Well, it looks like Joker has had the last laugh after all. After a spate of nominations and two wins (including Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix) at the Golden Globes, Todd Philips’ DC Comics-inspired drama has racked up an incredible 11 nominations at the Baftas, and is the hot pick for the Oscar nominations (and subsequent awards) when they’re announced in late January.
A few months ago I pondered whether Joker might finally have the momentum needed to break the curse of popular superhero-based movies not quite making it to the big awards ceremonies, and clearly it has. Some perfect alchemical mix of guild voting, public opinion and the film’s financial success has come together to dub Joker The Chosen One – the comic-book movie that it’s OK to enjoy for its artistic quality.
The only trouble is that just because Joker looks like an Academy Award-worthy film (specifically, like a few films made by Martin Scorsese) doesn’t mean it is one. Joker... is fine. Joaquin Phoenix is quite good in it. But really, its awards success so far just proves the preference for style over substance in the bodies who vote on these ceremonies and their nominations.
When I first heard about Joker’s gritty, grounded take on Batman’s greatest foe, I was intrigued. Here promised to be a more street-level take on a flamboyant character, and following in the footsteps of other films that had attempted stripped-back superhero stories (most specifically James Mangold’s Wolverine movie Logan). I was cautiously optimistic.
But the finished film left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. Joker as a movie basically asks the question, ‘What if Batman’s weird clown villain happened in a realistic world?’ and then just… stops. There’s really not much more to it than that. It brushes up against some ideas of mental health and male alienation but in a shallow, vaguely opportunistic way, and doesn’t really seem to have much of nuance to say beyond – ‘hey, look what we did!’
When Saturday Night Live did a Joker parody where David Harbour portrays the heartrending origin story of Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch, it landed so well partly because it was operating at the same level of depth as Joker. It was saying ‘Look, imagine this strange and colourful character with a gritty retelling ‘ – and really, that’s the whole idea. That’s all Joker does. It’s shot like Scorsese and riffs on the King of Comedy, but never gets near the impact of the work it’s aping. It’s a cover version of a few different things tied up neatly by a committed performance from its star. It’s not a masterpiece.
Now, I’m not saying Joker necessarily has less depth than your average Marvel movie, most of which are just about quasi-military heroes starting to believe in themselves, telling good jokes and defeating a disposable bad guy. But it definitely doesn’t have more depth just because the cinematography uses drabber colours and has fewer visual effects.
Arguably, there are plenty of superhero movies full of CGI bells and whistles – including but not limited to Black Panther and Logan – with more to say about the world than Joker, but that didn’t get the same sort of recognition from the leading awards bodies because they look and feel like the sort of movie these voters don’t like.
Meanwhile, Joker does feel like the sort of movie these people like, ticking enough awards-season boxes – transformative lead performance involving (gasp) weight loss and Method acting, a certain palette and filmmaking style – to overcome its comic-book background. It’s just a shame it has nothing to say.
Currently, it seems likely that Joker will be the first superhero-based movie in years to have a plausible shot at awards glory, and this may be a good thing for the genre as a whole, even if it does mean we have to sit through copycat films about the Penguin and Man-Bat’s troubled childhoods a few years from now.
I just can’t help but wish this success was coming to a comic-book movie with a bit more about it – and that’s no joke.