After Joaquin Phoenix gets mugged in Joker and a co-worker lends him a weapon to protect himself, I thought about the times last month when a white man used a gun in a mass shooting: 22 killed in El Paso, Texas and nine in Dayton, Ohio.
Yes, Phoenix’s Joker in the latest film by Todd Phillips is a villain we’ve seen before—not as the nihilist clown to an archetypical Batman, but as the angry white man obsessed with validation.
Since Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival last month, critics have drawn parallels between the disturbed clown and the violent manifestations of white masculinity in contemporary America. Stephanie Zacharek from TIME criticized the pointlessness of feeling sympathy for another violent white male: “He could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels.” Others argued that his willingness to answer emotional misgivings with public violence aligns him with mass murderers such as Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof and Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza. As Jessica Kiang from The Playlist put it, “It could be (mis)interpreted and co-opted by the very 4Chan/Incel/mentally ill loner element it purports to darkly satirize.”
The critics aren’t wrong in telling us exactly who this Joker is. He not the abstract comic book villain of pre-2000s. He’s more familiar and more human than ever, which makes him all the more disturbing.
Early in Joker, we’re given a near-skeletal glimpse of Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, before he transforms. He’s a socially awkward loner who lives with his sickly mother and works a dead-end job as a clown-for-hire. As an adult, he’s been beaten, bullied, and called a freak. He obsesses over the idea that he lives in a society that couldn’t care less about his problems. He grins through smeared-on makeup. He comes off as equal parts madness and pain.
So when Fleck eventually goes off in Taxi Driver fashion after a group of young men physically assault him in public, audiences are expected to believe that he had his reasons, however bad they may be. We know he’s the villain and we shouldn’t feel sorry for him, but we do anyway—which is confusing and terrifying.
Earlier versions of the Joker never provided a real explanation for what made him into a villain. His lack of a backstory allowed him to remain a deadly figure whose actions could be blamed on the fact that he was “crazy.” He didn’t care for money or order—only for his obsession with a single man. Everyone else was a casualty.
This new Joker has more than one enemy. His growing obsession with taking revenge on a world that’s unfair is the stuff of mass shootings and incel message board culture. It’s in the moment he chooses to fire a gun at a group of strangers when he feels slighted. It’s in the diary he keeps with jokes, manic thoughts, and torn-out pictures of naked women. And it’s there when he chooses to stalk his neighbour (Zazi Beetz).
It’s understandable to discard Joker as another film about an angry white man drowning in toxic male angst. It kinda is, and that can come off as depravity without a Batman-led solution, even if Fleck's real-life counterparts often mirror this fictionalized existence (white males becoming radicalized in droves, with an American president who fans the flames of their hatred on social media).
But just because the film shows the toxic white male in all his ugliness doesn’t mean it’s automatically celebrating him. The debate over whether depicting absolute evil in film is the same as endorsing it goes as far back as 1967, when film critic Paula Kael defended Arthur Penn’s violent portrayal of Bonnie and Clyde. Arguably, especially now, there’s a dangerous line that we cross if we start to ignore films that echo the toxic anthems of the world around us. When Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing came out in 1989, it showed racism for what it was at the time, without presenting a single solution. Critics said the film was problematic, because it would incite Black people to riot. That never happened, and instead today the film is heralded for raising awareness of police brutality.
North America’s obsession with tucking away ugliness was as much a problem back then as it is now, when every month seems to bring another reminder of white men who murder and live long after their victims: think Roof, Capital Gazette shooter Jarrod Warren Ramos, and El Paso gunman Patrick Crusius. While Joker presents this violence and the toxic ideology that fuels it, the window it creates into the mind of Arthur Fleck makes it hard for the audience not to feel some kind of complicated sympathy for him. We see this need to humanize evil reflected in the real world as well; we’re still using dismissive language to describe white terrorists instead of calling them what they are. We still seem determined to gloss over the fact that these villains aren’t born; they’re bred. And sometimes, they win. To stop that from happening, we need to know what we’re up against.
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