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‘Joker’ Is Both a Superhero Movie and Oscar Bait

Todd Phillips’s film isn’t a masterpiece, but it could win awards and change the midbudget-film landscape into another superhero playground

Getty Images/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

Even though it feels like we’ve been discussing the film since the Triassic Period, it’s only this weekend that Joker actually arrives in theaters. “Exhausting” is the first word that comes to mind when reflecting on the Joker discourse throughout the film festival circuit, but “unprecedented” is a close second. Between critics decrying Joker as an empty piece of mass entertainment and lauding Joaquin Phoenix’s “maestoso”(?) performance, the movie’s generated the sort of hype that often portends legitimate Oscar buzz—including winning the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. This is all to say that if you think we’ll be done talking about Joker once it has finished its theatrical run, unfortunately, the joke’s on you.

While superhero flicks have made their presence felt at the Oscars before—as Black Panther did earlier this year en route to capturing three trophies—Joker is a different beast entirely. The possibility of awards-season plaudits seems just as important as box office numbers, and there are no pretensions of Warner Bros. turning this stand-alone film into some kind of cinematic Joker-verse. Marvel was no doubt thrilled that Black Panther got some Oscars love, but Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster didn’t stray from the company line so much as present the best possible product of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s crowd-pleasing corporate machine. (And hey, that doesn’t mean Black Panther wasn’t really good!) But love it or loathe it, Joker is unlike any project that’s arrived in this era of superfluous superhero content, and its success—at the box office and across the tedious awards-season stretch leading to the Oscars—may yield more of its kind.

I don’t mean that Warners will be making more nihilistic origin stories heavily indebted to the works of Martin Scorsese, but rather that Joker might expand the understandings of what films tied to recognizable and highly popular IP can actually be like. Superhero movie directors try to make their films seem like genre-warping works all the time: Remember when the Russo brothers likened Captain America: The Winter Soldier, an entertaining but extremely MCU product, to a Cold War–era conspiracy thriller? While I personally question the finished product, Joker does evoke arthouse sensibilities and intentional provocation; things that the superhero-industrial complex often avoids with the hope of appealing to the widest possible audience. There’s no such thing as a “hard-R” rating—if a film is rated R, it’s just that—but it’s telling that Joker is getting publicized as something besides a movie for the entire populace. (Also, Alamo Drafthouse really needs to relax.) It is the superhero movie for people who want something edgy—even if it’s ultimately try-hard edgy in a way that would make Jared Leto’s Joker blush through his face tattoos—and off the beaten path from your standard superhero fare, directed and cowritten by a dude who thinks “woke culture” has ruined his chances at making studio comedies.

Todd Phillips has (and should) get a lot of flak for his Joker press tour—at one point he questioned why Joker is getting called out for disturbing violence when everyone loves the John Wick franchise—but what he’s accomplished in making this movie is a clever gaming of the system. As Phillips explained to the Los Angeles Times, he came to the realization that superhero films were given the green light ad nauseam by major studios, so why not use their framework to make something totally different? “We all grew up on these character studies, and they’re few and far between nowadays,” he said. “So it was like, ‘Let’s do a deep dive on one of these [comic book characters] in a real way.’ No one is going to fly in it. No buildings are going to collapse. It’s just going to be on the ground, so to speak.”

True to his word, Joker is devoid of giant third-act sky beams and the general CGI-laden mayhem that tends to overwhelm even the best superhero entries in lieu of grounded character study. In the same way that James Gray’s Ad Astra rests its hopes on the appeal of an A-list movie star in Brad Pitt, Phillips just lets Joaquin Phoenix cook for two hours and descend into gritty, grimy chaos. When the sporadic action in Joker does occur, the violence is quite gruesome—rivaled only in the superhero canon by Logan and its full, unleashed, R-rated might of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. And Scorsese influences aside—though with how much the film owes to Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Marty should at least be getting a royalty check—it’s Logan that perhaps represents Joker’s closest superhero antecedent. Logan fashioned itself as a Western in mutant clothing, and its Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2018 was an important milestone for superhero prestige, a year before Black Panther got its due.

Of course, the bellwether for “let’s take superhero movies seriously at the Oscars” came courtesy of The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 epic that netted Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar for his own haunting portrayal of the Joker. The Dark Knight’s exclusion from the Best Picture race was the impetus for the Academy to widen the Best Picture field so that more nominees (i.e., blockbusters like The Dark Knight that may help boost general Oscar interest/ratings) could be nominated in the future—which paid dividends the following year when James Cameron’s Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time (until the arrival of Avengers: Endgame) received a Best Picture nod. And it’s certainly because of The Dark Knight—and to a greater extent Iron Man kicking off the MCU, which came out the same year—that superheroes have maintained cultural ubiquity for a decade (and counting), fostering an environment that allows something like Joker to exist and likely thrive.

Making a superhero movie as artsy Oscars bait may feel like an endgame (no pun intended), but the superhero-industrial complex shows no sign of slowing down. As the MCU continues its dominance, Warners has pivoted the DC Extended Universe away from attempts to emulate its top competitor. Coming off the heels of DCEU entries Aquaman and Shazam! (and with no plans for a new Justice League–type team-up imminent), Joker is a prime example of an offshoot with little to no cinematic universe connectivity that has allowed Warners to thrive under a new approach. (Helping matters for Joker specifically is a relatively small production budget, around a quarter of what Aquaman reportedly cost.) While Phillips told the L.A. Times he hoped Warner Bros. would consider making “DC Black,” an “independent-minded” label that could foster other experimental comic-book-adjacent works akin to Joker, executives apparently told him to slow his roll. But it’s that type of foresight that could signal what’s next in the superhero landscape.

But this is its own dilemma: If midbudget character studies can only succeed nowadays with a tangential tie to big-name IP and/or comic book characters, does that kill the industry of non-IP-based midbudget films, which is already hanging on life support? This could be the domino effect of Joker; its success could presage a new type of superhero film. We’re past the point of questioning why Joker exists; now we have to live with it. Or as this Edgelord Joker might put it, as he does on the screen for two agonizing hours: We live in a society.