In 2009, the late Heath Ledger won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight. It was a monumental achievement and a huge boost for the superhero movie genre, and over a decade later, another movie centered on the Clown Prince of Crime is getting a lot of Oscars recognition. 11 nominations, to be precise, including Best Picture.
It would be foolish to say this isn’t a huge deal, and even before the Academy Award nominations came out, Joker stood tall as one of 2019’s biggest cinematic triumphs with its many other accolades and being the first R-rated movie to cross $1 billion. That being said, a lot of folks have been saying that Joker has been quite the trailblazer for superhero movies, especially if it ends up winning in the Best Picture category.
I’m not here to contest Joker’s overall quality, but when it comes to looking at the movie through a superhero/comic book lens, it isn’t nearly as influential as many are making it out to be.
It’s Not Really A Superhero Movie
Joker may be based on Batman’s most famous and enduring enemy, but it is definitely not a superhero movie. As anyone who’s seen Joker can tell you, it fits much more in the drama/psychological thriller mold, and rather than closely follow the source material (which I’ll talk more about in a bit), it’s influenced by Martin Scorsese movies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy than the actual comics. This is a Gotham City that’s decades away from Batman surfacing, and furthermore, there’s not really a lot of action over the 122-minute runtime.
I don’t knock the movie for taking this creative approach. Since we’ve seen so many incarnations of Joker across the big and small screens, having Joaquin Phoenix deliver such a unique take on the character was refreshing. Nevertheless, when you compare Joker to The Dark Knight, Logan or Black Panther (which also earned a Best Picture nomination), those are movies that better reflected the spirit of a superhero tale, while still managing to either mix in other genres and/or still explore complex ideas and themes. Which brings me to the next section…
It Barely Follows The Source Material
Besides Arthur Fleck deciding to call himself Joker after he’s fully gone off the deep end and donned the clown makeup, the only major ways that Joker pulls from DC Comics lore is by being set in Gotham City, having a mental health institution called Arkham and including the Waynes, with Thomas playing a key role. And to be fair, Thomas and Martha are gunned down in Crime Alley towards the end of Joker, so that paves the way for this Bruce to someday become Batman.
Besides those elements, Joker is essentially a brand-new story, and that clearly worked out in its favor. But it in no way should it be on the same playing field as the earlier Batman movies. Like any other superhero movie or adaptation of a preexisting work, this took some creative liberties, but at least they still resembled superhero/crimefighting adventures. The same goes for Black Panther, which put its own spin on Wakandan mythology and made Killmonger arguably a more compelling villain than he is in the comics, but the overall movie still rang true to the source material. Joker, on the other hand, just cherrypicked a few things that casual Batman fans could recognize and went down a wildly different path, one that barely resembles the super villain’s history in the comics. Speaking of which…
Would The Movie Have Been As Successful Without Joker Branding?
Because Joker deviates so heavily from the source material, there was a lot of comparison between it and DC’s Elseworlds stories, the imprint the comic book company was used for stories that took place outside of the DC universe canon. Sure enough, Warner Bros is considering launching a DC Black line for movies unconnected to the DCEU, but obviously the average moviegoer isn’t familiar with the Elseworlds concept. Plus, at least Elseworlds stories have that sense of the fantastic, whereas Joker tried to be as realistic as possible.
Which leads me to wonder: if this movie hadn’t been called Joker, would it have been successful? Even if Arthur Fleck still started shooting people while dressed like a clown, what if the name Joker had never been mentioned, and any references to the Batman mythos had been removed? Would a movie called Arthur about one man’s descent into madness and rebelling against society have been watched by nearly as many people? Something tells me no, and therein lies the rub.
Joker was very much having its cake and eating it too; it relied on several comic book tropes to pull people in, but otherwise did its own thing, resulting in a drama many have found compelling, but doesn’t feel like a superhero or even comic book movie in the slightest.
It’s Just Not As Big A Step Forward
Whatever your feelings about Joker may be, there’s no question it’s been incredibly successful, both on the commercial front and with its collection of accolades. And similar to The Dark Knight’s depiction of The Joker, Joker showed how you can take a character who’s traditionally depicted one way and radicalize their characterization. Maybe we’ll see more stories about Arthur Fleck now that he’s gone full villain, and maybe we’ll see this creative approach taken with other DC baddies, like Lex Luthor.
But when you think about how the superhero movie genre has grown over the last two decades, just remember that with a few exceptions, Joker steered clear of adapting the source material and doesn’t fit into the traditional superhero mold. Which is fine for the kind of story that Todd Phillips, Joaquin Phoenix and their team wanted to tell, but it’s unfair to compare it to true superhero movies that have also been incredibly successful and helped improved the genre’s image.
Does Joker draw attention to the comic book movie genre as a whole? Sure, but it’s a double-edged sword, because by switching to a psychological thriller narrative that lacks the spirit and outlandish nature of a superhero story, let alone one from Batman’s world, it ends up feeling more like an honorary comic book movie. Again, if you like Joker, that’s perfectly fine, but think twice about putting in the same category as the superhero/comic book movies that embrace their roots rather than largely ignore them.
Joker is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital, and you can see how it fares at the Oscars when the 92nd Academy Awards air on Sunday, February 9 on ABC. Look through our DC movies guide to learn what other projects in this area of the comic book movie sphere are coming down the pipeline.