The mutually defining relationship between Batman and the Joker is a succinct and entertaining way to present parables about abstract cultural ideals like justice, morality, social compliance, and economic stratification.
A combination of economic, political, and technological factors at the beginning of the nineteenth century provoked an unprecedented growth of some cities in different parts of the world during the following decades, thus opening the door to the new era of the megalopolis.
While ‘Joker’ has inspired impassioned debate about whether it proffers critical insight about or a rallying cry for the white male underclass, such ambivalence is already pre-figured in the trope of Arthur as sad clown, whose sob-inflected cackle tells us he is wailing on the inside while laughing on the outside.
However, Arthur – down-trodden, depressed, homicidal – in drawing on alienated masculinity, invokes a history of masculinity in ‘crisis’. Indeed, some gender theorists describe modern masculinity as masochistic crisis: ‘a self-destructive identity … shrinkage of the self.’
‘Joker’ articulates these interwoven facets of political and ideological history through its central figure, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) – a middle-aged, white, male member of the forgotten underclass for whom poverty, mental ill health, unemployment, and pathological loneliness are the stuff of everyday experience.
Like Bickle, Fleck tries out a series of personae over the course of the film, cobbled from elements of popular culture, especially television: beloved and dutiful son, standup comic, lover, vigilante clown, and finally, Joker, prime time assassin and emergent cult leader.
It’s a decrepit place, where virtually everything appears broken or barely functional – the elevator in Arthur’s building regularly stalls and even the lights on the subway trains sporadically flicker on and off in the tunnels.
Comic books, the Batman franchise, and jokers and clowns have traditionally led media to raise alarm over ‘villainy’ (and the Joker is one heck of a villain, in DC Universe’s ‘Year of the Villain’ that was 2019), connoted via such words as ‘freak’, ‘evil’, ‘deviancy’, and ‘harm’ as being at odds with normative culture.
‘Becoming the Superhero’ is perhaps the most interdisciplinary section of the anthology. Steven Conway gets things rolling with an incisive examination of agency and narratology in the Arkham series of Batman videogames.