Hailed as a "must-see" movie for the apres-weekend water cooler crowd, and warily monitored by everyone from local police departments to survivors of the Aurora, Colorado massacre, Joker has surpassed its opening box office predictions and has already succeeded in becoming the current cinematic talk of the town. Such movies always make for student-engaging essay and discussion topics, and I expect that many college instructors across the country are already crafting assignments about this latest installment in the comics-inspired universe of Hollywood blockbusters.
But while many such assignments will be likely to invite debates on the advisability of making such a movie as Joker in the light of an epidemic of lunatic-loner mass shootings, while others (especially in film studies departments) will focus on the revival of the Scorsese/De Niro "character study" formula that made Taxi Driver a movie classic (heck, Joaquin Phoenix even channeled his inner-De Niro by losing a ton of weight Raging Bull style for the role, and, of course, De Niro's in the film too), a cultural semiotic analysis of the movie would take a different approach, which I will sketch out here.
To begin with, we can ask the question, "what does the enduring popularity of the Joker in American popular culture tell us?" For alone among the multitudinous villains of comic book history, the Joker returns again and again, now to star as the protagonist in his own feature film. Where's the Penguin, we might ask, or Clayface? What is it about this character that has captured the American imagination?
As with any semiotic analysis, let's start with the history of the Joker. In the beginning he was a Dick Tracy-like gangster in the tradition of Conan Doyle's evil genius Professor Moriarty, heading his own organized crime syndicate. Given a camped-up star turn in the Batman TV series of the 1960s, the Joker joined with Burgess Meredith's Penguin and a host of other really funny, but essentially harmless, villains in the days when fist fights (SMASH! BAM! POW!) were considered sufficient violence for a prime time children's television program.
The key change in the Joker's portrayal (the critical semiotic difference) came in the 1980s, when Frank Miller and Grant Morrison darkened the scenario considerably, turning the quondam clown into a psychopathic killer. This was the Joker that Jack Nicholson channeled in Tim Burton's Batman, and which Heath Ledger took further into the darkness in The Dark Knight. It's important to point out, however, that while Nicholson's Joker is a merciless killer, he is also very funny (his trashing of the art museum is, um, a riot), and his back story includes an acid bath that has ruined his face, providing a kind of medical excuse for his behavior. Ledger's Joker, on the other hand, isn't funny at all, and his unconvincing attempt to attribute his bad attitude to childhood abuse isn't really supposed to be taken seriously by anyone. The point is simply that he is a nihilistic mass murderer who likes to kill people—even his own followers. And unlike the past Jokers, he isn't in it for the money, incinerating a huge pile of cash with one of his victims tied up at the top to prove it.
The trajectory here is clear, and the makers of Joker were very well aware of it. Rather than turn back the clock to introduce a kinder, gentler Joker (you're laughing derisively at the suggestion, and that's precisely my point), Todd Phillips and Scott Silver quite knowingly upped the ante, earning an R-rating that is quite unusual for a comics-themed movie. Well, Deadpool got there first, but that's part of the point, too.
For in spite of the film's attempt to pass itself off as a study of the pathologizing effects of socioeconomic inequality, that isn't its appeal at all, and it doesn't explain why this particular character was chosen to be the protagonist. Just think, what if someone made a movie called Marx: the Alienation Effect in Contemporary Capitalism, based on the best-seller Das Kapital? No, I'm afraid that the Joker's popularity isn't political in any truly revolutionary sense. He's way too much of a loner, and too weird. There's something else going on here.
Before one succumbs to the temptation to simply say that Joker is a movie for psychopathic wannabes, let's just remember that the domestic box office for the film's first weekend was 96 million dollars. There just aren't that many psychopaths out there to sell so many tickets. No, the desire for an ever-darkening Joker is clearly a very widespread one, and the success of the afore-mentioned Deadpool franchise—not to mention Game of Thrones' wildly popular funhouse-mirror distortions of Tolkien's primly moralistic Middle Earth—only amplifies the evidence that Americans—especially younger Americans—are drawn to this sort of thing. But why?
I think that the new detail in the Joker's origin story that is introduced in the movie, portraying him as a failed standup comic and clown, is a good clue to the matter. We could say that Arthur Fleck's great dreams—at least in his mind—have been betrayed, and there's a familiar ring to this as a generation of millennials, burdened with college debt and college degrees that lead nowhere, faces a country that many feel is betraying them. It is significant in this regard that the darkening of the Joker began in the 1980s, the decade when the American dream began to crumble under the weight of the Reagan tax cuts, massive economic "restructuring," and two recessions from which the working and middle classes never fully recovered. What happened in response wasn't a revolution: it was anger and despair, spawning a kind of Everyman disillusionment with traditional authority (including moral authority), conspiracy theories, and fantasies of breaking loose and taking things into one's own hands.
Which makes characters like the Joker rather like Breaking Bad's Walter White, whose response to economic disruption was to become disruptive. White's Everyman revolt didn't instigate an epidemic of middle-class drug lords; it simply entertained an angry America with the trappings of vicarious fantasy. The success of Joker just a few years after the end of Heisenberg shows that the fantasy is getting darker still.
Smash. Bam. Pow.