**This post contains some minor plot spoilers for the film Joker.**
Lets face it, Batman has always been a superman. Not in the red cape, allergic-to-kryptonite sense, but in the Nietzschean, ubermensch sense. Nietzsche believed that certain exceptional men (being of his time, women were presumably excluded from his philosophy) were beyond conventional notions of morality and thus were exempted from society’s rules. Laws and social mores are for the sheep, while the ‘ubermensch’ (literally, “superman”), due to his exceptional nature, is not bound by any such notions. He believed that these rare, gifted men were the true driving force in historical processes, and the natural leaders of the masses.
The core premise of the superhero genre is itself Nietzschean, with its protagonists using their powers to impose justice, independent of government sanction or official recognition. Frank Miller in his influential The Dark Knight Returns, takes on this subtext directly, coming down decidedly on Nietzsche’s side of the argument. In his telling, everyone who raises constitutional questions about Batman’s right to beat the living shit out of people is either a limousine liberal or a foppish bureaucrat. To drive the point home, he has the now retired Commissioner Gordon mansplain to his female successor the futility of lesser beings such as themselves evaluating the morality of Batman’s actions.
It’s entirely appropriate that Miller specifically picked Batman around whom to build his case, because nowhere in the superhero mythology is there another character that so fully embodies the notion that it’s up to one exceptional being to protect society from chaos. The fact that he’s a trust fund baby whose sainted parents used their wealth to try to save Gotham in more traditional ways, before being murdered by one of those people who represent the forces of chaos that are Batman’s thematic nemeses, adds a class dimension to the story that’s hard to miss. In Batman’s world, billionaires are an idealized aristocracy who know best how to fix society’s ills, and the poor are either salt of the Earth types who look to Batman and/or the Wayne family for salvation, or criminals who threaten the social order and are therefore to be dealt with severely by a rich kid in a bat suit.
In the end, Batman’s mission is to defend the status quo. Like Elizabeth Warren, he is a capitalist to his bones who doesn’t see any problems with the social order that can’t be fixed by a generous donation from the Wayne Foundation, or, failing that, a good beat down. He never asks why Gotham is a crime-ridden hellhole full of dangerous psychopaths; he only knows that it’s up to his own very exceptional self to keep the forces of anarchy at bay. If the Nazi regime had survived long enough to create superheroes, what they came up with probably would have looked a lot like Batman, with his enemies being Jews, communists, and subversives. Take the Jews out of the equation and that’s pretty much what he is now. In a time when wealth inequality is at levels not seen since the Gilded Age, and entire regions of the country are collapsing into third world conditions, it was inevitable that someone would reevaluate the mythos of the character - which brings us to Todd Phillips’ Joker.
Joker isn’t the first foray into the Batverse that touches on some of the class tensions inherent in the story. A debate still rages about whether Heath Ledger’s Joker was actually the hero of 2008’s The Dark Knight, partly because a lot of his observations make good sense. In one famous scene, he tells Harvey Dent, ““You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot or a truckload of soldiers will be blowing up, nobody panics because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die…well, then everyone loses their minds!” Hard to argue with that. And its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, goes even further, having Catwoman set the tone by telling Bruce Wayne at an opulent soiree, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” From there, Bane goes on to take over Gotham, with director Christopher Nolan’s vision of what that would look like taken directly from the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
The obvious difference with Joker is that there is no Batman to make the counter-argument, and reassure its audience that he has the right of it. This film is about what Gotham looks like to all those people at the bottom who don’t need a Dark Knight so much as they need a functioning social safety net and an equitable distribution of wealth. The city has been brought to the precipice of anarchy not by “super-villains” like Raz Al Ghoul or a guy with a weird riddle fetish, but by a system that lavishly rewards the rich and throws everyone else to the dogs. Thus, Thomas Wayne isn’t portrayed as a benign philanthropist, but an arrogant asshole who ultimately gets his comeuppance not from a mugger, but from a rioting citizen making a political statement by taking out Gotham’s wealthiest man.
And this is really why the film is making some people feel queasy. It isn’t simply a Batman movie without Batman. It’s a movie that relentlessly and consciously repudiates everything that the franchise has always been about. Joker isn’t quite a hero in the film, but he isn’t quite a villain either. He’s a victim of circumstance and a society that doesn’t care enough to help. And because there are millions like him, when he snaps by killing three stockbrokers, who also happen to be Wayne Enterprises employees, it triggers a movement. In other words, this is the kind of nightmare Jeff Bezos probably wakes up from in a cold sweat at 2 AM; a violent popular uprising aimed at tearing down the entire system and whose violence is directed specifically at the wealthy and the powerful. Its striking a chord at this moment because we’re closer to that place than we’ve been since shotgun wielding Okies descended on California en masse during the Great Depression. Joker’s creators have put a bony finger right on the pulse of the very sick patient that is 2019 America, and forced the audience to look at its ills head on. It isn’t a pretty picture.
Many of the film’s detractors claim that they fear Incels will take it as inspiration for further acts of violence, as if someone who’s going to be set off by a movie about a killer clown with Tourettes really needs an excuse. And the Identitarians miss the point like they do, by asking why we need another sympathetic portrait of an angry white man, seemingly in the hope that angry white men will go away if we just stop talking about them, in spite of the fact that white men, angry or not, will remain the largest single voting block for a good, long time. But these complaints are all dancing around what it is about Joker that’s so uniquely subversive for a big budget Hollywood movie. It presents us with a society in which institutions are collapsing, and the public has lost faith in them and those who lead them. And it shows us how combustible that can be, by allowing Gotham to combust in the film’s final sequence. In doing so, it goes a longer way to explaining how we got to a Trump Presidency than all the many thousands of hours wasted over the past three years by the corporate media on the two R’s (Russia and Racists), combined. And it gives us an all too plausible window into what comes next if nothing changes. Well, maybe not the clown masks. That would just be goofy.
On the Potemkin scale of revolutionary cinema, I give this one 5 out of 5 stars.