In the summer of 2006, I was dropped off in Plattsburgh, New York, a small town about an hour south of Montreal, for my college freshman orientation. We learned the basics of campus life, took a placement test for entry-level English courses, learned why it’s bad to tease people for being gay, and pretended like we were going to become friends with the randos that we were assigned to bunk with.

On the second day, we were taking a tour of the campus when the discussion in our tour group turned to books. I forgot how—it’s not like college kids are big readers—but a bunch of the guys started talking about The Alphabet of Manliness by Maddox, which had just been released. At the back of the group, a squeaky voice perked up: “What about Crime and Punishment!”

Our heads all turned to the speaker: a nerdy, curly-haired kid dressed in blue sweats that tragically accentuated his stomach flab.

“None of you have read Crime and Punishment?”

No response. Didn’t register. The kid would have gotten more accolades if he’d ripped a Taco Bell fart.

I, of course, didn’t say a word. I was a coward, a coward who had spent most of my senior year reading The Idiot, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, and whatever other classic literature I could pull out of my mom’s bookcase. I read them during my off-periods at school, to the mystification of my peers and the occasional accolades from passing teachers, who were impressed that I was reading old books on my own.

But I was also a coward who knew how the game was played, and instead of befriending my fellow bespectacled bookworm, I chose to melt away into the silence of my disapproving peers, letting the poor nerd take the fall for his oblivious faux pas. He shut up and we kept moving.

Later that night, after eating dinner at one of the cafeterias, the administration put on a little meet-and-greet dance party. This was in the age before iPhones turned people into human batteries, and the girls started grabbing guys to hit the dance floor with. I was sitting at a booth, wishing I could be anywhere else, when a hand suddenly grabbed my shoulder from behind. I flinched and wheeled my head around like a cop being ambushed in a crack house.

“Never mind, he’s way too uptight!” said the pretty girl who’d touched me. She subsequently wandered off. I went back to staring at the wall.

I’ve mentioned this before, but losers generally know that they’re losers, contrary to the thot’s cry that incels are egomaniacs holding out for perfect 10s. I knew I was a loser throughout high school, a pudgy, disheveled mess with the social skills of an incontinent platypus. But the problem with internalizing your loserdom is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your negative self-talk becomes you; your self-hating kōans morph into external realities. You miss countless opportunities to pull yourself out of the abyss.

I’m under no delusion that that girl would have slept with me or cared about me beyond having someone to grind on under the disco ball. But despite my self-image of insurmountable loserdom, she thought I was cool, cool enough to dance with. She didn’t think I was the irredeemable spaz that I believed myself to be.

I managed to pull myself out of the loser abyss, but I was also 18 and blessed with the fact that I was hundreds of miles away from home. I was also blessed in that I grew up in an age before everything everyone did was telegraphed on the Internet. But what would have happened if I hadn’t? What would have happened if I’d just floated into middle age in a haze of self-loathing? I also came from a good family; what if I’d been crippled from the outset by a single mother, sexual molestation, or some other childhood trauma?

It’s these questions that haunted my mind as I watched Joker, easily the best film of the year. It’s a contender for best film of the decade—definitely in the top ten—and easily the finest comic book adaptation ever made. And while they won’t admit it, the bluecheck mafiosos screeching about the film’s “nihilism” and conjuring up fantasies of “incel violence” are thinking about these questions, too.

Joker is a great film because it addresses the malaise of millennials and zoomers in the same way that Fight Club did for Generation X. It goes beyond the incel meme that propelled the movie to popularity: it is an honest and deeply uncomfortable examination of the lives of white men. More pointedly, it is a frank look at the desperation these men face and an acknowledgment that their responses to it, while abhorrent, are understandable.

It’s a movie that was long overdue. The descent of Marvel and D.C. into capeshit—glossy CGI jackoff fests for overweight manbabies that are forgotten as soon as the credits roll—is an enormous waste of potential, a regression back to the bad old Adam West days of camp and childishness. The reason why Richard Donner’s Superman, Tim Burton’s Batman, and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy are beloved to this day is because they treated the source material with respect, digging out human conflicts and motivations and wringing genuine drama and comedy out of them. Joker is a fierce rejection of capeshit, a film intended for adults, one that will have longevity beyond its theatrical run.

Joker follows the life of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged white male in 1980’s New York City Gotham City, his descent into psychosis, and his reincarnation as Batman’s archenemy. Fleck’s life, by any objective measure, is terrible. He lives with his mother in a run-down apartment. He works as a clown, where he is regularly ridiculed by his co-workers and abused by his boss. He suffers from pathological laughter, making all his social interactions fraught with embarrassment. Recently discharged from a mental hospital, he’s forced to take a cabinet’s worth of SSRIs and attend weekly meetings with a court-appointed therapist.

