Note: There are spoilers for Joker, Infinity War and Endgame below!
Having watched Joker quite late in its runtime, I had already read most of
what people had to say about it: From the preliminary media-scare about its
glorification of violence to the rave reception it received from many people. I
went in without expecting anything revolutionary. But even with my expectations
lowered, I was struck by one thing in particular: I found the question as to
why so many people raved about the movie more interesting than anything the
movie had to say itself. Aside from the obligatory compliments for Phoenix's
performance, I kept wondering what it meant that for so many people, the movie
resonated so deeply, which in turn got me thinking about the wider implications
of the still present superhero craze.
It has been said before that the current superhero craze in mainstream cinema is akin to the Western craze before, just a marketing coup that will in some years come to pass, after which people won't remember much of the countless superhero films. Instead of relegating any explanations to marketing geniuses, we could try to think of the superhero craze as a Sign of the Times and thus ask ourselves: What does it mean that the highest grossing movie is a superhero movie, "the most blockbuster of all blockbusters"? (Tallerico, 2019) What does it mean that Marvel can churn out superhero movie after superhero movie and people do not tire of it?
I'll argue that the current blockbuster superhero movie we encounter is not unified under one genre1. The Marvel movies have been described as spy-thrillers, sci-fi comedies, adventure-movies, etc. However for my analysis, the genre of the individual movies do not matter much, as I think that the ideological value of the movies lie not in their primarily presented themes (distrust against a turned-evil government branch, friendship, etc.), but in their forms. One common criticism against the Marvel movies was the lack of notable villains, which in turn reveals the underlying form of how many superhero movies function, i.e. if we strip away the plot machinations, we can find that a majority of superhero movies tend to concern themselves with one particular notion: The notion of order.
Order and impurity in superhero movies
The modern superhero primarily fights against impurity, whether it's the Avenger's fight against the Chitauri and Loki in the movie of the same name, or the fight against Ultron in Age of Ultron. In that, the villains of the Marvel Cinematic Universe encompass the same aspects as Noel Carroll ascribes to monsters in horror movies:
In her classic study Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas correlates reactions of impurity with the transgression or violation of schemes of cultural categorization ... Following Douglas, then, I initially speculate than an object or being is impure if it is categorically interstitial, categorically eontradictory, incomplete, or formless. (Carroll, 1990: 31f)
This is a unifying factor of most supervillains as well. The villain can present
themselves as the anti to the hero, that which defies the hero and their
convictions, but the generality of the villains in the MCU present themselves as
impure on a very basic level: Ultron for example is a sentient machine. But
the notion of impurity is not simply a categorical transgression in terms of
visual or discrete categories; in terms of horror "monsters", take for example
Halloween's Michael Myers, whom his therapist describes as having "no reason,
no conscience, no understanding in even the most rudimentary sense of life or
death, of good or evil, right or wrong ... with this blank, pale, emotionless
face and... the blackest eyes". Even without his supernatural strength and
resilience, Myers poses a categorial transgression in that he is, to revert back
to Carroll's definition, incomplete. In the same vein one could argue that,
say, Obadiah Stane from the first Iron Man movie is in some sense incomplete in
that he challenges Tony Starks cultural values by betraying him and betraying no
sense of morality.
Carroll uses the notion of impurity to posit a general and universal account of the horror genre. I don't intend to create a universal und unifying overview over the superhero genre2, but use the notion of order to analyze the ideological foundation to be able to add an additional explanation towards the success of the movies.
So while we could continue Carroll's thoughts about impurity, what is more interesting for this undertaking is the notion of impurity with regards to form and what Carroll writes of the ideological account of horror, referring to a Stephen King quote I will later come back to:
the horror narrative appears to proceed by introducing something abnormal-a monster-into the normal world for the express purpose of expurging it. That is, the horror story is always a contest between the normal and the abnormal such that the normal is reinstated and, therefore, affirmed. (Carroll, 1990: 199)
With the notion of impurity in mind, we can easily see how this pertains to the villains in superhero movies: The villains exemplify transgressions of a certain order and the subsequent struggle of the hero against the villain is not so much a struggle between two (or many more) characters, but a struggle between order and its transgression. Often the movies start out quite orderly, especially the team-up movies exemplified by the Avengers movies. Much like in many horror movies3, the superhero narratives often work by introducing the villains, as something impure, where the remainder of the movie is dedicated to defending the initial idyllic order against the villain's plans. This notion can be found in many superhero movies, but nowhere is the struggle between order and its transgression more evident than in the latest and last Avengers movies, the double-feature Infinity War and Endgame, which will serve as a demonstration of the notion of order against transgression.
