The new Joker film is an ideological powerhouse of deeply reactionary proportions. It is a picture that sings hosannas to the glories of the 1%, tells us that Blue Lives Matter, and argues that political movements like Occupy and the Black Radical Tradition that have gained momentum in the past decade will lead to nothing less than utter bedlam. Joaquin Phoenix plays the titular anti-hero with aplomb and zest but acts as a stand-in for caricatured radical Left politics.
The picture is set in fictional Gotham City, clearly New York, during the 1980s. Reaganomics litters the streets (literally) because of a prolonged garbage strike, allowing the producers to make a subtle anti-union jab at the public sector. Social services for mental healthcare are being cut (not unlike how President Ron shut down federal funding for psychiatric facilities, turning thousands of Vietnam war vets into the streets), leading to a down-on-his-luck clown named Arthur Peck (Phoenix) going off his meds.
Our protagonist murders three Wall Street creeps while aboard a ramshackle subway one night. There was no political motive — he does it after they beat him up — but Arthur escapes and his act inadvertently catalyzes a movement whereby people donning mass-produced clown masks begin to rebel against the elites and the Gotham Police. Into the mix steps a certain Thomas Wayne, the benevolent oligarch (with an eerily Trumpian profile cum a positive spin) who launches an appropriately-paternalistic mayoral bid that the popular movement resists, sometimes violently.
Incidentally, there is a story about Phoenix’s late brother River from the 1986 production of Stand By Me that provides certain painful insight into how to appraise his performance. Quoth the IMDb Trivia section:
In the campfire scene in which [River’s character] Chris breaks down, Rob Reiner was sure River Phoenix could do better. He asked him to think of a time in his own life when an adult had let him down and use it in the scene, which Phoenix did. Upset and crying, he had to be comforted by the director afterwards.
That story, which Reiner repeats on the record as part of the film’s DVD audio commentary, is one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard. The Phoenix children were raised in some post-1960s hippie New Age cult that included child abuse, something Joaquin is on the record about, and it doesn’t seem like too much of a reach to say at least part of that informs this performance in Joker.
However, in this case all that biographical detail serves to promote a hard-right agenda. What’s more, there’s a certain level of irony because Warner Bros. helped catalyze the very trend they repudiate here over a decade ago!
Not the First R Rated DC Comics Adaptation By WB
Back in 2005, an adaptation of V for Vendetta, Alan Moore’s anarchist/communist-leaning dystopian graphic novel, was released by the studio as a not-to-subtle rebuttal of the Dubya administration’s “War on Terror.” Within three years, ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask was becoming the du jour headdress for everyone from the Freegans to the Anonymous hactivist collective, eventually finding a critical mass absorption by the Occupy movement in 2011.
In 2009, another Moore novel, Watchmen, was adapted by Zach Snyder. I have plenty of issues with that film but it does maintain some basic allegiance to the author’s original point, namely that the superhero mythology is a soft-fascist ideological construct that lends itself to the absolute worst aspects of our individual and wider social tendencies. Moore’s original novel had each character personify and enact to its logical conclusions the various dimensions of Ayn Rand’s whacked-out Objectivist “philosophy” and was intended as a deep critique of neoliberalism in the UK and US.
These films seem to be clearly and evidently rebutted by Joker. Whereas the crowd donned the Fawkes mask in order to participate in a mass revolt against a fascist dictatorship, here the crowd dons masks in order to create a dictatorship of nihilistic terror.
Watchmen argued the benevolent strongman savior was the gateway drug to an authoritarian disaster. Here Thomas Wayne (and implicitly a young Bruce Wayne, who makes a brief silent cameo), are positioned as individualist saviors who have the wisdom to rescue a rabid populous, beholden to populist delusions of grandeur.
The press materials and popular discussions around this picture emphasize that it is a cinematic portmanteau of antecedents in Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, blending together references to Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, and the less-remembered King of Comedy. (Scorsese at one point was attached as a producer before exiting owing to purported scheduling issues).
I have a thorough critique with the director of Raging Bull but I find his politics just a little more agreeable than what Warner Bros is proffering here. Could he have exited the production over the content of the script, which seems like a well-funded Steve Bannon fantasia of debauched reaction?
Scorcese is pretty mum on this topic but the overall orientation of the screenplay is fundamentally at odds with the elder auteur’s brand of Good Friday Catholic theology that underwrites all his work. (Incidentally, he has made one rather guarded jab at comic book films this week, comparing their cinematic legitimacy to amusement parks in an interview with Empire magazine.) Even though the picture positions Arthur Fleck as a direct descendant of Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle, the philosophical conclusion of each character’s arc of development is diametrically opposed to one another. While Bickle was developed and deployed as a direct critique of American toxic masculinity and gun culture, the twin psychoses of American society, Joker is instead intended as an argument in the name of more guns, more cops, and less power of the people.
To be absolutely clear, the Warner Bros/DC Comics films of the past 20 years have included substantial attacks on the Left since the 1999 Seattle WTO protests. Christopher Nolan’s much-lauded Dark Knight trilogy astonishingly targeted protests against the free trade world order. Zack Snyder, helmsman of the Superman and Justice League pictures, is an Ayn Rand fanboy and his pictures were undeniably informed by those ethos.
This is a time during which the Right caricatures immigrant solidarity, prison abolitionist efforts, the DSA/Squad, and several other disparate tendencies as a singular impending Bolshevik lightning strike against the very foundations of the republic. Joker is a Molotov cocktail thrown at those in the cross-hairs of the police state.
Sectors of the conservative press see it otherwise, claiming the film is some sort of Communist manifesto. I’d say it points to how the convergence of liberal-progressives with law enforcement agencies during the Trump impeachment drive could portend and justify future assaults upon grassroots movements that oppose our imperial settler-colonial system, a 500 year old police state.
Meanwhile, Across Town at Marvel Comics
This year, Marvel has run along with Stitcher the second season of its podcast audio drama, Wolverine: The Lost Trail. It hearkens back to the old-time shows like The Shadow or Superman from the Golden Age of Radio.
While certainly imperfect, the show includes a substantial critique of the Trump political moment via its antagonist, a violent mercenary contracted by the government to hunt down and kill mutants whose lines seem to have been plagiarized directly from the alt-right. The character’s vocation, a privatized quasi-military contractor, echoes the reality of Eric Prince’s Blackwater firm employees.
In other words, there is an alternative to comic book adaptations with reactionary mainstream politics. Which of course is the final indictment of this picture and its revolting message.