Nobody who sees Joker will ever say a kind word about Heath Ledger again, because Phoenix’s performance blows The Dark Knight out of the water. Ledger’s Joker was a void, a soundboard of edgy teenage angst who existed solely as a foil for Batman to prove his moral superiority. Phoenix’s Joker is an actual human, a figure whose self-pitying loserdom will ring true to any man under the age of 35. Phoenix’s extreme dedication to the role—for example, starving himself to the point where he looks like an Auschwitz victim—makes his performance all the more poignant.

The first few minutes of Joker set the tone for what is to come. In the opening scene, Fleck is on the job when he’s accosted by a gang of youths who steal his sign, smash it in his face, and kick the shit out of him in a dark alley. Fleck’s boss later accuses him of stealing the sign himself and threatens to dock his pay if he doesn’t return it, refusing to believe him when he says he was jumped. One of Fleck’s co-workers sympathizes and gives him a gun to defend himself; said co-worker later sells him out to curry favor with the boss. Every day of Fleck’s life is a succession of mini-tragedies that pile up like turds, and every attempt he makes to flail himself out of the quicksand only brings him closer to drowning.

How can any man not relate to this? If you’re a millennial or zoomer, you know what it’s like to spend your life trying to get ahead when it comes to money or women, only to find the invisible hand of the market pushing your head back underwater. Most deal with their struggles stoically, or as stoically as you can get when you spend your free time shitpoasting as a groyper on Twitter, but we all know that there’s no way out. Fleck’s comment to his therapist—“all I have are negative thoughts”—is a motto for the young men of America.

Perhaps the reason the bluechecks are scared of Joker is that whoever wrote the script did their homework on spree shooters. Prior to the CIA’s use of MKULTRA victims to push the globalist agenda through mass murder, spree shooters operated on a perverted but logical form of justice. As Mark Ames detailed in Going Postal, workplace and school shooters of the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s were not lone nuts randomly killing innocents, but specifically targeted people who had gone out of their way to bully or abuse them and sparing those who had done them no harm.

Joseph Wesbecker, whose 1989 spree shooting at Standard Gravure in Louisville, Kentucky was the first not committed by a postal worker, is a disquieting example of this. Wesbecker was acknowledged as one of the best workers at Standard Gravure in part because he worked the “folder,” considered dangerous because it exposed the worker to toxic fumes. Despite his loyalty to his employer, he was routinely humiliated and abused by his managers, had his pay and vacation time repeatedly cut, and his request to be transferred to another role denied even after he presented evidence from his doctors that working the “folder” was causing irreversible damage to his health.

When Wesbecker finally snapped and went postal, he only killed Standard Gravure employees who had abused him, sparing those who had been kind to him. The Columbine shooters became heroes to an entire generation of nerds and dorks because they were similarly methodical, targeting only the kids who had bullied them. More recently, David Hogg, Emma González, and the other drama queens who made media careers out of the Parkland shooting confessed to bullying Nicholas Cruz for months prior to the attack.

Joker takes a similar tack. Arthur Fleck is not an admirable man; he is a monster and not merely ahead of the curve. But he does not kill random, innocent people; every person who dies at his hands wronged him in some petty, cruel way. The first time he kills, it’s in a situation that every person with a brain would recognize as self-defense. By the end of the film, you won’t like him, but you also won’t hate him, having seen every crisis and slight that brought him to this point.

That’s the true fear of the bluecheck brigade squawking about Joker and the Mean Girls clique of moralizing gun grabbers: the fear that the people who die in spree shootings had it coming.

Much has been made of how Joker was inspired by Taxi Driver, the classic film about a marginalized loser taking his revenge on society, with Robert De Niro’s role in both movies directly linking the two. However, Todd Phillips’ masterpiece also draws from an unexpected source: the Coen brothers, the Shakespeare of American culture. The violently ambivalent depiction of Arthur Fleck recalls the quasi-Marxist protagonist of Barton Fink, whose goal of serving the proletariat through art fades into audience disgust at his disdain for actual working-class people. Joker’s seamless shifts between humor and drama (for example, a scene early on where Fleck accidentally discharges his gun while dancing in his apartment had the audience howling) is also an obvious carryover from Coen action flicks like Burn After Reading and True Grit.

However, I suspect Phillips may have also been influenced by a more recent Coen brothers film, itself one of the best of the 2010’s: Inside Llewyn Davis. Both films are about artists struggling to make it in a world that seeks to beat them down. Both feature smeary cinematography that revels in the grime and squalor of New York City. Both star protagonists who are routinely emasculated by women, whether it’s Llewyn being strong-armed into paying for an abortion for a child that may not be his or Fleck being verbally castrated by his dementia-afflicted mother.

