The darkly hypnotic Joker leads the field in this year’s Oscar nominations with 11 nods (including best picture, best actor, and best director) which qualifies as a startling bounty considering the Academy’s history of showing scant interest in the crowd-pleasing genre.
But, on closer inspection, the double-digit bouquet of Joker nominations today can be traced back to the seeds of credibility planted by other comic book or superhero films in recent trophy seasons. While Joker’s screen success is first and foremost a product of the talents of star Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips (whose Joker script with Scott Silver is also nominated for best adapted screenplay) the film’s cache with Oscar voters benefited in part by the inroads made by films such as Fox’s Logan, Warners’ The Dark Knight, and Disney/Marvel’s Black Panther.
Joker is a movie that’s burrowed into the zeitgeist with its singular reimagining of the chalk-faced maniac from DC Comics who has become the most iconic super villain in comic book history since his 1940 introduction as the mysterious archenemy of Batman. For decades the character had no origin story at all in any medium but Phillips filled in the blanks in a big way with the hard-R-rated original story of Arthur Fleck, a failed comedian descending into madness.
“With Joker, it’s a combination of a lot of things like the character and the intrigue of Todd’s take on the comic book genre,” said Emma Tillinger, who produced the film along with Phillips and Bradley Cooper. “Todd and Scott wrote a brilliant script. He made an extremely important and provocative film. You bring Joaquin Phoenix into that mix and the character that they developed together? The movie sheds light on a lot of important themes and social issues happening in the world. I just think it’s a confluence of many things that made the Joker what it is and why it has resonated.”
The savage world and lurid squalor of Joker are one-of-a-kind vision but a similar approach also informed James Mangold’s Logan, the 2017 film that took the Marvel Comics character Wolverine (and screen-superhero stalwart Hugh Jackman) into a bleak future where he faces defeat, despair and death. Like Joker, Logan skimped on special effects spectacle, too, in favor of character studies, a choice that qualifies as subversive within the superhero marketplace.
Mangold, the director of Walk the Line and Girl, Interrupted, admitted he was bit shocked in 2018 when his Logan script earned him the first Oscar nomination of his career. The Logan nod in the adapted screenplay category also represented the first Academy Award screenplay nomination for any comic book adaption.
On Monday, Mangold got his second nomination — this time as the producer of Ford v. Ferrari, which will compete with Joker in the best picture race. Mangold says he wasn’t shocked to see the slew of Joker nominations, which may hint at just how much perceptions have changed in the past two years.
“I’m very happy for Todd and Joaquin I’m thrilled anytime the Academy recognizes movies that are less likely or less obvious in the way they fit into an Academy profile,” Mangold said. “Character is king in film. And that speaks to what Joaquin has done in Joker and what he did in Walk the Line, too. Unique characters and unique characterizations are what we remember most, regardless of genre or tone.”
In tone, last year’s Oscar winner for best animated film, Lord & Miller’s buoyant Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, may seem a million miles removed from the cruel alleys of Phillips’ Gotham City, but the Sony film’s success also provided a foothold for Joker with Oscar voters. And, like Joker, the web-slinger film also centered on a bold reinvention of a truly iconic comic book character in an era when most comparable IP is locked into a safe-sequel mode (a trend that filmmaker Martin Scorsese has felt compelled to rail against publicly). Spider-Verse also rooted its superhero tale in an evocative urban setting informed by a real-world relevancy but also channeled through auteur ambitions and callback aesthetic (1960s era Marvel comics for Spider-Verse, 1970s New York cinema for Joker).
Black Panther, the highest-grossing film domestic film of 2018, also found a way to weave social commentary but managed to hold on to spectacle and crowd pleasing superhero battles thanks to a sci-fi tale of a secret African kingdom with super-tech.
The existence of Wakanda forced the on-screen version of our world to to rethink entrenched cultural perceptions and old, limiting assumptions about Africa and its nations. The movie and the public reaction to it, meanwhile, made Academy voters rethink the perceptions of superhero entertainment and old, limiting assumptions about projects that hail from comic books.
It’s unlikely that last year’s best picture nomination for Black Panther would have happened without the so-called Dark Knight rule that expanded the field of nominees for the best picture race. Did the expansion of the category’s number of contenders help Joker, too? Perhaps. Without a doubt, The Dark Knight at least helped Joker by bringing DC’s clown prince of crime to the screen as a figure of undisputed cinematic fascination.
Heath Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for best supporting actor as a very different iteration of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the first billion-dollar superhero film. The 2008 hit co-launched today’s entire superhero cinema sector when it arrived in theaters the same summer as Iron Man, the inaugural release from Marvel Studios.
The gravitas of The Dark Knight and the elite talents of Nolan prompted a wave of Oscar optimism among long-suffering fans of superhero movies. Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were “Comic-Con style” genre films that had already overcome the Academy’s entrenched disinterest in the sector — could Nolan’s Batman movie actually do the same for the cape-and-cowl crowd? Their hopes were dashed when the Christian Bale-led movie didn’t make the coveted shortlist but the fallout of that perceived snub led to the so-called Dark Knight rule and its expansion of the best picture field of nominees to blend in more mainstream hits.
There also been some superhero movies that introduce wholly original characters that have no comic book heritage, no pre-exisiting mythology, and no built-in fan-following from another medium. That list includes Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s black comedy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) in 2014, which is actually about a washed-up superhero actor. That move won four Oscars (including best actor for Michael Keaton and best director for Iñárritu) and helped thaw the academy’s frosty overall opinion of cape movies. The same goes for Brad Bird’s The Incredibles franchise, the decorated Pixar films that spoof superhero traditions while framing them within modern family relationships.
Sci-fi and fantasy films such as Shape of Water, Avatar, and The Lord of the Rings franchise have also tilted the Academy perception away from reflexively thinking of genre spectacle films as empty calories. But those much celebrated Oscar winners are original stories by lauded filmmakers or derived from bookshelf classics.They weren’t “funnybook” adaptations with a four-color credibility issue with the older-skewing Academy membership.
In the past there were also films such as Road to Perdition or History of Violence that adapted comic books but (without any superheroes on the screen to emphasize the heritage of the source material) didn’t have to overcome any IP stigma. The studios behind Perdition and Violence deemphasized that lineage when they mounted Oscar campaigns but now, with Joker, the stigma of comic book films may finally be moot. In fact, comic book adaptations may become trendy with Oscar voters — yes, Joker could actually give the genre the last laugh.