Looking Back on Fight Club, Twenty Years Later

*Spoilers for Fight Club*

Those in tune with recent film festival coverage may have struggled to miss the most widely anticipated and fervently discussed release sparking a new tirade of furious tweets – that of course being Joker. This new origin for DC’s most popular super-villain has either been heralded as the epitome of cinema or critiqued as candy for incels. For those who did not instantly fawn over Joker, their main argument is that the film irresponsibly condones the dangerous and often creepy behaviours of the main character by simply blaming the society we live in for creating its own worst enemy, removing blame from the troubled individual and eventually framing their problematic actions as desirable or even cool. Concerns are spreading that many people, particularly white straight men, may misinterpret what was perhaps initially meant as a harmless examination of the actions displayed and instead relate to the feature as a portrait of their own troubled life that society has forged for them.

20 years earlier, David Fincher released a film that triggered a similar reception.

Fight Club, adapted from Chuck Palahniuk’s novel by the same name, has confidently held a position in the ‘Top 5’ film lists of many people – myself included. Following our unreliable and unnamed protagonist (Edward Norton), we witness the creation of a movement dedicated to triggering the collapse of society, all thanks to the equally unstable and collapsing stability of our narrator’s mental health. Our protagonist is an exhausted average worker caught in the mechanics of a capitalistic system that is slowly crushing his spirit. While on a business trip, he comes across Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) – a free, wild and erratic man who seems to represent everything our protagonist wishes to be. They soon form a friendship based on their mutual desire to be punched in the face (so a super healthy foundation to start). The now infamous fight club is created for men bogged down by their aimless existence to take out their anger on each other’s bare torsos in a totally hetero display of masculinity. The small fight club soon contorts into a cult of identical looking soldiers, intent on raining down anarchy onto the polished and controlled order of capitalism. Of course, the big twist is eventually revealed that our protagonist and Tyler are actually the same person, just different subconscious branches – Tyler representing the reckless id to our protagonist’s ego.

The film and its twist is a classic, and resulted in almost all fans of the film ignoring the first rule of fight club, and doing nothing but talk about Fight Club. The film’s source material was adapted for its brilliant and captivating plot and Fincher’s direction is, as usual, darkly engaging and exciting. Remaining one of Pitt’s best roles, the cast ensemble is spectacular with haunting performances from Helena Bonham Carter and even Meatloaf showing off his acting chops. All components of this film remain to be brilliant. However, this film doesn’t only represent great cinema, but also a fascinating example of satire intent being altered and disregarded by the viewer.

On the surface, Fight Club critiques capitalism, mundane corporate lifestyles, and polished abs, which is why it resonated so passionately with the dissatisfied and emotionally constipated male population. However, what many fans of Fight Club miss is that it is also intended to be a satire of toxic masculinity. The film never intends to convey the club turn cult as an acceptable reaction to society. It is not a rally cry for the troops to assemble like bald worker space monkeys. Instead, the film very clearly displays the myriad of issues with this processing style, to the point where our protagonist desperately runs about the country trying to stop the movement he unintentionally started, going as far as to shoot himself in the head in efforts to stop Tyler. Despite this blatantly obvious critique of Tyler’s plan and life outlook, fanboys still hold this character aloft as the ultimate ideal. Ironically, the protagonist’s scrambling efforts to stop the spread of his toxic movement mirrors Brad Pitt’s own, as in interviews Pitt has repeatedly asked fans to stop using his image in their promotion for straight pride and meninist groups. Audience commandeering of source material expression in this manner has created a debate around whether or not we can display and subtly critique certain behaviours without accidentally glorifying and promoting those very acts. Certain groups may always remain so painstakingly oblivious to their own natures that satire will not only be lost on them, but also restructured to aid the very thing it was intended to critique. This is why we can’t have nice things.

Despite the fascinating misinterpretation of its satire, Fight Club remains a fantastic film with the handling of important issues done so with grace, even if it was apparently too nuanced for some to grasp. 20 years on, the messages this film explores are still relevant. On the superficial level, capitalism is still raging and beating down as many people as possible; and on a deeper level, many men still regard the destructive bare-knuckle display of masculinity as the optimal behaviour. More importantly, many straight white men still see themselves as the lone, sane fighter who must rage against the machine to force enlightenment onto those around them; and they still see themselves as the innocent bystander mocked by a society intent on making them out to be a clown.  

Fight Club remains to be a film that wrestles with an important component of society, just not the part that many think.