I worry that amid the political furore around Joker, the violent backstory of the iconic Batman character, people might be missing the obvious.
The controversy, understandably, has been about whether the incel-like character irresponsibly glamorises gun violence (for what it’s worth, I think it does).
But what struck me more is how revealing Joker is of Hollywood’s attitude to the American political situation. This adaptation of the character who has been around 80 years is distinctly ‘timely’ – you can imagine the studio discussions about ‘relevance’ in the year following Donald Trump’s election, when Todd Phillips was writing the script.
The allegory can’t be avoided: it’s the story of how, given the right entertainer-leader, a popular movement can tap into people’s darkest feelings and tear society apart – which is precisely the framing with which people in the movie business tend to see the Trump phenomenon.
On the perimeter of each scene in Joker is the palpable anger of the mob, glimpsed through snippets of television news and masked crowd scenes — but never investigated, never explained. Their enthusiastic reaction to Joker’s crimes drives his whole anarchic political movement, but we never meet a single one of them — no rationale is given beyond “Kill the rich! A new movement?” on the front page of a newspaper.
It’s all quite carefully signposted.
Joker’s first crime is to shoot three bankers on the subway, which is when people begin to support him – yes, that’s the reaction to the financial crisis, and the movie makes plain that the victims half-deserved it through their own arrogance and violence.
When billionaire Thomas Wayne (Batman’s Dad) refers to lowlife people as “clowns”, they readopt the label, and start wearing clown masks. It’s just like when Hillary Clinton called some Trump voters “deplorables” and they then adopted the monicker and began selling T Shirts and mugs with it on.
Even showbiz’s own role in the Trump saga is included through the central plot device of evening television presenter Murray Franklin (Robert de Niro) whose chatshow the Joker is obsessed with. Franklin attempts to ridicule Joker by airing a home video clip of him trying and failing to be funny at a comedy club. But it backfires. The public response is extraordinary and Joker becomes a meme. Franklin ends up inviting Joker on to his show – which leads to disaster and the final triumph of his anarchic revolution.
This is surely Hollywood’s narcissistic diagnosis of how they “invented” Donald Trump by giving him all that free airtime and publicity, creating a monster that turned against them. It’s a lofty attempt to show where they went wrong which inadvertently reveals the shallowness of their analysis in the process.
Far from this being a “Right-wing” movie, it is a bad allegory for current political unrest, revealing the terror, rather than inquisitiveness, that liberal America still feels about popular movements they don’t understand. In other words, it’s pure Hollywood.