More importantly, Inside Llewyn Davis and Joker are about men who failed despite living in eras in which people weren’t supposed to fail. The Coens’ film takes place in 1961, at the tail end of post-World War II prosperity and happiness; Joker is set in the 1980’s, the era of Reaganomics, Wall Street, and coke-fueled yuppiedom.

Joker hammers this home by depicting Gotham in a mini-Gilded Age; Fleck’s actions accidentally set off a populist revolt against the city’s hedge fund elite, who routinely demean and insult everyone poorer than them. Think Bane’s uprising in The Dark Knight Rises absent Nolan’s pompous philosophizing and Tom Hardy’s ridiculous accent. Phillips’ depiction of Gotham’s rioting has shades of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, with Fleck as an inadvertent Continental Op sowing chaos through his actions. The film’s antagonist is Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce, whose haughty attitude, Napoleon complex, and lack of noblesse oblige are thinly-veiled swipes at former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the moneychanger who’s made it his life’s mission to ban guns, vaping, soda, and everything else that the poors use to numb the pain of existence.

Lest you think that Joker is an unqualified endorsement of mass murder and incel grievance mongering, the film also delves into the uncomfortable reality that many of these marginalized white men never had a chance in the first place. Arthur Fleck’s one aspiration in life is to be a stand-up comedian, but he’s frankly not very good at it; the scene where he gets his chance in front of the mic is so painful it made me wince, and the aftermath inadvertently leads him further down the road to madness.

The archetype for this kind of character is Arthur Bremer, whose failed assassination of George Wallace in 1972 served as the inspiration for Taxi Driver. Bremer, while uneducated, was a lucid and intelligent man; An Assassin’s Diary, the record of his mission to kill Richard Nixon (and later, Wallace), is an underrated classic of loser lit. But Bremer’s life was one of bleak, slapstick comedy, from his cringeworthy attempt to woo a high school girl to his Houellebecqian journey to New York City to lose his virginity at a rub-and-tug massage parlor to him losing one of his guns in his car’s wheel well. Even his assassination attempt on Wallace was a Plan B after he failed to off Nixon.

A more recent example of this phenomenon is James Fields, Jr., the autistic Nazi LARPer serving life in prison for plowing his car into a bunch of antifa at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Fields’ biography strikes a disturbingly similar chord as Fleck’s. Fields’ parents died in a murder-suicide when she was only 16, her father murdering her mother and then turning the gun on himself. She would later be paralyzed from the waist down in a car crash while she was pregnant with Fields, a crash that also killed his father. Unable to control Fields as he was growing up due to her disability, he routinely beat her when she tried to keep him from playing video games and do his homework, forcing her to call the police on multiple occasions.

Even if Fields had never fallen down the wignat rabbit hole, it’s clear that his life would have ended poorly in some other way. As the good book says, a rotten tree cannot bear good fruit. The latter half of Joker, which focuses on Fleck uncovering his mother’s secrets, suggests that her tree is rotten all the way to the roots. Asking why men like Bremer, Fields, and Fleck become the way that they are is almost like asking why some eggs fall out of the nest and never become birds.

Joker is aided by stellar cinematography, capturing the filth and desolation of pre-Giuliani New York. While Gotham City has always been an obvious stand-in for the Big Apple, Joker is the first film that doesn’t even attempt to hide it; the movie lingers on graffiti-filled subway cars, trashy back alleys, and dreary, overcast skies. A friend of mine who grew up in Manhattan in the 1980’s said that Joker gave him unpleasant flashbacks to his childhood. The film’s score is another high point; in another nod to a Coen brothers film (in this case, Blood Simple), Joker uses pop songs as audio cues to further twist the knife in.

Despite the bluechecks’ accusations that Joker is “nihilistic,” the film is anything but. In contrast to the pornographic violence of Zack Snyder’s D.C. films, Joker’s bloodletting is understated, giving it real emotional impact. Phillips also takes a page from Ridley Scott when it comes to sex scenes, minimizing them to focus on plot and character development. (As an aside, if you’re familiar with the fan theory that the last few scenes of Taxi Driver are actually Travis Bickle’s dying hallucinations, Joker works this in in a clever and shocking way.) Dismissing the film as “nihilistic” is akin to how social justice warriors claim that un-PC content is “boring”: the Beigeist’s way of saying that something offends them.

I say that this movie should offend them. Joker is an icy spear through the pieties of liberal society. It’s a brutal, unflinching look at the lives of the most truly marginalized group in modern society: young white men. Arthur Fleck’s transformation into Gotham’s most feared villain is both a cautionary tale for a civilization that insists on beating down its most rebellious and industrious demographic and a wake-up call for that demographic: you might be screwed no matter what.

Is that a tragedy or a comedy? I’ll let you decide.