The new Joker feature film is pretty good! For a children’s movie, anyway.
On the surface, the story instantiates once again the grittier-and-grittier conceit of contemporary Hollywood regarding comic-book characters that are often comically simple enough to be comical simpliciter. Yet: no one believes that “Batman” stories are real, but everyone’s able to place batmen on a scale of believability at the bottom of which is Adam West. To be sound, this scale must double as a “realizability” ladder: it would seem that if, say, the Adam West (“TV”) batman is realizable, so must be his more believable counterparts. But it doesn’t: if reality must enter every conversation (which is a very weak prerequisite for naive realism to work), then we’re forced to side with comical batmen over moody ones.
Of course, the grittier-and-grittier styling of comic-book movies is not meant as a philosophical statement. But because it presents itself as the naïve default, internal perversions automatically acquire great salience.
What is particularly salient about this iteration of batman-villain Joker is that his structural role in the story spills over the kind of polysemic wealth that would be needed for the story to be viable. There’s a few things to unpack here, but the payoff can be stated upfront: the vacuity (leading to the strong implausibility) of the Joker Revolution stands as a structural analog to what a more-realizable Joker Revolution might be like.
From here on we have to assume the reader has seen the movie; what follows should be intelligible, but may appear to imply the existence of a far better film.
The standard hero’s-journey formula demands a first critical point named “the call for adventure”. In this system, adventure is something that upends the “common world” and pulls the protagonist into a special reality. In Joker, mentally ill/loser storefront clown “Happy”, played by Joaquin Phoenix, responds to violent harassment by banker frat boys with a gun. He doesn’t snap; his reaction is somewhat out of proportion, but is perfectly continuous with his baseline character. What follows is the special reality: news of the murders spark popular riots whose logical conditions weren’t present in the common world.
To further unpack: how are the Joker Riots different from the gillets jaunes of Paris? The exact answer: the work of the yellow-jackets is to develop a temporality (of eventual, but not immediate political emergency) out of the dispersed tempos of its constituencies. Like many previous generations of parisians, the yellow-jackets sound the drums of potential unrest. But the Joker Riots are instantaneous to the movie viewer and more than instantaneous to Happy — it unravels before he does; to a large degree (blurring some melodrama) the Joker Revolution reverses causality, causes the Joker to emerge always-already acclaimed by mass forces appearing out of nowhere. (There’s a missing “Christic” theme in this apotheosis: we never see the masses abandon him to Pontius Pilate; but that would be going too far).
How is this even possible? How is suspension-of-disbelief in the diegesis maintained? There’s a few token nods to the Wayne family; a child batman is seen here and there; these things occupy the minds of the audience. But the story works without bathumans: the Joker is by symbolic quintessence the floating sign around which the ambient electricity of societal discontent can coalesce and make thunder noises.
The Joker plays, after all, the roles of wildcard, null card or uninterpretable (unquable? uncardable?) card, depending on which game you’re playing. Not the ace of spaces or the two of hearts: the truth from outside the game which butts in contingent on a card shuffle. This is Happy’s lot in life: to develop as the marginal facelessness that will be called in to disrupt the flow of things. The overt movie story is about Happy’s lot; but hidden in plain sight are the sigils of impenetrable and unpredictable revolution.