’Joker,’ explained: How the movie went from divisive debut to Oscars darling
By Published: January 13, 2020
What a difference a good awards season can make.
Just four months ago, the comic-book movie "Joker" was muddied in controversy, as critics questioned whether 2019 was the right time for a movie about an urban sociopath who goes on a killing spree.
In 2020, though, "Joker" has become the billion-dollar film that cleans up well. On Monday, the superhero-universe movie certainly cleaned up at the Oscar nominations announcement, receiving a field-leading 11, including best picture.
"Joker" marks the Academy’s growing acceptance of comic-book movies in major categories. Last year, Marvel’s "Black Panther" paved the way, becoming the first superhero movie to garner a best picture nomination. Now, those two billion-dollar films have received 18 total Oscar nominations.
So how did a movie that was once viewed as a curious, oddball one-off within the world of DC Comics become such a glitzy behemoth, topping prestige pictures like "1917" and "The Irishman" in Monday’s Academy tally?
To answer that, here’s a look back at its rise to Oscars darling:
The character’s new look
The Joker, Batman’s greatest archenemy since his 1940 comic-book debut, has intrigued actors for more than a half-century, since Cesar Romero deliciously chewed the saturated-tint scenery in the campy ’60s TV series.
Jack Nicholson dialed up the cartoonish menace three decades ago in Tim Burton’s "Batman," but it is Heath Ledger’s Clown Prince of Crime in 2012’s "The Dark Knight" -- for which he won a posthumous Oscar -- that is the closest precursor to Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-nominated turn in "Joker" (even if Phoenix says he was not directly influenced by Ledger). Ledger and Phoenix delved into the character’s maniacal sadism to deliver particularly unnerving performances.
The irony here is that Jared Leto’s role in 2016’s critically drubbed "Suicide Squad" was the Joker that Warner Bros. put so much franchise focus and money behind (that film had a $175 million production budget, compared to $55 million for Joker). Yet it is Phoenix’s Joker, who spent years beneath a scrim of mystery during production, that has become iconic.
If Phoenix wins next month, in fact, Joker will become one of the few characters to receive two Oscar-winning performances. In the 1970s, the "Godfather" character Vito Corleone received Oscar-winning performances from Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro in the trilogy’s first two movies, respectively. (De Niro, coincidentally enough, appears in "Joker," as well as "The Irishman.")
In August, "Joker" received the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, as well as a reported eight-minute standing ovation. Yet that laurel only seemed to place a larger target on "Joker’s" back.
"Joker" looks to be set in an early ’80s version of Gotham City, and the title character begins this stand-alone story as Arthur Fleck, a bullied and beaten urban speck and failed stand-up comedian who, beneath his shifting clown makeup, transforms into a murderous vigilante.
The film, directed by Todd Phillips -- also Oscar-nominated on Monday -- was viewed by some critics as too derivative of Martin Scorsese’s urban-alienation films of that era, particularly the De Niro-starring "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy." (Scorsese, though notably critical of superhero movies in recent months, was attached early on to "Joker.")
But the potentially more damaging criticism centered on the film’s violent content and its supposed glorification of a serial killer in an era when mass shootings are so frequent.
Some reviewers assailed "Joker’s" glamorization of a terrorist, with Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson writing out of the Venice premiere that "Joker" might be "irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes. Is ’Joker’ celebratory or horrified? Or is there simply no difference?"
That debate unfolded even as "Joker" stirred memories of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting at a screening of the another Batman-universe movie, "The Dark Knight Rises." "Joker" was not screened at that theater after Aurora victims’ relatives raised concerns about its gun violence.
Warner Bros. soon went into damage-control mode to try to distance "Joker" from real-world mass violence, and Phillips went on the defensive.
After "Joker" screened at the New York Film Festival last fall, Phillips said that it was "very responsible" for his film to affix real-world implications to violence, adding: "Isn’t that a good thing to take away the cartoon element of violence that we’ve become so immune to?" The "Hangover" director also told Vanity Fair that he steered away from making comedies, and toward making "Joker," because of the social climate, saying: "Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture."
Meanwhile, the studio said in a statement: "Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero."
The audience embrace
The top of the 2019 box office was dominated by comic-book films, animated movies and live-action adaptations of classic animated movies. Yet none has received the same awards-season love as "Joker," which finished in seventh place by grossing $1.07 billion worldwide, and in first among those with an R rating, which narrows the potential audience.
Still, "Joker" was polarizing among reviewers, getting only a 59 median score on Metacritic.com (on the bottom two rungs among the nine best picture nominees) and a 69% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though the latter site put the audience approval score at 88%.
Most critics did praise Phoenix’s performance, even when they saw Phillips’ direction as flawed or picked apart the Oscar-nominated screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver.
The awards season love
By receiving 11 Oscar nominations -- including costume design, sound mixing and editing, film editing, cinematography and original score -- "Joker" already moves into the pantheon of movies like 2009’s "Avatar": Commercial smash hits that receive much Academy attention. (James Cameron’s film was nominated in nine categories, winning in three.)
"Joker" was nominated for four Golden Globes, winning two, including an acting honor for Phoenix. It also received 11 BAFTA nominations, as well as a SAG nomination for Phoenix.
If "Joker" continues to gather hardware next month at the Academy Awards ceremony, those controversies and criticisms will seem to fade into history, outshined by the glint of trophy gold.