The ideological transgression of Thanos
In Infinity War and Endgame the supervillain to trump all supervillains,
Thanos (who has been slowly introduced throughout smaller scenes in previous
movies) wants to eradicate half of all life in the universe in order to combat
overpopulation, the effects of which he has experienced on his home-planet. In
essence, Thanos sees himself faced with an ecological catastrophe and seems to
be the only one acknowledging and acting on it.
Now, we don't need to discuss the actualities of his plan, nor the moral implications of it. It is clear that simply eradicating half of all life in the universe can be read as transgressive. While there exist various online communities around the idea that Thanos did nothing wrong, the cultural values of previous movies (as well as our actual current cultural schemes, thank god) are pretty clear that this is essentially a big no-no.
Infinity War lays out Thanos' plan and the heroes plan to stop it, but only combined with Endgame does the notion of order and transgression really come to shine. While Thanos ultimately succeeds in Infinity War, the whole of Endgame is dedicated to restoring the status quo. But what's notable is that the actual catalyst for Thanos' plan, the ecological catastrophe brought on by overpopulation is never addressed as an actual problem, even after our heroes (unsurprisingly) manage to revert back to the status quo through the use of time-trickery. At the end of Endgame Thanos is defeated and while one or two major characters died, we are right back where we started.4 And while this is most clearly expressed in the double feature of Infinity War and Endgame, the struggle between order and transgression is present in many superhero movies.
But how can we make sense of the disavowal of the ecological crisis in
Endgame? One could argue that the
adamant defense of the status quo suggests an implicit acceptance of it. While,
yes, the alternative where half of the universe is eradicated is obviously not
that great of a solution, the disavowal of the problem creates a blindspot where
the status quo is readily accepted but never questioned. In fact, one of the
problems I initially had with Infinity War is that we see our heroes ready to
risk their lifes in order to defeat Thanos, but the opposition against Thanos
felt more like a negative opposition instead of a positive one: While the stakes
were half-the-universe-high, the individual stakes felt low because I never felt
like I knew what our heroes were fighting for.
If we were to read any real world themes into the movie, it's not a stretch to acknowledge the similarities between the catalyst for Thanos' plan and our current political climate: In 2019, when Endgame was released (2018 for Infinity War), the ecological crisis we are currently facing was already long present in the public mind. And while the notion that a blockbuster picks up relevant political and social themes but does not address them is nothing new, the sheer impact of Endgame as one of the biggest blockbusters of all time and the continuing domination of superhero movies is still interesting, while not surprising; it is not really surprising to see a generation that is defined by social instability and an ecological crisis looming in the near future attracted towards narratives that posit an implicitily good status quo that is unquestionably worth defending. Similarly to how Stephen King argues for horror as inherently conservative, the transgression of supervillains serve as a horrifying other:
Monstrosity fascinates us because it appeals to the conservative Republican in a three-piece suit who resides within all of us. We love and need the concept of monstrosity because it is a reaffirmation of the order we all crave as human beings…and let me further suggest that it is not the physical or mental aberration in itself which horrifies us, but rather the lack of order which these situations seem to imply. (cit. Carroll, 1990: 199)
What bigger proponent of order than its defense against a genocidal megalomaniac?
The transgressive element in Joker
How does the Joker in his eponymous movie play into this struggle between order
and transgression? If we read superhero movies as struggles between order and
transgression5, where the
heroes defend the current order against some transgression, we could
read the oppositely situated supervillain movie as a struggle against order.
