What’s the connection between the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and the Joker movie? Thanks for asking! (Reader: but I didn’t ask you…Me: Not now! I’m answering your question). Two seemingly unrelated stories caught my eye today. First, the Joker movie just premiered after weeks of hype and controversy (I have not seen it yet, so all my comments are based on trailers and publicly released information; minor spoiler warnings nonetheless). Starring Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix and set in the late 80s, the movie offers an origin story for Batman’s most iconic foe, a character who has already been played by Academy Award winners Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger (it was Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight just before his death that earned him his posthumous Oscar). The film’s content and style (it’s been compared to early Scorsese movies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy; the inclusion of a supporting role by frequent Scorsese collaborator Robert DeNiro has helped this along) have risked being overshadowed by fears (or simply predictions by internet commentators who want to be able to say “I told you so”) that it might inspire violence.
Some worry that the seeming portrayal of disaffection and white rage will feed into the current climate of fringe elements – white nationalists, incels, and so on. On top of that, the combination of disaffection and mental illness is worrisome in light of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, in which a man attending a screening of a Batman movie shot and killed 12 people and wounded dozens others. The connection is not as strong as it may seem – the Aurora screening was of The Dark Knight Rises, a sequel that didn’t feature the Joker, and contrary to popular reports, the shooter was not dressed as the Joker character – but still enough to make people worried.
Meanwhile, as the Hong Kong protests against anti-democratic efforts by the Hong Kong government (which is ultimately backed by China) stretch into months of increasingly violent clashes between formerly peaceful protestors and heavy-handed police, the Hong Kong government has banned the wearing of Guy Fawkes masks. You’ve likely seen these masks even if you don’t know what they are, as they’ve become quite popular in protests – a smiling white face with a curled black mustache and goatee, the masks are modeled after Guy Fawkes, a conspirator of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot (some Catholic English dudes unsuccessfully attempted to blow up Parliament in order to assassinate the Protestant King James I, who you remember from such religious text translations as the King James Bible). The plot failed, but the image of Guy Fawkes persisted over the centuries in Britain and its offshoots. Masks of Guy Fawkes became common features of protest movements in the 2000s,such as Occupy and Anonymous. Hong Kong protestors started to wear them recently, leading to the ban.
What do these two stories have in common, you may ask? The answer is this guy:
In case you aren’t familiar, the gentleman who looks like your scary uncle who’s also an evil wizard is actually Alan Moore, a legendary British comic book writer whose works include Watchmen (considered by many to be the apex of the medium and one of the great works of the late 20th century, period). Two of his other most famous stories are The Killing Joke, a story of Batman and the Joker that appears to be much of the inspiration for the new Joker movie, and V for Vendetta, a story of a dystopian Britain that was adapted into a 2005 movie that featured the Guy Fawkes mask and brought about their popularity.
First, on to Joker. The new movie appears to portray the title character as a failed comedian who’s beat down by life and descends into madness and then violence. That is pretty much the story of The Killing Joke, in which the Joker tells an (unreliable) backstory of his life. The flashback is juxtaposed with the present day, in which the Joker shoots, kidnaps and degrades a young woman, Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Batman friend and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (she’s also secretly Batgirl, but none of the other characters know this). While the Killing Joke is still hailed as a definitive Joker story, the gendered violence of the assault on Barbara Gordon has aged poorly, and even Moore has said he would change that aspect of the story if he had to do it again. While the Joker movie does not have the same gendered aspect to its violence (as far as I can tell from the promo material), there is an aspect of one man’s violence inspiring others (we see various people in joker masks, implying that he’s started some kind of violent movement or revolution), and in the age of incels and right-wing mass violence, there’s a concern that a certain subset of the population will take away the wrong message and see the Joker as the hero, being inspired to follow suit.
Whether entertainment actually breeds violence this way has been a long-running debate, on both the right (which pointed to rap music in the 1980s and later to movies like The Matrix) and the left (pointing to movies like Fight Club and now Joker). There’s also been a bit of irony in these debates: after all the moral handwringing over The Matrix and trench coats and whatnot, it was the far right that adopted portions of the movie, specifically the whole “Red Pill” metaphor. Meanwhile, the left took up the Guy Fawkes mask, not realizing that the character who wore it was not the hero they’ve taken him to be (both movies were written by the Wachowskis, I should add. Perhaps the sibling directing team should provide liner notes on how their works should be understood).
V for Vendetta is the story about an alternative future (1997; the comic was written in 1982) Britain ruled by a fascist dictatorship. In the midst of this oppression, a vaguely superhuman anarchist known as V (portrayed in the film adaptation by Hugo Weaving, who also curiously plays the bad guy Agent Smith in The Matrix) wages a one-man war against the government, which becomes a two-person war once he recruits (via kidnapping) a young woman named Evey (played by my old classmate Natalie Portman in the 2005 movie [no, really, I apparently took a class with her in college; it was a huge class, but I was told she was in it], who becomes his accomplice. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask during his violent exploits against the government and he and Evey eventually pull off a version of the Gunpowder Plot. After the movie came out, V and especially his Guy Fawkes became adopted by various, generally left-leaning, protest movements.
The Hong Kong protestors, for reasons of symbolism and personal safety, have worn a variety of different masks – surgical masks, even Donald Trump Halloween-style masks. But it wasn’t until this week and the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China that the masks popularized by the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta became popular among the Hong Kong demonstrators. This is not the first time the comic has been referenced in Hong Kong protests, however; during the 2014 uprising (the largest protests before this summer), then leading teen activist Joshua Wong took a page from the Alan Moore comic book, repeating the main character’s line that “”People should not be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of their people.”
Alan Moore famously dislikes (to put it mildly) adaptations of his work, and refuses to be involved in them. And while common opinion of these adaptions have ranged from “horrible” (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) to “pretty good” (V for Vendetta), the film versions of his stories have tended to lose some of the nuance and subtleties of the originals; sometimes to the degree of missing out on the point entirely. That’s the worry for Joker – that viewers may miss the point, and think of the character or his followers as people to imitate rather than to fear. And, in a way, that’s kind of been the case with V and the Guy Fawkes masks. Look, the idea of standing up to fascism is fantastic, and sadly super relevant today. But just because V is fighting a villainous government does not mean that he is a hero. He is quite literally a terrorist, and not just against an evil government; he puts his would-be partner through psychological torture and brainwashing to get her to join his cause. (Now that I mention it, the heroes of The Matrix are kind of terrorists as well, but that’s an article for another day). Radical leftism is not the antidote to radical rightism; it’s creating the same problem from the other side (note in real life how fascism and communism looped around and met each other in brutal totalitarianism. Stalin and Hitler each killed millions and millions of people in the name of opposing ideologies). Meanwhile, the Hong Kong protestors are not terrorists, but the government’s decisions and actions have more or less treated them as such, running the risk of further radicalizing the already angry crowds and creating a situation that could figuratively blow up like so much gunpowder.
Hopefully, before anyone decides to emulate the Joker, or the government of Hong Kong decides to double (triple?) down on its heavy-handedness against the (mask wearing) protestors, everyone goes back and reads Moore’s original work (and he’s a great writer, to boot, so they should probably go back and read it anyway). And please, everyone, thank the British man who looks like he scares off monsters for teaching us that random violence and fascist tendencies are bad thing.