Although 2019 was not quite the year for Lady Nerds to celebrate (that’s 2020), this was still a moment in time when we saw atypical superhero-and-villain-centered fare excel within the rest of the comic book onslaught shoveled into our mortal realm:
– On the TV end, we got HBO’s Watchmen series (a highly successful continuation that few initially clamored for but almost everyone admired) and Amazon Prime’s The Boys TV show (a gleefully subversive twist on the genre and downright audacious).
– In theaters, we got two Warner Bros. movies, Shazam! (a thoroughly enjoyable romp about foster-kid superheroes, who are the greatest heroes), and Joker. Only one of those movies, obviously, was going to end up being celebrated in the awards circuit.
Did Joker covet that goal? Oh, undoubtedly. It’s impossible to make a case for Todd Phillips not setting out to make an Oscar movie (after a career of Frat Pack flicks, topped off with The Hangover trilogy). Phillips fanboyed over Scorsese, and he hired Joaquin Phoenix, a highly nominated and moderately decorated actor throughout his career (let’s not talk about that Kaufman-imitation blip). And yes, maybe Joker carries an aura of wannabe-prestige, but I don’t know if it’s worth getting worked up about to the degree that people are pointing their anger solely at this movie. Yes, Joker is emblematic of the white-male domination that proliferates the Academy, but to be fair, that issue is part of a disease that can’t be pinned upon any one piece of art. If we separate concerns about Joker‘s privilege from the larger comic book movie discussion, there’s reason for intrigue, at least where nerd interests are concerned.
Really, it’s necessary to revisit Phoenix’s reasons for signing on to the (Taxi Driver and King of Comedy-esque) movie as he expressed to Vanity Fair. Phillips told him to think of the project as a heist movie. “We’re gonna take $55 million from Warner Bros. and do whatever the hell we want.” Yet here’s how Phoenix explained why he really did the film:
“To me, there was a period of time when we think about all those great films from the ’70s, it wasn’t a genre. It wasn’t like, this is a drama. It was just a movie. Like Dog Day Afternoon is, like, intense, heartbreaking, and fucking funny. And those are the movies that I love. And those are the movies that I pursue.”
It’s no mistake that Phoenix namedropped an Al Pacino movie (helmed by Sidney Lumet) about a disenfranchised war veteran. Dog Day Afternoon was bleak and unrelenting in its critique of American society, although not as nihilistic as what Phillips and Phoenix churned out. Joker is also an imperfect movie and not entirely graceful in its execution. I won’t argue that point, and despite its depiction of marginalization and classism (in a manner inferior to Parasite), it still marginalized quite a few people. Granted, I’m not sure that everyone who despises Joker actually watched the movie, especially if we’re talking about those lingering incel accusations (Arthur Fleck was not an incel, but I’ve already spoken about that topic and won’t exhaust you with it again). And Joker didn’t break new ground compared to the movies that Phoenix adores, but it did add layers to an already captivating comic book villain.
There’s a lot to be argued about the messiness within which Joker maneuvered, but I believe that it’s worth setting those beefs aside and acknowledging two truths:
(1) A nerd-fueled movie reaped 11 Oscar nominations: That’s not an insignificant number. In fact, it’s unprecedented unless we’re talking about Titanic or La La Land-levels of Academy embrace. It’s noteworthy, and it’s alright to be a little bit nerd-giddy. Yes, the general air that Phillips presented was that he veered away from the comics, and this movie was the story of some guy and what transpired to turn him into the Joker (without any mention of subsequent toxic waste from the Killing Joke comic). Still, there’s no denying that the target audience was Joker and Batman enthusiasts.
If we can accept Joker‘s inclusion at the Oscars, wouldn’t this ultimately be better for comic book recognition in the future? Not to mention more complex character arcs, fleshed out backstories, and characters who are propelled into action (for better or worse) rather than largely presenting as guys with, you know, daddy issues? I hate to be overly simplistic, but damn, that’s where the MCU’s prototypical protagonist, Tony Stark, found a lot of fire. Not to mention Loki, Killmonger, T’Challa, Star-Lord, Peter Parker, and, yeah, you know the drill. And DC’s Batman! In comparison, Arthur Fleck from Joker is downright complex. He’s not simply suffering from daddy/mommy issues, although he was abused as a child. Arthur also deeply suffers from mental illness and has been left twisting in the wind by society. Not just society at large but by the system, for Gotham City has cut off his access to both therapy and psychiatric medication. He’s eons of complexity beyond Jared Leto’s Hot Topic/Yosemite Sam hybrid in Suicide Squad. It feels strange to wonder whether Phillips has elevated the comic book field on a level similar to The Dark Knight, and maybe we should feel grateful, but here we are.
