The internet lost its chill over Todd Phillips’ Joker a month before the film even came out. The actual film presents an unseemly paradox: beautifully executed shots (just think of Phoenix’s staircase dance, with light streaming down from the heavens) matched with something grotesque at its core. Joker aims to be apolitical while draping itself in political context. What it maneuvers around, and what it erases, is a political act in itself. The failure stings hardest on the question of race.
HBO’s Watchmen tackles a similar subject in the wake of Joker, but inversely, making a central point that the film couldn’t. Both the TV series, adapted by Damon Lindelof (The Leftovers) from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel, and Phillips’ movie present masks worn by white men — an inkblot fabric and a painted-on clown face — represent larger ideologies. But in the first six episodes provided to critics, Watchmen finds nuance in the conversation, exposing just how Joker comes up short.
In Joker, stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck, a Travis Bickle-esque version of the classic Batman villain, has a disorder that makes him eerily cackle like a Lion King hyena at inopportune times. Arthur appears as a kind of underdog. In an early scene, we see a group of kids bully and pummel him to the street. He’s taken advantage of at work, and scolded by a stranger on the bus. His stand-up act gets mocked on national television, on the talk show of his TV idol, Murray Franklin. Society is broken, Arthur tells his social worker, and the film seems to agree, showing us Gotham City’s grit and corruption, which burdens its protagonist — who also presumably has some unnamed or unfounded mental illness — and crowns him with what seems to be rightful, unimpeachable victimhood.
Arthur’s violent awakening, spurred on by harassment by a group of suited Wall Street alpha-male bros on the subway, feels like righteous retribution. His victims are, after all, bullies, so even when Murray later questions Arthur’s actions, saying his victimhood gives him no right to violence, his words are also invalidated by the cruelty he’s shown Arthur in the past. Besides, “Joker” has become a symbol in this Gotham; Arthur’s attack on the businessmen is recontextualized as a political killing. But Arthur, as he himself tells Murray, isn’t interested in those politics. The film isn’t interested either, though it does, in its indulgent character study, glorify rather than challenge this Joker.
Critics have connected the subway moment in the movie with the 1984 New York City subway shooting, in which a white man named Bernhard Goetz shot four black teenagers who he thought were going to rob him. Racial context was purged from the film scene (though its watermark still remains), but there are black characters in Arthur’s orbit: the social worker, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, a clerk at Arkham, and, most notably, his neighbor, Sophie (Zazie Beetz), with whom he has a whole imagined relationship.
There’s a kind of cognitive dissonance in the film, which doesn’t seem to recognize the particular threat that Arthur poses as a white man among these black characters. He becomes a symbol of a class movement, but one that’s alarmingly white and male, despite evidence of black characters around him facing similar economic straits. And one fears for some of the black women in the film — the social worker, who we may imagine could become the target of Arthur’s breakdown at any point; the Arkham psychiatrist, who does become a target; and Sophie, whose fate is unknown. In depicting Arthur’s fantasy relationship with Sophie, Phillips’ script refuses to engage with her identity or blackness in general as it intersects with the brewing political movement. Joker uses Arthur’s white male identity to indulge in narrative privilege, where he exists in a space above racial politics.
Watchmen steeps itself in the very politics that Joker ignores. In the first episode of the series, a black-and-white silent film reel introduces a black U.S. marshal heroically stopping a white sheriff who’s actually revealed as the villain, though their costuming (the sheriff in white, and the marshal, hooded, in black) suggests the opposite. We’re in the time of the 1921 Tulsa race riots, where a family is brutally torn apart in the violent chaos.
A time jump to the present day picks up with a black cop nervously pulling over a white driver — a clear inversion of our real-life situation. The image recalls Philando Castile and countless other black men who have been the victims of police brutality. But here, even while facing a police officer, the white man is the predator, a member of a secret underground organization of white supremacists called the Seventh Kavalry. He shoots the black man with an automatic weapon. The thread doesn’t fall to the wayside; by the end of the premiere, a white man is lynched, while a black man sits alongside the body.
Unlike the original text, Lindelof’s Watchmen has a protagonist in Angela Abar (Regina King) aka Sister Night, a secret detective with her own penchant for mask-and-costume antics. The central viewfinder of the show is a black woman whose roots in larger political machinations are revealed as the series progresses through the first several episodes. Sister Night, fittingly, is our guiding star through these politics and the aftermath of this history.
Though the original Watchmen spoke to various pressing political issues of the time, most notably rising nuclear tensions, racial politics didn’t feature in the story. HBO’s series changes that, and it doesn’t feel as a corrective measure so much as a logical extension of the story, taking place in a mirrored version of our present-day America. One of the protagonists from the comic, Rorschach, is redrawn as a symbol of terrorism and white supremacy. The character wasn’t portrayed as a white supremacist in the comic. Politically conservative, absolutely; mentally unstable and misogynistic, yes; and even perhaps a bit homophobic; but not necessarily racist. But his inkblot mask — which originally represented his unwavering perception of truth and justice, right and wrong, as a black-and-white issue — now appears to represent the divide between whiteness and blackness.
There are certainly parallels between Rorschach, aka Walter Kovacs, and Phillips’ rendering of the Joker: Both are white men from lower-class backgrounds, likely with some kind of mental disorder, who see the refuse of the world, are mistreated by society, and act — violently, ferociously — in accordance with their understanding of justice and retribution. By the ends of their respective arcs, both men become symbols of movements that are disconnected from their own politics.
But whereas Joker finds those politics to be inconsequential, secondary to the chaotic glory of a character study, Watchmen understands how individuals are indivisible from a nation’s politics. And, sure, they’re two different forms: Watchmen aims to reflect the world through the gaze of its characters, while Joker aims to relish in the gaze of its main character and let the rest of the world fall behind.
The difference is exactly what makes Joker most terrifying and troublesome. The film locks the audience within the perspective of a white man with the power to incite a mass movement without reckoning, with how this vision — even when born from injustice and marginalization — obscures the marginalized people it harms. Sophie’s fate in the movie is inconsequential. She’s only there to illuminate the state of Arthur’s mind, and such a choice reflects the film’s own politics.
In Sister Night’s developing storyline (which eventually reveals her connection to the flashback in the first episode), and in the series’ further world-building from the alternative history set up in the comic, the show heralds the importance of mining the full context of a work that would position itself to be relevant to, and apropos of, the real world.
This world may very well be irredeemable, both Watchmen and Joker say, looking at their central white male figures. But whereas Joker keeps the camera zoomed in on Arthur, Watchmen sweeps the set for a panoramic shot. “Here is a perverted version of an American hero,” a mosaic of brutality and unfettered power self-appointed godhood, says Watchmen. “And here’s the America that will suffer as a result.”
Maya Phillips is a poet and journalist. Her culture criticism and reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vulture, Mashable, Slate, The Week, American Theatre, Black Nerd Problems, and more. She is the author of the poetry collection Erou (Four Way Books, 2019). Maya currently works as a web producer at The New Yorker and as a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.