleck has positioned Murray as a surrogate father figure, taking him at his word that he would give up all of his fame and public approbation “to have a kid like you”. When that figure then betrays and mocks Fleck, making a joke of his cherished goal of becoming a stand-up comedian, the last thread of his attachment to patrilineal masculine identity is broken. Killing Murray is the last genuinely meaningful thing Fleck ever does: it marks his definitive unmooring from any moral co-ordinates, his exit from all possibility of rehabilitation.
Joker broods over the problem of indignity, the discounting of others’ humanity, without quite getting to the heart of the contradiction. For there to be indignity, there must be some basic entitlement to consideration: dignity is established through recognising and respecting this entitlement, and indignity and humiliation arise when it is disregarded and violated. But “entitlement”, in contemporary American moral discourse, is a byword for blind presumptuousness, the unwarranted belief that one deserves something which one has not earned. Hence the claim that Joker feeds into a dangerous sense of wounded entitlement on the part of anomic young white men, a sense of indignity which is really resentment at the loss of undeserved privilege. In Joker, the question of entitlement is explicitly figured through a discredited patrimony: Fleck may be (and it is never definitively established whether he is or is not) the illegitimate son of the billionaire Thomas Wayne. He feels that he deserves “some basic fucking decency” from Wayne, some token of recognition, which is contemptuously refused. Wayne, in turn, perfectly voices the disdain of the billionaire class towards all claims of social entitlement when he describes the poor and disenfranchised of Gotham as “clowns”, too unserious about their own thriving to deserve to live. The “clowns” retaliate by rioting, as well they might.
Fleck’s name, and that of his mother Penny, signify marginality and insignificence: a fleck is a mote of detritus, something you brush off, and a penny is the smallest of small change. Arthur’s stand-up jokes insistently return to a pun around “cents”/“sense”, correlating pennilessness with meaninglessness, while suggesting that the role of the comedian (whose jokes make neither cents nor sense) is to occupy a position of social abjection. His own “act” recalls that of 80s comedians such as Steven Wright and Sam Kinison, who inhabited shabby, dejected, incoherently angry or distracted stage personae. In the right setting it could actually have been a hit. But the poverty so signified is white poverty, the poverty of disowned or orphaned whiteness. The film’s three prominent black characters, all women, are positioned as caregivers, whose role is to buttress white male identity, and apply balm to the bruises of indignity. The question of their dignity, or the indignities to which they might be subject, does not arise. They are presumed to be resilient, to have inner or communal resources which keep them from cracking up. For a film which is so concerned with marginalisation and fractured mental health to be so incurious about the inner lives of black people is telling, to say the least. A film which considered the possibility, and possible legitimacy, of a violent, retaliatory response to racialised indignity would be a hundred times more transgressive than Joker is prepared to risk. The nearest thing in recent memory would be Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You.