Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker isn’t nearly as subversive and dangerous as some critics claimed it to be - there’s nothing particularly new, or bold, about a homage to Taxi Driver. But considered in the context of comic book movies, specifically superhero stories, Joker is very subversive indeed.
Not only did the iconic Batman villain rise victorious at the end of his movie, the film also showed a new side to Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas, who is depicted as a selfish, out-of-touch billionaire. At one point, Thomas calls poverty-stricken protesters “clowns.”
Prior to Joker, Thomas Wayne has almost always been depicted as a warm-hearted philanthropist, one of the good ones. He has to be, for Batman’s origin story and motivations to ring true; we’re supposed to view the infamous alley shooting as entirely the fault of the individual gunman. Reflecting on the social issues that might have sparked the violence, let alone the wealthy Wayne family’s potential contributions to them, dampens the appeal of Batman.
Bruce Wayne, the man who inherited a fortune and uses it to buy bladed batarangs to hurl at destitute, desperate criminals, could easily be viewed as an authoritarian.
Of course, that’s not the point of superheroes, at all; that deconstructive stuff is best left to stories like Watchmen, The Boys, and Joker. In fact, Batman’s villain gallery is particularly well-suited to political satire and social critique because the majority of his antagonists are mentally ill; Arkham Asylum is full of interesting characters who don’t have to always bear the brunt of Batman’s fists.
Cinema might be saturated with aspirational do-gooders who never fail to do the right thing, but the box office success of antiheroes such as Deadpool, Logan, Venom, and Joker show that there’s a demand for something less wholesome.
Those four titular characters don’t have a great deal in common, other than an unconventional approach to morality, a willingness to murder opponents, and a desire to rebel against the status quo. And that is where their strength lies; antiheroes and villains can tell stories that go beyond the simplistic morality of traditional superheroes.
Supervillains are often outsiders, characters who can’t find their place in the world, and lash out. Superheroes, in stark contrast, know exactly who they are and who they stand for, and it’s usually with the wealthy and powerful.
Captain America and Captain Marvel might view themselves as free spirits, but they both serve as glowing endorsements for the military, without an anti-establishment bone in their American-flag-draped bodies.
The success of Joker shows that there is a growing appetite for stories that critique the status-quo, the rich and powerful, and superheroes are simply not designed to fight that kind of antagonist. The actions of Superman, Batman, and Iron Man always serve the status quo, while villains attempt to make radical changes.
We forgive Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark for being obscenely wealthy, because they’re impossibly virtuous and incorruptible. Nevermind the fact that Tony was shown to have built a private drone-strike and sweeping surveillance system inside his sunglasses - he “deserves” to hold an alarming amount of authority because we like him. Outside of the Marvel universe, Tony would likely be a villainous character; it’s pretty amusing that the man has so many former employees that despise him, as shown in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
If superheroes are overtaking the cinema, so be it, but antiheroes and villains might provide an opportunity to tell nuanced, anti-establishment stories that critique authority, in all its forms.
Otherwise, all we’re left with is aspirational power fantasies, and enjoyable as they are, they rarely spark the level of conversation, debate, and moral panic that Joker managed to.