The four Golden Globe nominations for Joker (including best motion picture-drama, best director, and best actor) are a nod to how far comic book cinema has come in terms of big-screen relevance and critical acclaim. But the shrug-and-snub that greeted HBO’s wildly ambitious Watchmen series (as well as Amazon’s ultra-violent The Boys) shows how little traction the cape-and-mask crowd have in the universe of respected television drama.
The artistic relevance of superhero fare has been a front-and-center topic for years now. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) was the first comic book adaptation to win an Academy Award in an acting category (Heath Ledger’s posthumous Oscar for portraying a scabby, mysterious version of the DC Comics villain known as the Joker) but it’s failure to earn a best picture nomination prompted the Academy to widen the field of nominations to get more crowdpleasers in contention.
That set the stage for the best picture nomination last year for Black Panther, the Disney/Marvel Studios blockbuster that transcended the superhero genre to become a cultural moment with its ennobled vision of a hidden African nation emerging to take its place in the international community. Despite the feel-good fervor surrounding that Black Panther success, Marvel Studios has been slagged recently in prominent fashion by filmmaking demi-gods Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola who see the mega-success of Marvel’s producer-centric system as a crass threat to director-driven filmmaking and the tenets and traditions of the pair’s beloved auteur theory.
Scorsese’s harsh appraisals of Marvel films (he called them theme-park rides in disguise, essentially) is being widely misread as primarily a put-down of superhero storytelling and comic book adaptations but The Irishman director’s own early involvement with Joker should underline the fact that his sour opinion is more nuanced than that. In his New York Times essay on the topic, Scorsese was clearly aiming his disdain at Marvel’s method not its source material. It’s not Stan Lee’s work that peeves Scorsese, it’s the triumph of sequels over surprises.
“Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures,” Scorsese wrote, although he admits he’s never watched one of the hit films. “What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes.”
There’s an argument to be made that John Ford westerns, Akira Kurosawa samurai epics, and Woody Allen comedies were also “made to satisfy a specific set of demands” and “designed as variations on a finite number of themes.” But Scorsese’s indignation about the template approach of Marvel (and the way it puts brand expectations over filmmaker risk-taking) is certainly a valid topic of debate.
I’d argue thatJames Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok certainly show that filmmaker individuality can thrive within Marvel’s interconnected mythology and its campus approach to spectacle filmmaking. And if anyone doubts that superhero fare can rise above its tropes with startling results, there’s ample rebuttal from recent big-screen hits like Joker, Logan, Spider Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Wonder Woman, The Incredibles 2, Deadpool,and Deadpool 2.
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association acknowledged that surge in compelling superhero storytelling with the four Golden Globe nominations for Joker: Best Motion Picture-Drama (where it will compete with Scorsese’s The Irishman), Best Director for Phillips, Best Actor-Drama for Phoenix (who goes up against Christian Bale, Nolan’s former Batman), and Best Original Score-Motion Picture for Hildur Gudnadottir.
While HFPA voters should be commended for recognizing Joker as a no-joke contender for awards recognition but, sadly, they missed the equally valid opportunity to celebrate Watchman as what it is: television’s most compelling and idiosyncratic new drama. The alternate-universe saga (where Hollywood icon Robert Redford is president) leads the medium’s vanguard of subversive superhero shows, too, along with The Boys, The Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol, and animated newcomer Harley Quinn (as well as the sadly departed Netflix franchises Jessica Jones and Daredevil).
MOORE OF THE SAME: Two of this year’s biggest superhero successes lead back to one of the most fascinating figures in comics: Alan Moore, the mercurial British creator who a couple of years ago dismissed the genre as “both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying.” — a foreshadowing of some of Scorsese’s gripes.
Moore is the man of the moment for work he did decades ago. Watchmen is a revisitation to the world created in the DC Comics masterpiece of the same name, by Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, which was originally published in 1986. While Joker is an original story and invents a new origin and persona for the title character, the movie has strong roots that lead back to another edgy Reagan Era milestone: The Killing Joke, the 1988 classic by writer Moore and artist Brian Bolland that reframed the Joker’s backstory by adding stand-up comedy elements, mental-health pathos, and a subversive and ironic theatricality — all aspects that echo in Phillips’ film in a major way. (The Killing Joke was also adapted as Warner Bros. Animation direct-to-video film in 2016.)
Moore’s presence doesn’t end there. His phenomenal run on Swamp Thing in the 1980s was also the key source material for the blink-and-you-missed-it supernatural series Swamp Thing on DC Universe. The James Wan-produced series never made it out of the muck (for reasons that elude even Wan), which is a shame, especially if it discourages any other adaptation efforts. The Swamp Thing comics of the 1980s may be the most compelling storytelling of Moore’s illustrious (and cantankerous) career.