If you haven’t seen Todd Phillips’ The Joker (2019) you’ve probably heard something about it. Here’s a very brief synopsis (semi-spoiler alert): The film recounts the life of Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a comedian living in Gotham City, on the pathway to becoming the ultimate Batman villain—the Joker. Arthur is portrayed as a fragile soul, suffering from severe mental afflictions that resemble the symptoms of psychosis. He is tormented by his fellow Gothamers on all strata of society. His honest attempts to fit-in are only reciprocated with violence, be it mental or physical. Other than being beaten up and losing his job, he is denied by his supposed biological father, used by his mother as an instrument of her perverse enjoyment and finally finds out that he was abused as a child and is actually adopted. The final abuse is inflicted on Arthur by his hero, TV talkshow host Murray Franklin (played by Robert De Niro). Franklin invites Arthur to his show in order to perform his act with the sole aim of humiliating him on live TV. On the show, Arthur breaks down, kills Franklin and signals a new age of violence in Gotham City. The film portrays the fall of Arthur and his transition to being the Joker in correspondence with the social decline inflicting the city itself. It is the hopelessness of Arthur’s situation that marks the state of modern society. A society that provides neither solutions nor hope for a better future. Leaving the individual with the sole recourse to violence and either a mode of destruction or self-destruction.
Interestingly enough, being itself subversive by brutally highlighting the vices of a capitalistic society, the film was mostly devalued by liberal critics. Many of these express opposition to the fact that the only solution the film offers for the dire social predicament in Gotham City is the violence instigated by the villain Joker. They argue that the oppressed and tormented souls produced by contemporary capitalistic society can find solace in other means of resistance than mere aimless violence. Nevertheless, I think that the important aspect of this film is not to be found in the fact that it justifies the violence that Arthur commits against his assailants and the society that has supposedly made him the Joker. What is interesting and so compelling in The Joker is the fact that Arthur is the one that makes himself the Joker; makes himself who he is. In other words, the film portrays the transformation Arthur takes on himself from his tragic fantasy to the reality of comedy. This transition happens when Arthur’s natural inclination towards comedy, turns into a practice of being. When something of the cause of his desire is made to be his own, thus finally providing him with some subjective mode of satisfaction. Arthur’s “subjectification” takes place at the moment when the fictions that kept him hopelessly seeking to equate himself with the ideal of happiness dissolve. Whereas beforehand, he lives his life in a constant state of depravation, lacking what his mother sees as his most inherent trait (happiness), he takes hold of this lack and makes it his own. At this moment he realizes himself, not as a “happy boy” (what his mother wants him to be), nor a sad clown (how he viewed himself so far), but as the Joker. By being the Joker he traverses the fundamental phantasy that rendered his life as a tragedy.
This emphasizes the retrospective nature of such forms of “subjectification”; a nature we often encounter in the psychoanalytic clinic. Where the “beautiful soul,” as Hegel puts it, who rises up against the world in the name of the “law of the heart,” is matched by the psychoanalyst’s reply: “Look at your own involvement, your function in the disorder you complain of.” By the end of the film, Arthur is not a beautiful soul like his mother deliriously imagines him to be. In contrast, he comes to acknowledge his own involvement in the disorder of the world, being in fact a projection of his own disorder. At that moment he becomes the Joker and is initially situated in his position in reality.
It is also interesting to note that in the film we see Arthur adopting the signifier that would name his symptom from the Other. It is in the words of Murray Franklin that Arthur finds the signifier “Joker.” In several scenes in the film, it is quite obvious that Franklin functions as fatherly figure for Arthur: the authority of the funny. After Arthur gives up his mother’s delusional ideas of his real biological father, Franklin truly gains his place as the symbolic father. It is by killing this father that Arthur assumed the unique trait that will mark his place in the Other and enable him to finally gain access to a mode of satisfaction that is unique to his being the Joker. The signifier “Joker” functions like a “unary trait” that singularizes this satisfaction, that inscribes the subject as difference, without the trait itself saying anything about that difference (as the Joker does in no way kid around). In psychoanalysis we say: “better kill the father symbolically.” In the case of Arthur, he kills the symbolic father in the real.
Finally, I will venture to say that The Joker is not so much a film about an unfortunate outcome of a psychosis. For it loses its bite when viewed as a portrayal of the work of a madman, imputing the blame on the criminally insane. Arthur’s delusions and hallucinations could well be an outcome of the outrageous mix of medication he receives or the acute melancholia he suffers from. In this sense, I argue that the film gains another level of depth when we assume that Arthur is not a classic psychotic. The structuring elements are there: a mother that uses him as her own object of enjoyment, a lack of a father, childhood trauma and sexual abuse. But Arthur should not be so easily dismissed this way. First of all, and most importantly, because he is capable of creating a metaphor. A metaphor that stands in place of the lack that extends between him and his ideal image; a metaphor that subjectivizes him. This metaphor is Joker. Let him be a classic psychotic, an ordinary one, or a melancholic, it transforms his position and changes his life, like he so succinctly says, from a false tragedy to that of a divine comedy.