When the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced Todd Phillips’ Joker won a few nods, surprising no one . It garnered almost a dozen nominations in categories like Best Picture or Director to Sound Mixing or Makeup and Hairstyling. Comic book movies have long sought recognition from awards shows like the Oscars, and Joker got it. Sometimes, they even get it. Superman won a “special achievement” Oscar in 1979. Tim Burton’s Batman won for Best Art Direction, and later The Dark Knight earned Heath Ledger a posthumous award. (For playing the Joker, no less!) Yet despite being honored for visual effects or makeup (like Academy Award-winning film Suicide Squad), comic book movies are rarely honored by awards shows like the Oscars for their narrative content. Something about movies featuring comics characters are not Oscar-worthy, at least until Joker.
Joker is a movie surrounded by controversy which, arguably, helped its box-office. Our own review of the film, during its showing at TIFF 2019, is glowing. Personally, I enjoyed the film (and so did my 18-year-old daughter). However, what is it about Joker that sets it above other comic book movies and attracted the attention of awards shows, specifically the Oscars? Perhaps it’s because, unlike most comic book films, it wallows in despair and cynicism. Those perspectives do make for compelling art and stories. However, when it comes to comic book movies, they are rare. Typically, these stories strive for a higher ideal, one that looks to hope, faith, and optimism. When it comes to so-called “high art,” sadness, violence, and despair seem to be the only emotions or perspectives worthy of “serious” storytelling.
Joker Is Unlike Most Comic Book Movies, and That’s Why the Oscars and Other Awards Shows Like It
Image via Warner Bros.
Change nothing about Joker other than some names, and this film is simply an homage to the gritty metropolis (small “m”) movies of the 1970s. The heroes of that time acted more like Joker than Captain America or Superman. They cared very little about innocent life or even justice. Rather things like violence, revenge, and anger fueled their “heroic” pursuits. So, in this respect, the character of Arthur Fleck is a hero in Joker in the way that Travis Bickle was the hero of Taxi Driver. Yet, what message does Joker really send? Sure, it’s a study of how a mentally ill character can be trod upon by the state, the wealthy, and his neighbors. Only all it really offers is a loose indictment of “society,” in a much less cogent way than other stories in the genre.
Conversely, look at traditional comic book movies with a hero at its center, films otherwise ignored by awards shows like the Oscars. Only Black Panther has ever broken through into the narrative categories, and honestly that feels like a response to the Oscar snubs of the past for actors and directors of color. In a world where real-life violence and cynicism runs rampant, awards voters don’t see hope and optimism for the radical acts that they are. Even A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the sort of film that Oscar voters typically love, only garnered a single nomination for Tom Hanks. Like with Black Panther this seems more like a courtesy than anything. Heroes that don’t resort to violence or bathe in despair just aren’t interesting or challenging enough in their eyes.
Why Comic Book Movies Deserve Accolades from Awards Shows, Especially the Oscars
Image via Warner Bros.
One way to look at Joker’s ubiquity at the Oscars and other awards shows is that this sort of film is “the best” comic book movies can do. Yet, it’s not.
One of the earliest R-rated superhero films was James Mangold’s Logan. To be fair, this film featured a lot of wallowing in despair. The X-Men were failures. Wolverine is dying. And Professor X’s last years were pure hell. Still, unlike Joker, this movie dared to be hopeful at its end. It finished with a touching death scene for Hugh Jackman’s titular character, holding the hand of his daughter/clone. After putting him to rest, the children he gave his life to save walk off to find a better life than the one his generation (so to speak) left for them. Comic book movies, like the myths that inspired them, can be incredible allegories for the world and the way it should be. In that respect, Joker is far from the best we can do.
In fairness to Todd Phillips, Joaquin Phoenix, and the rest involved in the movie, Joker is not supposed to be a hopeful tale. The Joker is a complex character, but at his core he’s a chaos agent. Without a hero like Batman to oppose, he’s aimless. One way to look at the story is, actually, as an argument for a hero of some kind. Because someone should have stopped Arthur Fleck from doing the things he did. The argument against society being made in this movie is one that’s been argued since Holden Caulfield was in short pants. One has to wonder how this film would be received if it were not draped in the subtle iconography of Gotham City. Its subversion of the comic book genre is Joker’s boldest artistic move.
Comic Book Movies Are More Than What People Think They Are
Image via Marvel Studios
Comic Book Movies have license to tell fantastical stories. The aliens, superpowers, even the ludicrous outfits are not the most unbelievable thing in them, however. When Martin Scorsese said that comic book movies aren’t cinema, his criticism was that they do not tell emotional stories. His films, he argued, focused not on the fantastic but emotion, psychology, and the human experience.
Of course, he couldn’t be more wrong, but it’s not his fault. It’s far easier to believe that a man could build a suit that allows him to save lives than it is to believe that the impulse exists to do it. Why would Peter Parker languish in obscurity saving people from muggers and such when his web-fluid would make him a billionaire? The heroic impulse is the most unbelievable thing in these movies. That Steve Rogers or Clark Kent could be that pure of heart is the fantasy “serious people” just can’t accept.
Unlike art films that ask a lot of its viewers, these stories are accessible to the casual viewer. They are seen as simplistic or childish. And, perhaps they are. These morality plays are dressed up in colorful costumes and almost cartoonish violence. For that reason, comic book movies are often overlooked by award shows like the Oscars. Yet, they are a more effective tool than a polemic film or gritty drama. The message of hope, selflessness, and faith in each other isn’t subtle. It’s easy to believe that, like in Joker, everyone is awful, and society could fall apart in an instant. The agent of chaos is the hero for making everything as shitty as we knew it could be. When heroes stand in the face of that despair and save the day? That’s just not something they believe could happen in real life.
Awards Shows Like the Oscars May Never Come Around to Comic Book Movies
Image via Marvel Studios
For Joker it’s true that it’s an honor just to be among the films it’s nominated against. The message from the Academy is that this comic book movie deserves to be recognized with the best of cinema. The idea that probing pain has more artistic value than imagining about hope has been around as long art criticism. There is a writing adage: you can tell an odd story, or you can tell a story oddly, but you can’t do both. Comic book movies sometimes try to do both, but often them opt for simply telling an odd story. Stories told oddly, however, are typically the ones honored by the awards committees.
And perhaps that is as it should be. Because no one who will watch a comic book movie would ever do so because it won an Oscar or was mentioned on award shows. These stories appeal to people because of their fantasy or their action. These films exist as escapism. But ever for those just going for the theme park ride, the story still gets to them. These movies can simply make you feel good. They can also inspire you to create something of your own or try to be a better person. That is worth more to a story’s legacy than any statue or accolade.
What do you think? Do you think Joker is the best comic book movies can hope for at awards shows like the Oscars? Do you think other superhero movies deserve recognition? Share your thoughts about it in the comments below.
Featured image via Warner Bros.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.