This post discusses the plot of the “Watchmen” episode “This Extraordinary Being” and of the movie “Joker” in detail.

The year 2019 has been a complicated year for superhero stories, but Damon Lindelof’s outstanding adaptation of “Watchmen” for HBO is proving what can be done in the genre, and laying down a marker for all who dare to follow. Judging by the second-buzziest bit of comic-book pop culture to be released this year, the comparison isn’t likely to be flattering. Todd Phillips’s “Joker,” with its portrait of the DC Comics supervillain as a troubled social outcast, may have grossed $1 billion worldwide and sparked praise for its “grittiness,” a term frequently used to signal moral and sociological seriousness in art, but viewed side by side, “Watchmen” and “Joker” illustrate the difference between art that actually challenges its audience and art that simply plays at provocation while reciting well-worn ideas.

The bar for an interesting “Watchmen” adaptation is stratospheric: The source material by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore is one of the most venerated comic books of all time, renowned for its portrait of dysfunctional, morally compromised heroes. And while some superhero stories share the “Watchmen” comics’ grim tone, few dare to dismantle heroic fantasies in the same way. In a 2016 interview, Moore condemned most superhero stories — now quite literally the most popular genre on Earth — as “still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race.”

Lindelof has proved himself up to the challenge. The premiere of “Watchmen” opened with a re-creation of the 1921 massacre in Tulsa’s prosperous black community. And in the show’s most recent episode, the series revealed that the first superhero, Hooded Justice, who was long assumed to be white, is actually a black man who survived that slaughter.

The hour follows Will Reeves (played as a young man by Jovan Adepo and in old age by Louis Gossett Jr.) as he joins a big-city police force only to discover that it has been infiltrated by a Klan-like organization using mind control techniques to incite riots in black communities. His fellow police officers subject Will to a mock lynching in an effort to dissuade his investigations; the noose they leave around his neck ends up becoming part of his superhero costume. After Will starts making headlines, he inspires a team of white superheroes, whose leader, Captain Metropolis (Chris Whitley) recruits Will with a promise to fight the racists — only to break that pledge and belittle Will.

These betrayals don’t make Will a saintly figure, better than his colleagues in the police or his fellow superheroes. Instead, they deform his character. In a spasm of despair, Will murders the racist conspiracists and takes their wicked technology for his own. Hooded Justice’s story is a shattering reminder that we don’t always rise above bigotry to become better people, and that giving a black man the same impunity as a white man can turn him into the same kind of monster.

What does “Joker” have to say that’s remotely as daring? It’s hardly news that men who believe themselves to be rejected by women and unrecognized at work sometimes use these failures to justify horrific acts of violence. The perpetrator of the Isla Vista, Calif., murders of 2014 left a lengthy manifesto to that effect, and at least two other killers have cited him as inspiration.

“Joker” is a dank and sullen movie, and its main character, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), resents both the social workers who have little to offer him and the talk- show host who turns him into a punchline. But aside from a throwaway line about stretched budgets, “Joker” doesn’t have much insight into — or even interest in — the holes in the social safety net. Its villain is a cardboard rich guy. And while Arthur rants about the comedic gatekeepers who get to decide what’s funny, laments about political correctness are hardly underrepresented in contemporary conversation. “Joker” is distinguished from its slick competition in the Marvel Cinematic Universe by its unremitting ugliness and dinginess, not because it actually has more to say.

This is the real dividing line in pop culture today: not whether the characters wear spandex, or have been manipulated by CGI, or whether the actors playing them are getting their checks from Walt Disney and Warner Brothers. It’s between art like “Watchmen” that actually has something to say and the guts to say it, and a project like “Joker” that just wants credit for showing its audience the illusion of courage.

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