Warner Bros.' next two films couldn't be any more different. Joker and Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) are essentially being released back to back, but each exists, figuratively and literally, in its own world. The two films bear similarities, in the broadest of strokes: Misfits in society, put down by those who they hope will bring them happiness, explosively reject the status quo, and find themselves along the way.
However, once we move past that surface assessment, the distinctions become apparent. Both films approaches those on the fringes of society through disparate political lenses, and appear to arrive at vastly different ideas that are overtly political in nature. But the fascinating aspect is breaking down what messages each film hopes to relay while simultaneously asking which perspective rings more true in this era: Joker's red-pilled antiestablishmentism, or Birds of Prey's brand, aimed at overthrowing the patriarchy.
Joker's Tale of Masculine Identity
Director Todd Phillips has made it clear in recent interviews that Joker is a right-wing superhero film. Or, at least, it's anti-political correctness.
“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture," he lamented in one interview. "There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore — I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out.’ I’m out, and you know what? With all my comedies — I think that what comedies in general all have in common—is they’re irreverent. So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh, I know, let’s take the comic book movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’ And so that’s really where that came from.”
The film draws on Phillips' frustration with the changing role of comedy in today's more self-aware climate. Most jokes come at the expense of someone. When those who are made the punchline have a chance to voice their displeasure, how can comedy feel so irreverent?
Joker focuses on Joaquin Phoenix's Arthur Fleck, who, upon being beaten down, chooses to deconstruct and demolish the society that rejected him. Rather than play the game by its rules, he says, as Phillips does, "I'm out."
Fleck, in many respects, takes what some people online call the "Red Pill." The idea of the "Red Pill" comes from The Matrix, which, considering the Wachowskis' political leanings, is ironic. What taking the pill means is that you understand the "reality" of society, that it is cruel and unforgiving and cynical, so you choose to reject it by actively opposing it and its PC elitism.
Many "red-pilled" people possess an anti-humanist perspective. That nihilism is evident in Fleck as well, who, upon rejects society's order and structure. The idea of the Red Pill is usually far more right-wing in nature, and often red-pilled individuals wish violence upon those they blame for their lot in life.
Phillips' film and comments reflect the mindset of a person who has chosen, rather than to function within society, to instead burn it all down. In many respects, that stands in complete opposition to the apparent themes of Birds of Prey.
The Liberal Agenda
Birds of Prey takes a far more left-leaning approach. The film won't be released until February, but judging from its marketing campaign, and the focus on empowerment, it is easy to assume it's taking the absolute opposite approach, politically.
The film focuses on Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, now free of Joker, following the events of 2016's Suicide Squad. Untethered, she finds new purpose in forming a supportive team of people who, much like herself, have also been pushed to the fringes. Rather than burn down their world, though, they find self-empowerment, and value in themselves and in each other.
You can work at deconstructing the oppressive systems around you, as represented in Birds of Prey by Ewan McGregor's Black Mask and his criminal empire, or you can rage at the society that rejected you, as seen in the trailer when Harley throws knives at a caricature of the Joker.
In many respects, it follows suit with many liberal movements, from feminism to civil rights to the gay rights movement. Change the system so you can find room in it, and celebrate the qualities that make you special.
Exterior vs. Interior Change
Both films do focus on some interior and external changes. After all, Birds of Prey involve a team of women overthrowing a man (Black Mask), and Joker centers on Arthur Fleck being pushed until he snaps. However, while both films have a similar core -- the world hates you and works to hold you down -- the solution presented by each film appears to be drastically different.
In Joker, society is inherently bad and needs to be destroyed. In Birds of Prey, the failed society can be better, but you need to embrace and celebrate yourself first before you can change anything. That, in many ways, reflects modern political drama. Is the world too corrupt to save? Is society to blame for the violence we experience? Or is the problem internal?
Each film, in a fascinating twist, is approaching the same core problem, with starkly different perspectives on that same core issue. Which one speaks more to you is a matter of perspective, but there is something revolutionary about how Birds of Prey seems to celebrate not fitting into society ... and something frankly disturbing about how Joker claims the only solution to being ostracized is to burn everything down.
Directed by Cathy Yan from a script by Christina Hodson, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) stars Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Ewan McGregor, Steven Williams, Derek Wilson, Dana Lee, Francois Chau, Charlene Amoia, Chris Messina and Matthew Willig. The film is scheduled for release on Feb. 7, 2020.