[Editor’s note: This post openly discusses the entire plot of “Joker.”]
Is it just me, or is it getting more reasonable out there? Temperatures are falling, Trump is being impeached, and Todd Phillips’ “Joker” — which was a Category 5 cinematic shitstorm even before it won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival, and had been touted as a potential Oscar heavyweight until some bad PR and a plummeting Rotten Tomatoes score helped slow its momentum on opening week — has packed multiplexes across the country without any sign of the mass shootings that certain people feared it might inspire.
But if it’s already starting to seem absurd that anyone was legitimately worried about “Joker,” perhaps that says less about the world we live in than does it about the fecklessness of the film itself? For all of the pearl-clutching that preceded its release (much of which traces back to critics who tried to reconcile the size of the movie’s predicted impact with the smallness of its ideas), “Joker” will likely be remembered as a paper-thin provocation; as a cultural lightning rod that lacked the courage to do anything more than draw attention to itself. I know this because — 20 years ago this month — a movie called “Fight Club” punched its way into the public consciousness in a way that still continues to bruise. I know this, because Tyler knows this.
“The King of Comedy” provides the template for so much of what “Joker” does well, but “Fight Club” clarifies all of its failures. Not only was David Fincher’s roman candle of a movie the last major studio release to burn with the kind of ingrown, anarchic, “are men okay?” energy that fuels Joaquin Phoenix across the screen, but the reasons people still talk about “Fight Club” today are the same reasons why people won’t be talking about “Joker” tomorrow.
Both films tell broadly allegorical stories about middle-aged white guys who grow so isolated from the world around them (and so disenfranchised from themselves) that they disassociate altogether, and both films entertain violence as a possible road towards personal agency. But where “Fight Club” confronts the toxicities of its time, “Joker” simply wallows in them.
Before we get to the differences between these two movies, however, let’s take a quick inventory of their similarities. We’ll start with the film that some critics labeled “irresponsible and appalling” soon after it premiered to mixed reviews in Venice and “touched a nerve in the male psyche that was debated in newspapers across the world.” You know, the one about a guy who lives in a big city where everyone is numb to each other. People tell him that he’s happy, but there’s a sick desperation in his laugh. One night, after he’s become too thoroughly dehumanized to even need his own name, the man experiences a violent encounter that triggers a complete psychic break.
From that moment on, he’s split between his anonymous persona and his flamboyant alter-ego: an idealized, swaggering response to a society in which visibility has become the only viable superpower of the masses. The fissure allows him to see the world from a funny new perspective — it’s like the man finally gets the punchline to a joke he’s always just pretended to understand. His epiphany proves contagious (even before he threatens an important political figure in the bathroom of a black-tie event), and eventually boils into a full-blown revolution that’s too angry for him to control. Suffering from a vague mental illness and so detached from reality that he can’t even tell if he’s actually sleeping with the woman who’s moved into his building, the man ultimately re-affirms his own existence by shooting a false idol in the head.
Okay, so “Joker” and “Fight Club” aren’t exactly mirror images of each other; one flirts with chaos as a possible response to consumerism, while the other is a major studio tentpole that posits consumerism as a meaningful response to chaos. But these two movies share much of the same DNA, and follow their protagonists along identical arcs in opposite directions (Edward Norton’s unnamed corporate drone crawls toward empathy, while Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck dances away from it). Most of all, “Joker” and “Fight Club” target subsequent iterations of the same group: Men who feel irrelevant in a world they’d been promised to own.
Only one of them, however, dares to question that demographic. While “Fight Club” has been famously misunderstood by all the dorm room decorators who still think of Tyler Durden as some kind of shredded prophet, “Joker” doesn’t offer any opportunity to miss its point, or even provide a legible point to miss. “Fight Club” challenges its audience; “Joker” merely comforts them. “Fight Club” encourages men to exorcise their anger, while “Joker” invites them to give in to it. One is a wake-up call, and the other a demented lullaby. In other words, “Joker” is effectively the movie that “Fight Club” has often been mistaken for.
“Joker” is most effective at the beginning, when Arthur is sympathetic and still on his meds (perhaps the sharpest detail of Phillips’ script is that Gotham’s decay is measured by its treatment of the mentally ill). Arthur is more in touch with his feelings than the Narrator at the start of their respective films — he has his mother at home and Murray Franklin on TV, while the protagonist of “Fight Club” attends support groups for diseases he doesn’t have in order to siphon love from dying strangers — but neither man feels as special as they’re led to believe that they should.
Arthur’s uncomfortable laughing fits are the result of a Pseudobulbar affect, but his mom rationalizes them as proof that he was brought into the world to spread joy. The Narrator is an automobile recall specialist whose job requires him to reduce human lives to corporate data, and his identity and sense of well-being are entirely determined by the products he buys. The plaque outside his generic apartment complex reads “A Place to Be Somebody,” and the Narrator is convinced that turning his kitchen into an Ikea showroom means that he’s fulfilled that promise. Neither he nor Arthur are ready to accept the possibility (to paraphrase Tyler Durden) that God does not like them. But (Durden again) it’s only after they’ve lost everything that they’re free to do anything.
Fracturing apart from their own ids allows both characters to spark a point of connection that spreads like wildfire. The Narrator hatches an imaginary friend who runs amok like a radicalized Johnny Knoxville, while Arthur twins into a homicidal clown who isn’t afraid to clap back. The more these men dilute their self-identities, the stronger they feel about who they are; it’s only once they surrender to fantasy that anything starts to seem real. “My whole life,” Arthur says, “I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice.”
