Superhero movies have saved Hollywood. And here’s one that features a magnetic star turn, takes mental illness seriously – and wrestles with the collapse of liberalism
Andrew Pulver – The Guardian
Turn that frown upside down … Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Photograph: Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros
Even if it doesn’t happen, it would be a good idea for Joker to be awarded the best picture Oscar – mostly because it would signal Hollywood’s acceptance of, and reconciliation with, the genre that has basically saved it over the last couple of decades: the superhero movie. Every year it seems the heavy guns get wheeled out to protest that the films which make everyone in Hollywood rich – and for which audiences appear to have inexhaustible affection – are slighted by the Academy and that they are owed recognition.
This year they might have a point. The portents may be suggesting that 1917 is in pole position to win the big one, but Joker has the lead in the nomination count (not always an infallible guide), and Joaquin Phoenix, by most measures, is the favourite to be named best actor.
More significantly, perhaps, the character himself is the most Oscar-friendly aspect of cinema’s various superhero universes. It can’t be a coincidence that the only previous occasion a superhero movie has troubled the winners enclosure for one of the headline categories was in 2009, when The Dark Knight’s Heath Ledger won best supporting actor – for playing the Joker. Grief over Ledger’s death may have been a factor, but there’s also something dramatically rich and tonally ambiguous about the character that responds to the alchemy of top-notch acting.
That’s not something you could ever say of Batman, despite the heavyweights that have occupied the role; still less of the one-dimensional costume-hangers that populate the Marvel films. Most characters in superhero films are conceived around single-tic personalties connected to their superpower and/or activity, with a sledgehammer-sized neurosis in the background to try and give them some relationship to plausibility. Joker is very much part of this tradition; but somehow his forced grin and skirling laughter chime to a certain extent with real-life mental illness – in a way that, say, the Penguin doesn’t – even if its on-screen representation may be flawed.
Joker has also been hammered for its obvious borrowings from early Scorsese – not the least by the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw – but I don’t see that as a problem: lots of films rip off others, borrow ideas and motifs. It’s what they do with them that counts. For my money, Phoenix and director Todd Phillips really succeed in creating the disquieting, grimy mood they aim for; if they hadn’t the film wouldn’t have been half as popular. Where it falls short is in the passages of street riots and disturbance: like, say, Fight Club, or V for Vendetta, it’s a film that underimagines the mechanics of actual social meltdown.
But more than any of that, Joker is the film that best represents the times we are in. Liberalism is on the retreat, and Joker is unabashed in trying to excavate its wobbling foundations. I don’t buy the idea that it’s not a political statement: films that go in for shallow sloganeering are never this acute. If it wins on Sunday, it’s what we’ll deserve.