By Nathan Geffen, 2 February 2020
This article contains spoilers for Black Panther and Joker.
It's easy to dismiss comic book heroes and villains as money-making pop culture. But the genre's role in American, and increasingly planetary, culture is similar to mythology's role in ancient Greece. Batman and Odysseus are cultural icons separated by thousands of years serving a common purpose. The heroes and villains are a reflection of society's values and fears.
The Iliad is treasured literature because it offers insight into the minds of Greeks. So too the graphic novels and movies of Marvel and DC Comics are, sometimes, no less insightful into the minds of Americans. And, with the export and consequent globalisation of the genre, increasingly the rest of the world.
Black Panther and Joker are both deeply political movies. But Besides being in the superhero/villain genre, they are otherwise very different.
The stark differences between them starts with their receptions. Black Panther was loved by professional critics. It has a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It's audience score is not so high but more than respectable at 79%.
By contrast Joker's professional rating is a mediocre 66% on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences loved it much more than the critics --- and much more than they loved Black Panther, with an 88% score. IMDB and Metacritic scores mirror this phenomenon. The elite preferred Black Panther; the masses preferred Joker.
Black Panther has been praised for "celebrating diversity", taking "structural whiteness to task", having an "important cultural message arriving at a crucial time", expanding the "the possibilities for what black folks could be in America". All this is understandable, given the current flourishing of black identity politics and the US's history of racism.
But little criticism was raised of what Wakanda, the fictional Utopian African country that Black Panther rules, represents. It's a hereditary monarchy --- think Saudi Arabia not England. Panther surrounds himself with an elite all-women guard, a la Muammar Gaddafi's Revolutionary Nuns. He and his entourage live in ostentatious opulence that only the top 1% of the top 1% can aspire to. Their isolationism makes North Korea look gregarious and they zealously keep for themselves a technology that the whole world, or at least the rest of Africa, would benefit from. There's a scene where the Wakanda elite travels to a foreign country, South Korea, and causes mayhem in a fancy nightclub and on the streets of Seoul.
A friend who hated the movie --- an immigrant from the Kingdom of Eswatini who is consequently perhaps more concerned with governance than identity --- pointed out that Wakanda reminded him of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.
There's barely any insight into class in Panther; the political chord it has struck has come solely from the rise of identity politics. The one character with interesting, albeit misguided, politics is Erik Killmonger, but he is very much the villain. I suspect in the 2000s, when identity politics was on the backfoot, the liberal/left reaction would have been much more critical. (An analysis of what's changed since then is much needed.)
Contrast this with Joker, Batman's archenemy.
In the DC Comics world, Batman's family represents the highest ideal: rich philanthropic industrialists. Thomas Wayne, Batman's father, while a minor character in the several brilliant movie versions of Batman, is never shown as anything but decent.
Along comes Todd Phillips' Joker which turns this myth on its head. Thomas Wayne is depicted as a callous oppressor whose famous murder is his comeuppance for treating working-class Arthur Fleck (the title character played by Joaquin Phoenix) and especially his mother so awfully.
The movie has been praised for its depictions of mental illness, but criticised for its identity politics --- or, more precisely, for stirring white right-wing fantasies. (This is despite the most sympathetic character in the movie being a black woman who Arthur falls in unrequited love with.)
But Joker is no right-wing fantasy. It shows the extreme effects of the alienation and material insecurity that millions of Americans, and the working and lower-middle classes of Europe are dealing with. It warns of the violent chaos that can erupt from this.
Joker himself is not an intentional revolutionary: "That's right, Murray. I'm not political," he tells Robert de Niro's character. Yet he inspires rebellion, a chaotic one devoid of any decent politics. Does that sound familiar?
On the back of Trumpism, America's opioid epidemic, and the seeming precariousness of the post-WWII rise in living standards across the world, Joker is an ominous, timely movie that leaves viewers sympathetic to its title character but not in the least oblivious to the villainy and evil into which he descends.
The politics of Joker (the movie, not the title character) is far better, more relevant and more important than Black Panther. The latter's identity politics has become mainstream, embraced by Hollywood and the New Yorker-reading intelligentsia. I wonder to what extent Joker's lukewarm reception among elite critics is that, in contrast to Panther, it offers a pertinent questioning of the status quo.
25 July 2022
I originally wrote this in February 2020. I published it for a few days. At the time this blog was new and barely anyone would have read it. Then, to my regret and shame, I unpublished it. More than two years later, I still largely agree with it, though perhaps it shows too little understanding of the struggle against racism in the US, which is undoubtedly why Black Panther was such a huge critical and box office success.
But I still believe that it is a movie that espouses terrible politics.