Disregarding the question whether Joker glorifies its titular hero, the main
point we can take from its protagonists struggle is that the current order
presented in the movie is
deeply flawed. Arthur Fleck, the name of the Joker prior to becoming him, is a
disturbed loner who is suffering in a "system that abandons him and treats him
like trash" (IMSDB, 2019: 119). 6
No matter whether the movie glorifies its (anti-) hero, the ending of the movie shows the transgression of the Joker celebrated by the masses, which, after he killed a talk-show host on live TV embrace him in their rioting frenzy.7 So does Joker represent an ideological counterpart of the superhero movie and its glorification of the status quo? In other words, to go back to Stephen King, is Joker a disavowal "of the order we all crave as human beings"?
In form Joker really does seem as a reversal of the order vs. transgression
narrative. The current order is deemed inherently bad, not worth defending
(and its defenders not worth sparing). There are multiple transgressions in the
movie and they all culminate in a social uprising against the current system and
its proponents (whatever they both may be). However, the political ramifications
of all of this remain as unexplored as the implicit agreement with the status
quo in Endgame. While the movie briefly touches on political aspects (e.g.
healthcare, poverty, etc.), the actual catalyst for the riots is transgressive
on a more common level - Robert De Niro's talk-show host is not killed by
Fleck/Joker because of political differences, but because of an emotional
outburst from Fleck (much like all the other killings in the movie). Just as well, the actual riots are not politicized but mostly
remain a subservient aesthetic expression; it doesn't matter that Fleck is being
heralded a hero by a mob rioting against... something, as the actual driver of
the scene is an emotional undercurrent in that he is finally accepted. The catharsis of the movie is
therefore not a political statement, but an emotional one.
There is nothing wrong with using political aspects to further an emotional journey. But Joker is not so much a transgression of political and/or cultural values in order to challenge them, but a transgression against a social and political order as the backdrop of an emotional reaction.8 I think it is therefore more apt to read the movie in the same psychoanalytical way as I did for Endgame, where the social, political and ecological instability that dominate our lives is more or less silenced in favor of a posited stable status quo that is neither worth exploring, nor worth questioning. Both the superhero movie that employs the order vs. transgression-motif, as well as its reversal in the supervillain movie operate (in part) by addressing psychological fears in their audience, where Joker serves as a commodified rebellion against some posited status quo9 without exploring either the status quo or the alternative. In some ways it plays in the same vein as other expression of rebellion that were and are commodified (think Nirvana) and thus is an almost infantile rebellion against the order which is deemed bad from the get go.
So in essence, both Joker as the supervillain movie and Infinity War/Endgame employ the order vs. transgression-narrative and in so doing address emotional aspects of their audiences. While the superhero movies tend to employ this narrative to implicitely posit an inherently good status quo that is worth defending, the supervillain movie, as Joker, posits a transgression for transgression's sake. The supervillain can not really challenge the status quo in a meaningful way for the audience, lest they become a hero.
Carroll, Noel (1990): The Philosophy of Horror. or Paradoxes of the Heart. Routledge.
Fisher, Mark (2009): Capitalist Realism. Is there no alternative? 0 Books.
IMSDB (2019): Joker. An Origin.
Tallerico, Brian (2019): Avengers: Endgame.
- Hot take, I know ↩
- Where, again, the notion of genre is debatable in the first place. ↩
- Carroll is quite critical of the ideological readings of horror movies; not in disagreeing with the ideological reading between order and transgression but in disagreeing with the suggestion that this is something inherent in art-horror. ↩
- Note that it is not really that important whether individual characters changed or died, as the transgressive reading of the movies is not really impacted by individual fates. ↩
- which now after having laid it out, I can admit can be a huge generalization ↩
- Which in the movie is spoken as "society that abandons him..." - apparently improvised by Phoenix ↩
- Yes, I have read the theories that we can't really believe what we see and I don't care ↩
- And in so doing it can also be read as the same notion of interpassivity that Mark Fisher diagnosed in e.g. Wall-E: "A film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called 'interpassivity': the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity." (Fisher, 2008: 12) ↩
- What is also worth considering is the time period the movie is set in. While apparently set in 1981, the movie constantly plays with anachronisms that make it seem more timeless or set in an undefined time somewhere in the minds of the audience. See e.g. Jameson on Nostalgia for this. ↩