Tyler Durden and the Joker are two sides of the same coin (even before the former activates Project Mayhem and pivots from galvanizing masculinity to sowing chaos). One scene, in which Tyler reasons with a hostile bar owner by laughing his head off while the man beats his face to a bloody pulp, seems especially instructive to what Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix went on to do with the Batman villain they both played: The sight of Brad Pitt’s beautiful face smiling from beneath a red mask of wet meat left an unforgettable impression about the power that men can wield by weaponizing their own pain.
Alas, the frustrations expressed in “Fight Club” are as hyper-specific as the ones that fuel “Joker” are vague. Tyler Durden embodies a pre-9/11 generation of men who can’t shake the inertia of a life without conflict: “Slaves with white collars,” or victims of a consumerist utopia that — on some level — they all know isn’t real. Fincher, the most fastidious Hollywood director of the modern era, does whatever he can to explore the sterile crevices of that feeling, even using not-quite-ready CGI to dive into everything from the guts of the Narrator’s bachelor pad to the gray matter of his brain.
“Joker,” on the other hand, rages against a vague sense of unfairness, stirring timeless (and topical) sentiments of inequality together with the age-old frustration of feeling unseen. Arthur’s mental illness is treated like a pliable narrative convenience, even if the public’s indifference about treating it at all it is well-articulated. Beyond the Occupy Wall Street overtones that grow into a Greek chorus, people didn’t like Rupert Pupkin, but they love the Joker.
Phillips may have wanted to subvert the average superhero origin story by twisting it into something grotesque, but his film is painted in such broad strokes that it just becomes a grimy, embittered version of the very thing it exists to undermine. Arthur’s killings are obviously amoral, but they’re slotted into such an uncomplicated hero’s journey that you can’t help but root for his success. In a better film, that may have been the point; many of the great movies that led us to this one are valuable for how they seduce viewers into identifying with the ugliest parts of themselves. But “Joker” lacks the integrity to see that through. Whereas we align ourselves with Travis Bickle or Jordan Belfort despite what they do, “Joker” literally dances around Arthur Fleck’s worst behavior.
“Joker” has the chutzpah to recontextualize Batman’s villain as Gotham’s hero, but not the spine to interrogate what that really means. Nowhere is that more galling than in Sophie’s last scene, which leaves Arthur — now on a killing spree — in her apartment just moments after he realizes that he’s imagined the relationship between them. Every other part of the movie revels in Arthur’s volatility, and invites us to cheer him along as he shoots finance bros, his former co-workers, and finally Murray Franklin at point-blank range. But here, when it comes to the most vulnerable and “innocent” of Arthur’s victims, Phillips wants to have it both ways.
He knows that Arthur has to kill Sophie in order to clinch his irredeemable coming-of-rage, but he also knows that showing Arthur kill Sophie (and her kid?) would make it impossible for audiences to embrace him as an anti-hero. Having written himself into a corner, Phillips simply opts to wiggle out of it however he can.
“Fight Club” is smarmy and self-important for much of its running time in a way that didn’t register with me when I first snuck into it on opening night, but there’s a reason why “Joker” feels like it was made by someone who took everything Tyler Durden said at face value (or turned the movie off 30 minutes before the end). Unlike “Joker,” which drags its audience by the neck, “Fight Club” simply offers viewers enough rope to hang themselves. Perhaps the film is a bit too proud of its own philosophizing — it sometimes feels like a smug, 140-minute version of the sequence where Morpheus teaches Neo about “The Matrix” — but it only gets so high on its supply.
Whereas Arthur and Joker merge into one, the Narrator and Tyler Durden pull apart until they can see each other clearly. Fincher’s movie thrives in the rift that grows between them, and — like the almost subliminal flash of penis spliced between the frames of a cartoon — you can occasionally sense that something isn’t right with the tao of Tyler. It’s there in the scene where Tyler holds a convenience store clerk at gunpoint, and scares him into seizing hold of his life; maybe Raymond’s next meal will taste better than any breakfast he’s ever had, but trauma is often an unreliable teacher. It’s there in the scene where the Narrator talks back to his soulless middle-manager of a boss, and threatens to come back and massacre everyone in the office. And it’s definitely there when a man named Robert Paulson gets shot in the head for his role in Project Mayhem.
“Fight Club” isn’t as didactic as it seems on the surface. Despite investigating the impotence it finds in the men of the Narrator’s generation — and even going so far as to validate their frustration — the movie strains not to provide any kind of salve. Tyler’s anarchic philosophies are too pure to survive in a real world full of real people (as represented by Marla Singer), and the Narrator’s growing awareness of that fact works like a crash landing back into his own body. He may see the value in blowing up a bunch of high rises in order to reset the debt record back to zero, but the Narrator recognizes how the chaos Tyler has sowed is just as dehumanizing as the order it seeks to destabilize.
So where does that leave him? Staring out at a world on fire, surveying the carnage with a newfound appreciation of his own agency, and holding hands with someone who accepts that she met him at a very strange time in his life. It’s destruction tinged with the possibility of building something better in its wake. “Fight Club” will be worth revisiting for as long as people remain at war with themselves over what “something better” might be.
“Joker,” on the other hand, limits itself to circling around the same rage that “Fight Club” uses as a starting point. Like Arthur, Phillips tries to sift a nugget of happiness from a steady torrent of anger, and like Phillips, Arthur eventually just gives up and decides they’re the same thing. In a more probing film, that might work. Movies don’t have to be constructive — cinema is not an inherently moral place, and there’s no sense in forcing it to act like one. But if “Joker” fades away as fast as I suspect that it might, it won’t be because the film has the temerity to be “evil”; it will be because the film doesn’t have the courage to be good.