One of the perils of middle age is that the fleeting thoughts of youth return to mock you. If you had asked me about superhero comics circa 1987, I would given you a lengthy diatribe about how they were a constricted and washed-up genre. At the time, I was just discovering the flourishing culture of alternative comics, made by the likes of Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, and Gilbert Hernandez, all creating works in a realist or satirical bent that was at odds with the dominant genre of commercial comic books. It seemed absurd to me that an art form could be so dominated by two publishers, Marvel and DC, both given over almost completely to tales of vigilantes who wore long underwear and capes. If genres had to exist, why not the rich array found in Hollywood: romantic comedy, crime stories, war movies? Why were comics condemned to a fate chillingly predicted by the critic Carter Scholz in The Comics Journal in 1981: “an eternity of The Incredible Hulk.”
I was aware of the efforts of creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller to craft adult-oriented superhero stories in the emerging form of the graphic novel. But while admiring the formal intelligence on display in Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, I also thought these were artistic dead-ends, impressive stunts that didn’t deserve replication.
Flash forward three decades, and superheroes now dominate not just the niche comic book industry but also Hollywood itself—so much so that some leading filmmakers have taken to making variations of the complaints I had in 1987. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning film Birdman (2014) is about an actor who strives to do serious theater but is driven mad, partly because he becomes over-identified with the superhero he plays in movies. It’s hard not to see the Birdman as an allegory about the dire effects on cinema of the superhero genre.
Martin Scorsese was asked last week about Marvel movies. “I don’t see them,” he responded. “I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
Scorsese’s words annoyed not just Marvel fans but many of his peers, including directors James Gunn and Joss Whedon (both of whom have made Marvel movies). But Scorsese is far from alone in being dismayed by the popularity of the genre. Terry Gilliam described superhero movies as “bullshit.” Similarly dismissive comments have been made by Jennifer Aniston, Woody Allen, and Steven Spielberg.
Superhero films have proven to be a kudzu genre, a hardy, resilient, and adaptive weed that overwhelms other storytelling modes. But what one person sees as a weed can, to the mass audience, be a delightful garden. The sheer popularity of superheroes should lead skeptics like myself to ask if the genre doesn’t have expressive possibilities that deserve respect.
Todd Phillips’s divisive film Joker, a current box-office hit that has generated a wildly polarized critical response, helps illuminate why the genre speaks to us. To its harshest critics, the film—an origin story for Batman’s nemesis—is incel propaganda, a valorization of a socially inept white man who lashes out at the world with violence. But fans of the movie extol not just Joaquin Phoenix’s visceral and twitchy performance as Arthur Fleck, the downtrodden clown who becomes the Joker, but also celebrate the movie as an incisive commentary on violence.
In intent, Joker aspires to be a Scorsese movie. Scorsese once praised his favorite Hollywood film directors of the 1940s and ’50s as “smugglers” who were able to sneak their personal vision and social commentary into constricted genres like the western or the detective film. Phillips is trying to be a smuggler of that sort.
Scorsese had in fact been briefly attached to the project as an executive producer, a role he abandoned to make his own movies. Set in 1981, the film really belongs to the Scorsese Extended Universe as much as the DC Comics Extended Universe. It is saturated with homages to Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and King of Comedy (1982), as well as other films of that era like A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Network (1976). Reaching back in time, there are repeated invocations of Charlie Chaplin. The Joker’s floppy gait, his elegant plopping around, makes him a sinister cousin of Chaplin’s Tramp. In personality, Arthur Fleck is basically what Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle might have been like if he’d earned his money working in a circus rather than driving a cab.
These invocations of earlier and far better movies are partially what makes it hard to take Joker entirely seriously as art—or, in Scorsese’s terms, cinema. The film tries too hard to be serious and ends up both portentous and pretentious.
Yet what doesn’t work as art can still succeed as social commentary. Far from being incel propaganda, Joker is one of the most class-conscious of modern American movies, with Gotham City portrayed as a decaying polity divided between a self-satisfied rich minority and an immiserated majority. Batman has always seemed like the most right-wing of superheroes: a billionaire vigilante who beats up the poor. Joker flips the script and asks who the villains of this scenario are. The Joker is portrayed as the figurative (and perhaps literal) child of the very illicit wealth that allows Bruce Wayne to live in a mansion and acquire the high-tech toys for his war on crime.
As Eileen Jones shrewdly noted in her review in Jacobin, Joker is a melodrama. The same is true of the superhero genre as a whole, which often embarrasses critics because of its freewheeling embrace of melodramatic excess (polarization of characters into camps of good and evil, hyperbolic manifestations of personality, and plots revolving around violent retribution).
The superhero genre is melodramatic wish-fulfillment offering scenarios of empowerment. It is not surprising that the genre originally emerged in a time of economic distress. As comics scholars have documented, many of the early superhero creators were Jewish Americans who were either immigrants or the children of immigrants. This cohort, made up of artists like Jack Kirby or Batman creator Bob Kane, felt marginalized and threatened in the age of rising fascism. The superhero was their imaginary solution to this problem.
As allegories of empowerment, superheroes tend to flourish in periods of social upheaval. After the first golden age from 1938–45, the genre enjoyed a revival in the 1960s, when Marvel comics, under the creative leadership of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, provided allegories of youth and minority rebellion. The third period of superhero revival took place in Hollywood, against the backdrop of 9/11, the financial meltdown of 2008, and the Great Recession.
Simply as a film, Joker leaves much to be desired: It’s heavy-handed and derivative. But as with previous superhero narratives, it provides a fascinating allegory for present concerns, suggesting a popular mood of discontent with billionaire saviors and a recognition that our social system is on the brink of crisis. Joker is a flawed mirror, but still one that reflects enough reality that it deserves attention.