Joker’s win of the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, proved to be a major industry surprise. When it was initially rumored that Warner Bros. had plans to take Joker, Todd Phillips’s re-imagining of Gotham City’s most iconic villain’s origin story, to the fall film festival circuit, many fans and critics were skeptical.
The major movie festivals of the season are typically seen as launching pads for major awards and a certain kind of prestige that comic book adaptations and superhero titles don’t tend to strive for. Then it was revealed that Joker would play in competition at Venice Film Festival, something that simply doesn’t happen with mainstream comic book movies. Reviews were strong – far more so than many had predicted they’d be – but few could have foreseen how the movie would perform with the festival’s jury, headed by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel.
Amid tough competition, Joker won Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion, which is the biggest award on offer at the event. Some fans had predicted a win for actor Joaquin Phoenix, who previously took home that award in 2012 for The Master, but the top prize never seemed like a realistic option, even with critics in its corner. Comic book movies of this caliber simply don’t win awards at festivals, until now. So what changed?
What Is The Golden Lion?
The Golden Lion is equivalent to the first prize at the Venice Film Festival. The prize was introduced in 1949 and is awarded alongside prizes for directing, acting, and others. It's considered alongside the Palme d'Or from the Cannes Film Festival in terms of highly prestigious and much-coveted awards from the festival circuit. What makes the Golden Lion different from the Palme d'Or, however, is its proximity to the Academy Awards. It's considered far more of an indicator of potential Oscar glory than the Palme, which is typically unconcerned with such matters.
Many of the season's most buzzed-about possible Oscar contenders head to Venice to kickstart their season, and often with amazing success. In 2017, Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water took home the Golden Lion then became the year's Best Picture winner. Last year, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma followed suit, although it had to settle for a mere Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. This is an award that has been won by some of the most beloved and acclaimed filmmakers of all time, from Laurence Olivier and Akira Kurosawa to John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Ang Lee, and Sofia Coppola. And now, Todd Phillips has followed suit.
As comic book movie based on a Batman villain, Joker winning the Golden Lion at Venice is surprising enough, marking the first time this has happened, but it's a damn miracle when you consider Joker’s competition. Phillips was competing against some of the biggest directors on the planet, many of whom are festival favorites and critical darlings who audiences expect to see at Venice. Other titles playing in the main competition included Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat, Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, James Gray's Ad Astra, and, controversially, Roman Polanski's An Officer and a Spy. Joker is also only the third American movie of the past decade to win this award, as the festival heavily leans towards non-English language fare. For a title that was playing against a heavily stacked deck, the fact that it won the Golden Lion is one of the bigger shocks of awards seasons from the past several years.
Why Joker Won The Golden Lion
While Joker's reviews weren't the best-reviewed of this year’s festival, it was still one that accrued a serious amount of acclaim from major critics. The Guardian called it a "gloriously daring and explosive film", while Total Film said it was "the most challenging, subversive and nihilistic comic book movie ever made." Joaquin Phoenix gained near-universally positive write-ups for his performance, with even more negative reviews taking time to praise him. The Daily Beast said Phoenix "crafted a layered, terror-inducing antagonist, and earned his rightful place alongside Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson in the pantheon of all-time-great Jokers." Those reviews, and the standing ovation, mean Joker played extremely well at the festival itself.
It helps when promoting a film like this to have one of this generation’s most acclaimed actors front and center, and Joker benefitted from having Phoenix willingly play the red carpet and promotional game, which is something he’s been notoriously hesitant about in the past. Phoenix's performance is hailed as the highlight of Joker, and he's beloved by critics and awarding bodies, so having him in the movie and playing the game is a big advantage. Warner Bros. is also throwing all their weight behind ensuring Joker is a success in these circles as well as a financial one.
Ultimately, winning prizes at a major film festival isn’t something that can be easily predicted. Unlike the Oscars, which is preceded by months of campaigning and highly visible marketing as well as other awards that indicate various preferences in the industry, festival awards are decided upon by a jury of maybe ten to twelve people. Their subjective tastes and personal biases, as well as festival or industry politics, are often utterly opaque to outside spectators such as the press or audiences. The best film of the festival or indeed the entire year can walk home empty-handed simply because the jury didn’t like it, and more inexplicable victories can occur because that handful of people were in the minority opinion. In a year where Roman Polanski won second prize, Joker’s victory feels like the less controversial choice. The jury head, Lucrecia Martel, is also a noted fan of genre films and B-movies, something that may have made Joker immensely appealing to her.
We’ll probably never truly know how the movie won unless one of the jury members speaks up, such is the mystique of the entire process. The politics of film festivals and the ongoing gossip that will surround this choice mean little in the wider picture. Joker has done something few could have predicted and what would have seemed impossible even only five years ago. It’s a comic book movie centered on an iconic character told in a new way that has found critical and industry love among the highest echelons of prestige. Time will tell whether general audiences care about such things or if this Golden Lion win will propel Joker to Oscar victory, but as it stands, it has already surpassed expectations.
- Joker (2019) release date: Oct 04, 2019
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- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020
- The Batman (2021) release date: Jun 25, 2021
- The Suicide Squad (2021) release date: Aug 06, 2021
- DC Super Pets (2022) release date: May 20, 2022
- Aquaman 2 (2022) release date: Dec 16, 2022