Caution: Spoilers ahead for Joker
Avengers: Endgame is the highest grossing movie in history and Marvel's Phase 4 will see the studio release a quartet of movies within a single year. Meanwhile, DC boast plans of their own and have a diverse slate of comic book movies primed for the near future. In 2018, half of the year's highest grossing movies were based on comic books, with 3 in 2019's ranking. That pattern is only likely to increase with Batman, Wonder Woman, Thor and Spider-Man all due for big screen adventures over the next few years.
Just as evidence of superhero success is never too far away, neither is high profile criticism towards comic book movie adaptations. In a move not at all related to Avatar's dethroning as box office champion, James Cameron has been critical of what he suggests is merely an extended trend and Martin Scorsese recently claimed that Marvel's output was "not cinema." While some of these comments may come across as bitter, they're not entirely without merit. Superhero movies do tend to stick to a standard formula and revisit the same themes and tropes. As Joker demonstrates, however, comic book films have the potential to go far beyond that familiar template.
Joker Is The Least "Comic Book" Movie Yet
There have certainly been deviations from the standardized superhero movie formula in recent years - Logan and Deadpool being two that immediately spring to mind. But even taking those releases into consideration, Joker is the most radical comic book movie yet, and by a comfortable distance. It perhaps also wouldn't be a stretch to say that Joker defies even the traditions of major studio movies in general.
Even the more diverse live-action superhero stories follow rules that they dare not deviate from, and one of these is structure. As a sub-section of the action genre, more or less every comic book movie comprises of action set-pieces punctuated with moments of comedy, character building and/or mystery. Over the course of the narrative, the central protagonists are pushed on a journey of self-discovery by the villain of the piece, and the entire concoction comes full circle in a thrilling high-octane climax.
Joker takes those expectations and makes confetti out of them, laughing all the while. Instead, Joker is built more akin to a Coppola or Scorsese crime epic, where a series of key character moments create a gradual descent from innocence to full-blown criminality. With no real adversary to speak of in Joker, the plot becomes far more character-driven than the average comic book flick, relying on Arthur Fleck's development to push things forward, rather than the emergence of a formidable antagonist or a desire to defend the masses. As a direct consequence of this, Joker ends not with a climactic shoot-out, but with the completion of Fleck's transformation as a character and it's difficult to even place Joker within the action genre at all.
Another key deviation lies in Joker's moral positioning. With the villain in the title role, Joaquin Phoenix's iteration of the Joker was always going to be more sympathetic that previous versions, but the moral implications explored by Todd Phillips' movie are still far beyond what anyone would expect from a comic book story. In terms of delving into morally gray territory, Joker makes Batman's criminal branding in Batman V. Superman or the Sokovia Accords debate in the MCU look like feeble attempts to introduce elements of conflict into otherwise straightforward characters.
These elements are just the tip of Joker's subversive iceberg. The emphasis on imagery over dialogue, the way the audience are encouraged to dislike the same people as Arthur Fleck, the detailed character study approach - Joker is different from previous comic book movies in almost every conceivable sense, other than it features a lead that originally appeared as a comic illustration.
Joker Tackles Big Ideas Directly - And Creates Its Own Discussion
To say that comic book movies haven't previously dealt with meaty subject matter does a disservice to the genre. Christopher Nolan's Batman movies explored the necessity or otherwise of vigilantism, Avengers: Endgame dealt with the topic of sacrifice and Logan deftly handled the issues of legacy and family. Joker, however, veers into considerably more controversial territory, but with subjects that are pertinent to today's society.
Mental health is a huge part of Joker's core story, and while some have criticized its portrayal of psychological disorders, the film does at least raise the issue of the western world's inability to deal with a burgeoning mental health crisis. No one's quite sure whether depression and anxiety is becoming more commonplace, or whether it has always been this prevalent and only now being recognized, but one thing that can be said with confidence is that state health services are woefully equipped to deal with these conditions and social attitudes leave plenty of room for improvement. Joker tackles these issues directly and while the character's murderous intent might not be the most accurate portrayal of mental health struggles, the cut funding storyline and the final "what do your get when you cross..." joke Phoenix's character tells on the Murray Franklin show both ring eerily true for today's society.
Joker also carries with it a strong political subtext. Again, this isn't necessarily a new addition to the comic book movie palette, but street protests are often painted in a very black and white manner. Either rioters are subjugated citizens rightly striking out against oppression, or misguided sheep pushing back against an enemy they either don't understand or that doesn't exist. Joker stokes discussion in that it allows the audience to decide their allegiance for themselves. Viewers can condemn Arthur Fleck's crimes and the violence employed by some of the clown-mask protesters, but can separately choose to either sympathize with or denounce the root of their discontent.
Joker Could Be A Major Awards Contender
Awards ceremonies, in particular the Oscars, are notoriously frosty towards comic book movies, and the Academy even attempted to introduce a Best Popular Movie category in an attempt to work around widespread calls for Black Panther to receive recognition. If any film is going to buck that trend, it's Joker. Joaquin Phoenix offers the kind of focused, rich character exploration that Best Picture nominees thrive upon and the lack of blockbuster attributes puts the film far closer to Oscar-bait than popcorn viewing.
All the reasons the Oscars usually have for ignoring comic book fare - the abundance of action, the reliance on special effects, the black-and-white characters - simply do not apply in the case of Joker. It'll certainly be fascinating to see whether a film that has more in common with a low-budget indie than a superhero thrill ride is still passed over and, if this is the case, surely some kind of prejudice towards movies based on comic books is at play. On the other hand, a major Oscar win for Joker would not only represent another stage in the legitimization of comic book films as an art form, but would also prove that non-traditional takes on comic characters can achieve previously unthinkable success.
Joker Could Change The Comic Book Movie
Perhaps more than awards success, Joker's true legacy will rest upon its impact on the comic book movie genre as a whole. Of course, Joker is further proof that more mature, darker comic book tales still shift tickets in large quantities and an R-rating is no longer a huge restriction in terms of audience. More important than that, however, is Joker's breaking down of the traditional superhero movie formula and the tropes and conventions that fans have been conditioned to believe are immovable.
The best outcome would be if Joker proved to both filmmakers and studios that comic book movies needn't stick to the same story structure and that, in some cases, they don't really even need to be action movies at all in the standard sense. Many might've predicted that a Joker solo movie wouldn't work without Batman, or without a story entrenched in the wider DC universe or without an adversary for the Clown Prince to fight against, but Joker succeeds without all three, simply as a character study of a fascinating comic entity.
Joker could pave the way for more releases in the same vein, both on DC and Marvel's side of the industry divide. Such projects wouldn't necessarily need to be grimy crime pieces or centered exclusively around villainous figures, but could take a famous character from comic book canon and pick apart their psyche in a detailed way that doesn't involve fist fights, rousing speeches and CGI final bosses. Even with financial and awards success, achieving this would be a tall order for Joker. But in a market becoming increasingly saturated with comic book movies, it's hugely reassuring to see that the genre still has plenty of room for evolution and expansion, and if Joker proves to be the first in a line of looser, less formulaic superhero movies, that can only help grow the genre and keep fans invested long-term.
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