The Joke’s on You: Why Leviathan Needs the Joker

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As men require a heaping dose of dreams to reconcile themselves to waking life, so too does the hulking Leviathan of society require its dreams—which are films. This fantastical notion—that films function as society’s dreams—was first heralded by a smattering of early 20th century French avant-garde theorists, but chiefly Jean Epstein, who famously characterized films as “the dream of the machine.” If this psychosocial paradigm has any validity, Joker is an extraordinarily fascinating, albeit disheartening specimen.

The general narrative of the film, which its final trailer largely encapsulates, is this: Arthur Fleck, a loner with a neurological laughing condition lives with his mother on the fringes of society. Initially, his aims are to escape his condition, to become a successful stand-up-comedian, have a romantic relationship, and so on. Yet, tragedy after tragedy ensues: Fleck is attacked, cut off from social services, betrayed, fired, scorned, and deceived. Thus, forsaken by his society, Fleck forsakes its prohibitions and lashes out against its elite stewards; in an unlikely-yet-plausible dramatic arc, Fleck becomes “Joker,” lays low his former idol and rouses a riot of “clowns” who regard him as their hero.

Mainstream - Responses - Film - Praise - Christina

Mainstream critical responses to the film have thus far ranged from cautious praise, exemplified by Christina Newland’s review in The Guardian, which describes the film as “stylish,” but also “troubling,” to alarmist condemnation, exemplified by David Ehrlich’s review in IndieWire, which bluntly describes the film as “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels.” Many of the reviews, however, share a consensus that the film is, on one level or another, a perverse wish fulfillment fantasy. The wish being fulfilled, however, is generally not explicitly stated, but the gist seems to be that Joker depicts the reification of, for lack of a more vulgar phrase, “Incels Rise Up.”

That reviewers allege the film engages in wish fulfillment...
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