Granted, Joker shouldn’t be accepted as the blueprint for comic book deep dives, but it takes several steps in that direction. It’s also free of special effects and CGI and all that jazz, which is certainly something that Martin Scorsese can’t say about The Irishman. That film, in case you didn’t notice, is also a celebration of white-male legacy with an unreliable narrator, which might also be the case with a damn fine theory about Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Come to think of it, I was actually kind-of thrilled about the unreliable narration of Joker, and my goodness, what a fine (white-male) web Hollywood has woven this year.
Make no mistake, though, Joker will be the bad guy and the scapegoat. He’s the Clown Prince of Crime, after all, and he had the audacity to earn comic book money (over $1 billion) in a movie that isn’t canon. Nerds, man. They bought the vast majority of tickets, repeat and otherwise. And their baby will be represented this year at the Oscars in something other than the effects categories. That’s a rarity to happen at all, let alone with eleven nominations, including Best Picture, Lead Actor, Best Director, and so on.
Yes, Joker isn’t as profound at it claims to be, and ultimately, it’s not that surprising that this movie came from the director of The Hangover trilogy (especially that angry final installment). Yet the movie still carries so much more nuance than comic book fans normally witness at the multiplex. Compared to Watchmen recontextualizing an already epic graphic novel through a lens of historically downplayed racial violence, Joker pales. Yet if we’re comparing this story to intergalactic romps and an MCU that gave its ultimate villain, Thanos, a loosey-goosey motivation (also different from the comics), Joker is more grounded in reality and terrifying. Like it or not, Arthur Fleck’s struggles were authentic ones before he embraced a monstrous path.
(2) Joker paves the way for comic book movies to attract greater talent: This movie’s framing enticed the only actor who could have portrayed Arthur Fleck in such a harrowing yet captivating and majestic way. Joaquin Phoenix crushed the role, years after he turned down the Doctor Strange lead. And the Joker model paid off, in terms of its modest budget, cultural impact, and incentive for actors to choose roles that make massive financial returns in addition to being regarded as art.
I don’t want to diminish any of the DCEU or MCU actors, but, realistically speaking, few of them are able to take on those characters (and those lengthy, although lucrative, contracts) while also digging deep in prestige material. It’s almost as if they have to choose one of the other. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have the best of both worlds? That’s what Joker (likely a one-off movie, but we’ll see) set out to do, and there’s no reason that the trend shouldn’t continue. Phoenix dug deep into his character in this “smaller” movie (that happened to reap blockbuster dollars), but he’ll be able to play other roles successfully as well. He will not be branded as Arthur Fleck forever.
In contrast, look at the MCU guys. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo have all mainly seen success through their Avengers roles lately. They’re all great at what they’ve done but also constrained. Nailed into seven-picture contracts or whatever, you name it. Likewise, DC’s Jason Momoa knows that he jumped from being known as Khal Drogo to being Aquaman forever. And we’re all somehow surprised that Henry Cavill fared well as The Witcher. All of these actors must be grateful to have earned their millions in long-running roles, but is this good for the honing of their talents, and for audiences, really?
If you want an exception, there’s Scarlett Johansson, who has transcended the MCU by still acting in successful smaller films on a regular basis. Ironically, she picked up the Black Widow role in order to save her career. Johansson (a household name at that point) accepted a relatively paltry $250,000 to play Natasha Romanoff in Iron Man 2. Fast forward to 2020, and she’s reportedly received at least $15 million for the upcoming Black Widow film, and she’s been nominated for two acting Oscars in 2020. She’s an outlier in the nerd-fueled world of talent, which will probably also be the case for Phoenix. And undeniably, his performance was an agonizing treat to behold in an outlier of a comic book movie.
Honestly, I dig that Phillips made a comic-book movie that kind-of gives the finger to comic book movies as we know them. I mean, as much as I enjoy the Ant-Man films or Aquaman, I damn well know that no one debated Scott Lang or Arthur Curry’s legacies over the holiday dinner table. If we’re talking villains, few people felt anything about Ultron. I’m simplifying things here, but this is reality: Joker will spark discussions for many years. It managed to be an origin story that wasn’t about the Joker but about a guy named Arthur Fleck and the circumstances that came together for him to become Joker, who (as we all know) then went on to become the greatest supervillain of Gotham. Granted, I didn’t appreciate the insertion of a mini-Batman origin story in the third act. That shall remain a complaint of mine, but overall, Joker made a lasting impact.
One thing is certain: no one can accuse Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix of not playing the game well. They maneuvered the hell out of this little $55 million movie with a non-canon story that sits firmly outside the DCEU. The movie doesn’t even follow the comics but is still, unavoidably, considered a comic book movie. Do I believe that the movie should win Best Picture? Nope, but being nominated is enough to get the job done. After Joker, we’ll never see this supervillain or his corresponding genre the same way again. That opens the door for more of these stories about comic book characters (villain, hero, and all of the iterations in between) to aspire to more than superpowers and intergalactic warfare while capturing the collective nerd fancy.