Two interesting things have been happening in the world of film over the last month. A relatively low-budget, no-special effects movie that places Batman’s Joker in a version of Martin Scorsese’s decaying 1970s-era New York City has become one of the most successful American movies of the year – with clouds of political outrage trailing in its wake. And everyone on the internet is yelling at, about, or in defense of Scorsese himself, because the aging director told an interviewer that superhero movies aren’t real cinema.
We often talk about unexpected political controversies in terms of their relationship to an established order, an existing regime. The same can be true in the aesthetic and commercial spheres: The success of “Joker” and the outrage around Scorsese are both disturbances that matter because of their relationship to the existing Hollywood order, the current pop-cultural regime.
That order is built, to an extent that would have been unfathomable even 20 years ago, on the commercial exploitation of what was once called “genre” entertainment – the comic-book movie especially, the Marvel empire above all, with a wider range of science fiction and fantasy blockbusters and sequelae around that superhero core.
This is not just a normal sort of cultural cycling, akin to the way Westerns ruled the ’50s or pumped-up action stars the ’80s. The sheer scale of genre dominance is unique, as Mark Harris wrote for Grantland in an era-distilling 2014 essay: These franchises “are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period.”
Strikingly, this regime is a marvel of corporate capitalism, a machine for global moneymaking – superheroes work for worldwide audiences in ways that no other entertainment can match – that is also intensely defended by people who think of themselves as rebels, outsiders, weirdos, freaks. The Western in its Ford-Wayne heyday knew itself to be mainstream and middlebrow, but even in its gazillion-dollar apotheosis the world of “genre” still maintains a fan base that imagines itself eccentric and disrespected and oppressed.
This nurtured sense of grievance explains the online anger every time somebody like Scorsese dares to doubt the aesthetic merits of the new regime. And it may be a strength of the superhero order, a source of resilience, that so many of its fans continue to answer Andrew O’Hehir’s 2012 question, “at what point is the triumph of comic-book culture sufficient?”, with a zealot’s absolutism: Not until the last film snob shuts up; not until Scorsese breaks down and makes a Batman sequel.
But maybe that zeal hides an uneasy conscience, a buried knowledge that while “genre” cinema can be as great as any other form – I’m counting down the days to the new Dune adaptation – its complete commercial takeover has been bad for popular culture and pop art.
The superhero regime has wasted far too much talent on stories that are fundamentally unworthy of the actors and directors making them. It has empowered and interacted with corporate consolidation, including the devouring power of a Disney empire that is now literally disappearing classic movies from the theater circuit into its corporate vault. And it has habituated adult audiences to stories that belong to the state of arrested development in which far more of Western culture than just Hollywood is trapped.
I say “arrested development” because a common critique of these movies is that they are childish or “infantilizing,” to quote Bilge Ebiri’s fine Vulture essay on the Scorsese contretemps. But that seems not quite apt: Children and their stories are much stranger and more interesting than the superhero industry, which sells a mix of grandiosity, moral certainty and performance anxiety that belongs essentially to early adolescence.
And this is where the success of the Joaquin Phoenix “Joker” becomes especially interesting. My initial take on the movie was hostile, because I don’t think “Joker” is really about any of the things – inceldom, liberalism, late capitalism – that its admirers and enemies have read into its story. Instead it’s a competent Scorsese simulacrum whose success exposes both the frustrated desire for movies that are more politically and morally adult … and the tragedy of a movie system that can only simulate grown-up art inside the comic-book machine.
But a more sympathetic reading might say that the character of Arthur Fleck, the Joker-to-be in the movie, is a kind of Dorian Gray’s picture for the entire comic-book universe: A damaged man-child with pre-sexual romantic attachments and fantasies of secret lineages and untapped greatness, whose destructive arc is far closer to what perpetual adolescence really looks like than the sexless godhood of the Marvel heroes or the eternal school days of Hogwarts.
In which case its audiences aren’t just getting an imitation of the better movies that the age of genre has displaced. They’re experiencing a work that is genuinely subversive – maybe not of progressivism or neoliberalism, but at least of the all-conquering, imagination-shrinking cultural juggernaut to which “Joker” ostensibly belongs.
Ross Douthat is a columnist for The New York Times.