Joker had a strong opening weekend around the world, but not in China. Many moviegoers in the world’s second-largest film market fear they may never get to see the controversial comic book movie in theaters.

The latest DC film tells the origin story of Batman’s arch nemesis, the Joker. In this version, he’s an aspiring stand-up comedian troubled with mental illness who morphs into a murderous clown as he grapples with the cruel and apathetic society he was raised in. 

Society’s role in creating the Joker is seen as a critique of the failures of capitalism. The irony of a potential blackout in Chinese cinemas wasn’t lost on the public.

Joker hasn’t been approved for release in Chinese cinemas. (Picture: Warner Bros. Pictures)

“A film that criticizes the ideologies of capitalism can be screened in almost all capitalist countries, but it can’t be approved in a socialist country like China,” one person wrote on the movie review site Douban, drawing more than 200 likes. “That itself is a joke.”

Featuring what some call an “Oscar-worthy” performance by Joaquin Phoenix, the film broke box office records this past weekend despite being a subject of controversy. Many worry that the movie invites too much sympathy for a mass murderer and that it might incite copycat crimes.

But in China, cinephiles worry the the movie will never land in cinemas because it paints a bleak picture of a violent society. Even when R-rated films do get released in China, though, they can be heavily censored. Logan, known as Wolverine 3 in China, had 14 minutes cut from the China release. The first Deadpool never got a theatrical release in the country, and the sequel was only released when it got a PG-13 cut titled Once Upon a Deadpool.

“It can [get released] if they change the name to Happy Comedian and cut some violent scenes,” joked one user on Q&A site Zhihu under a question about the possibility of Joker being released in China.

“How is it possible that the Joker exists in the beautiful new era of socialism?” another person wrote on Douban.

Some critics say that the new Joker movie deviated from the more mysterious character featured in The Dark Knight, who was presented as a “malign agent of chaos” and considered a good adaptation of the comic book character who never had an official origin. In the new film, Joker has become more of a “V For Vendetta-style anti-capitalist revolutionary.”

“Our homeland only produces Lei Feng, not Joker,” another Douban user joked, referring to a Communist propaganda figure representing selflessness and modesty. “Because we have the guidance of Marxism.”

But some people think it’s not the dissimilarity with the Communist Party’s vision of China that’s the problem, but rather similarities to another part of the country.

“It’s impossible,” a Zhihu user said about the possibility of Joker being released in China. “Certain scenes in the movies are too much like what’s happening recently in a certain place.”

That place, of course, is Hong Kong, where protests that have gone on for four months have become increasingly violent. And ironically, that’s one place in China where people can actually watch the film.

“Watched it in Hong Kong tonight and came out to find the subway shut down,” said one short review on Douban. “It feels like the movie has not ended.”

“So does Gotham need an anti-mask law or does Hong Kong need a Batman?” another Douban user asked, referencing Hong Kong’s recent anti-mask law that drew a violent backlash over the weekend.

Thanks to censorship and effective propaganda, many nationalistic Chinese netizens show a lack of sympathy for Hong Kong protesters. But some are also asking people to think differently.

“Instead of worrying whether people in Hong Kong will turn into Jokers, why not reflect on whether you are as hypocritical and indifferent as Thomas Wayne and Murray?” another Douban user said in a comment with more than 600 likes.

But for those who can’t go to Hong Kong to see the film and make comparisons themselves, there’s at least one other option. Many Chinese netizens are already asking about where to find pirated copies online.