Saturday 2 November 2019


First with the Dark Knight series and now this, there’s something about Bat-family films which not just polarises audience responses but across political lines. (See my comments about’Dark Knight Rises’.) Except if anything, with political events being raised to a still shriller note in the intervening years, the debate has become even more acute.

The accusation it’s some kind of Incel manifesto is frankly bizarre, as that’s quite explicitly knocked down by the film. When Fleck finally acts on his crush over his neighbour, knocking on her door than immediately taking her in his arms, we groan at the cliché but we don’t question. After all, such scenes are so common in mainstream films we’re inured to them. So we’re wrongfooted when we later discover this unlikely tale was just a fiction he told himself.

And when she finds him in her apartment, confused between fact and fantasy, she finds him fearful but also pathetic. She asks if he needs her to call his Mother, as if he’s a child. Which is pretty much the way the film asks us to find him. He’s not a hero, some breaking-the-rules anti-hero or even an anti-villain but the Woobie.

So is Michah Uetricht right to claim that instead it’s a “warning against austerity”? There’s arguments for this. The path out of poverty doesn’t seem to be solidarity with those around you, but the carrot of celebrityhood. And this is clearly shown to be nothing but wish fulfilment. Fleck’s plans to be a comedian are doomed to fail, his mother asking him outright if that wouldn’t involve being funny, and his belief he’s Wayne’s son (a fairy-tale story of a lost prince) gets scuppered.

Yet there’s an obvious rejoinder. If you were attempting a timely critique of austerity you’d hardly set it in early Eighties New York. (Ostensibly it’s Gotham but every frame says New York and the three yuppies work in Wall Street.) It doesn’t just swipe from movies from that era it does so self-referentially, such as reprising the ‘shoots self’ mime from ‘Taxi Driver’. Yet when made ‘Taxi Driver’ was contemporary set, Times Square really looked like that. Here even the Warners logo is retro.

And we’re so used to seeing this on screen that it’s become Past As Foreign Country. Seventies/Eighties New York may even have become our default example of the Big Bad City – corrupt and crumbling yet compelling. Similarly the general prejudices exhibited, such as the mental illness stigma, can too easily be filed under Bad Old Days.

So it’s neither option? Yes, and deliberately so. The neighbour scene is one of many where something gets wrongfooted, so many the device must surely be intentional. We’re cued to expect some Jekyll-into-Hyde moment of transformation, but it doesn’t really come. Joker dances carefree on the same steps Fleck used to slog up, a striking image which made it onto both the trailer and the poster. But at what seems his greasepaint apotheosis the two investigating cops suddenly appear. For no good narrative reason. But they do get to chase him, taking you back to Fleck clumping after the kids in the opening scene.

Even in his TV studio appearance, there’s still signs of Fleck. (His audience engaging skills include thumbing through his notebook, then saying “here’s one”.) Arguably in the very final scene in Arkham the Joker persona is fully loaded. But that in itself suggests that Joker can’t appear in a film like this, that we’ve hit the point where we need to cut. Which is shrewd. Despite what some seem to think super-villains and real world settings don’t mix.

We have a central character who finds things inappropriately funny, exacerbated further by a condition which induces nervous laughter in him at inopportune times. And the film then projects all this onto us. Rather than press an agenda, it’s more interested in inviting responses then forcing us to question them.

Take the use of the dwarf character. When others make easy digs about his height, we figure they’re being outed as jerks. But when Fleck decides to spare him from a killing spree, he finds he can’t reach the latch on the door to escape. At which point the film manufactures a joke against him, and we’re forced to reassess our earlier responses. In a film where people are keen to find some kind of manifesto, it seems more interested in getting us to reassess ourselves.

But for all that Tony Keen is right to call it right wing. We’re being told “that grassroots anti-capitalist movements are far worse than capitalist rotten apples.” it’s just that this is the more common route of Hollywood films, less manifesto and more unconscious bias. Look at the way Fleck’s lack of a father figure leads to an imbalanced, unhealthy mother fixation and a consequent inability to socialise or respect authority. To ensure we don’t miss this point he’s given two potential surrogate Dads, Wayne Senior and Murray the chat show host. Penguin in ‘Gotham’ was similar, if played more as a gag.

And the view of the crowd is typical for Hollywood, scarcely different to the Nolan films. Pleasingly, Joker is their totem not leader. Even when freed, he parades for rather than directs them. Which dispels a major problem with Bane in ’Dark Knight Rises’. And the way they deliberately play into Wayne’s dismissal of them as “clowns” is appealing, and something I’ve seen done on actual demos. (For example banners reading ‘Rent-a-mob on Tour’.)

But we’re still talking the traditional cod-Freudian fear of “the mob”, where the mask of anonymity removes all sense of social obligation and makes men animals. (And they do seem to be all men.) They, as Frick describes it, “werewolf and go wild”. Separate workers from instruction and all they can do is destroy. Protest is at best a symptom of the failings of the system rather than a step towards a solution, and at worst the fire arriving after the frying pan gets upturned. And this of course allows us our cake-and –eat-it response, where we can exult in the fiery drama of a riot while getting to piously condemn it.

For a Batman film, it would be surprisingly easy to write out all the references to him. Arguably, you could do it just by removing the iconic parent shooting scene, Bruce becoming Batman is really just a byproduct of events here. We’ve seen before how emblematic heroes, who make themselves into a symbol of the struggle for justice, precede super-powers, the Scarlet Pimpernel before Superman.

And in recent years how that has been reversed out, the super powers kept but the symbol of goodness gone. Superheroes engage more and more in personal quests, which easily elide into grudge matches. To the point that, when a film such as ‘Wonder Woman’ didn’t do that, it seemed unusual. ’Joker’, even more than ’Gotham’, is the logical terminus of this. This is neoliberalism’s version of “cometh the hour, cometh the man”.

Of course writing Batman out entirely wouldn’t have happened, it would never have been green-lit by Accounts. And director Todd Phillips has been completely open about that being the deal. But if we were to indulge the Fleck-like fantasy this film would be improved.

Fleck and his workmates are, by and large, carnie folk. ‘Freaks’ forced to sell their own freakishness in order to survive. And if there’s something folk horror about that, it should be played up. Imagine if our story starts in legend even then. There’s been some intra-universe folk bogeyman, a variant of the Demon Clown trope. Whose reception has over time travelled from credulous belief into entertaining comic strips and other popular media, much in the way of Spring-heeled Jack.

In the comics he has been given some heroic antagonist who keeps him in check. Yet after the Subway murders people start to wonder if the legends are true after all, and their world now has Joker without Batman. Reading and internalising sensationalised newspaper reports, the fantasist Fleck starts to imagine he has been the Evil Clown all along - so may as well start acting like it. Which would make the ending less a foregone conclusion and more creatively ambiguous.

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