On December 22, 1984, Bernhard Goetz shot four teenagers on the subway. Goetz, a 37-year-old white man who’d started carrying a revolver after having been mugged a few years earlier, opened fire in what he insisted was an act of self-defense, wounding Barry Allen, Troy Canty, and James Ramseur, and permanently paralyzing Darrell Cabey. Never mind that the boys, who were black, were unarmed when they surrounded him and asked him for the time, for a cigarette, and for $5 — a criminal jury acquitted Goetz of everything except carrying an unlicensed firearm. While he was decried for racist violence and later ordered to pay $43 million in damages to Cabey following a civil trial, others characterized him as a folk hero for an increasingly dangerous city. The press dubbed him “the Subway Avenger” and compared him to Charles Bronson in Death Wish.
It was a notorious example of racial panic, but when Joker evokes Goetz in a pivotal moment in its title character’s transition into supervillainy, the film changes his victims from black teens to a trio of smirking white businessmen. Enough of the basic details of the historical incident remains to bring the 1984 incident to mind, but the movie dumps the context, opting for a reversal that renders the moment outrageously incoherent. Unlike Goetz, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is attacked by the strangers he encounters, and his actions begin as an attempt to save himself from a beating, though they morph unmistakably into murder. But like Goetz, Arthur gets taken up as a populist symbol for his city, in his case seen as striking a blow for the regular folks by keeping the subways safe from roving gangs of drunken Wayne Enterprise executives. As concepts, racism and anti-inequality may be entirely at odds in their relationship to who holds power, but in Joker they’re interchangeable — just two reasons for people to get mad.
And Joker offers a whole roster of reasons for people to get mad, all the while daring the audience to figure out which of them might be at the core of its main character’s embrace of brutality. It’s impossible to tell if Joker references the subway shooting with intentions to provoke, or if it’s just using it as period set dressing for a vintage Gotham City that closely resembles ’80s New York. Trying to parse its perspectives on anything is enough to make someone want to seek sanctuary in Arkham. Todd Phillips’s film arrived loaded with enough advance controversy to shake the ground in front of it like a Jurassic Park dino, but in practice, it’s designed to be so ideologically opaque as to resist being accused of saying anything, lobbing contradictions like Molotov cocktails in all directions.
Joker shares DNA with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, all of three of them films about alienated men who rattle uncomfortably around on the edges of society before taking extreme action. But in Scorsese’s movies, there’s no real question as to how the audience is supposed to feel about the men whose respective psychoses they’ve been asked to marinate in. Travis Bickle, muttering about how “someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets,” and Rupert Pupkin, with his delusional devotion to his stand-up career, are not meant to be identified with. Joker’s intentions with Arthur are more ambiguous. It’s not the incel anthem some had direly predicted, but it is a movie that plays coy with how much it expects its viewers to feel for its main character, and what the forces are, exactly, that push him into darkness.
While the Goetz parallel teases that an explanation for its character’s action is white rage, the movie also takes great pains to depict Arthur as someone who, in only-in-a-movie fashion, just doesn’t seem to see color, remaining equal opportunity even in terms of whom he chooses to massacre. At the same time, Arthur is positioned at the center of a grand resentment fantasy in which he’s an unacknowledged heir who’s been denied his birthright and left to live in the city among the people of color. Whether Arthur actually is the son of Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) or not, he certainly believes that he is, and when he travels to the luxe family estate to confront young Bruce (Dante Pereira-Olson) from the wrong side of the fence, he’s peering into an exclusive kingdom he’s shut out of — one that’s placed in stark contrast to where he’s living, both in terms of its luxury and who resides there. Later, he breaks into the apartment belonging to Sophie (Zazie Beetz), the neighbor he’s been stalking, and, whether he understands it as such or not, it comes off as an assertion of just whose spaces he feels he can help himself to.
Other times, Joker floats the possibility that it’s primarily about a man with mental illness who’s fallen through the cracks, though it’s equally cagey about how earnest a depiction it’s supposed to be. “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” Arthur asks Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a joke formatted as a possible explanation for his actions and also a reflection of the way the film toggles between treating him as a product of circumstances beyond his control and as a self-pitying font of resentment. The movie is careful not to directly equate mental illness with violence — as Brian Tyree Henry’s file clerk character points out, the majority of the patients in Arkham aren’t there because they committed crimes. But it also has a queasy tendency to treat its main character’s mental-health issues as a red herring — the details are kept vague; we never learn his diagnosis, and the doctor at the clinic appears baffled by how many medications he’s on, ones he implies aren’t doing anything. If Arthur does consider himself a product of neglected mental illness, it’s not a perspective that gives him sympathy for his mother — hearing her own history with it doesn’t stop him from smothering her in retaliation for his childhood abuse.
As for Sophie, Arthur invents a whole relationship with his neighbor that’s revealed to only exist in his head. Though she’s justifiably frightened in the scene in which this fantasy is revealed to the audience, the movie ducks and weaves around implications that he feels entitled to her company — he just looks lost. Arthur lives with his mom and works at a place where his boss takes the cost of his mugging out of his paycheck. While their lives wouldn’t be described as comfortable, their economic situation doesn’t appear to be an enormous stressor, either, and according to Arthur, he loves his job and is “not political.” It’s the moment when Arthur, with the help of a sneering statement about the poor from his mayoral candidate of a maybe-dad, becomes an accidental inspiration for anti-capitalist riots that the ridiculousness of trying to divine his motivations becomes clear. If Arthur’s life really is a comedy in the shape of a tragedy, the grand joke of it is that people keep trying to project meaning onto him when his actions are meaningless. And the butt of the joke is the audience who’s been scouring the movie for significance, when all it really wants is to delight in repositioning a character known for being an edgelord meme as an antifa icon.
At the end of Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle embarks on a killing spree that gets interpreted as an act of heroism by outsiders who, unlike the audience, haven’t been privy to what’s been going on inside his head. Arthur Fleck shoots three finance bros on the subway and one talk-show host live on-air, and the murders are similarly mistaken, this time for acts of class warfare when he’s really only striking back at people who are mean to him. The punch line to Joker is that no one can believe that Arthur believes in nothing, even those of us who’ve been watching him in agonized close-up. Joker is an origin story, after all, and by taking place in something like the real world, it teases the possibility of an explanation it has no intention of providing — one that would cover not just the comic-book character but the idea of random violence he seems inexplicably tied to. By its end, everyone’s out there in masks and face paint, and yet it’s those of us watching who are the clowns.