Right now, the most buzzed-about film in the world is a low-budget period piece soaked in nihilism and self-loathing about a disturbed loner who lives with his mother and despises society. Despite arriving in a year otherwise dominated by family-friendly photocopies such as Aladdin and The Lion King, it is also expected to be one of 2019’s biggest commercial hits. And all because it’s vaguely related to Batman.
Joker, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival this weekend to an eight-minute standing ovation, is not, strictly speaking, a Batman movie. Joaquin Phoenix, in a sinewy, go-for-broke performance that has already earned Oscar speculation, is not playing the version of the Joker familiar to the Batman comic books nor any of his previous cinematic portrayals. While there are elements of Batman mythology on the film’s fringes, from its Gotham City setting to the presence of Bruce Wayne’s father Thomas, rewritten here as a monstrous Trump figure rather than the kindly billionaire of the comics, Joker is by all accounts a decidedly standalone entity. Indeed, its most overt connections to its source material are merely the use of messy clown make-up and a psychotic cackle. And yet, despite the lack of Batman, it’ll still be huge – and that’s potentially worrying.
Distancing itself from less ambitious DC Films entries such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad, Joker is closer in tone and aspiration to classic Scorsese. Both the gallows humour of The King of Comedy and the metropolitan isolation and anger of Taxi Driver have both been mentioned as the film’s clearest influences. Joker, unlike much of the modern comic-book movie genre, is also entirely a character study, a dark and violent voyage into the mind of a man left bereft by a broken society. It is exactly the kind of downbeat, character-driven and thematically ambitious studio movie that isn’t typically made anymore.
Its reported cost, $35m (£29m), is additionally the kind of mid-range budget that major film studios have become reluctant to spend – a typical modern studio film either made for pennies or hundreds of millions of dollars. But Warner Bros were willing to take such a gamble because of its star. Not Phoenix, who has never been able to open a movie on his name alone, but The Joker himself, a fictional character that has gone far beyond mere Batman villain and transformed into a one-man cult, mood and toxic lifestyle guru to internet trolls.
Joker, in comic-book movie terms, is a welcome next step for the genre, proving that these movies don’t need to continually exist as a series of vaguely identikit origin stories, supervillain transformations and battle sequences all indebted to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No, they can also be weirdo standalone experiments, from storytellers with specific and singular visions, who have been encouraged to play rather than merely emulate. It is, in many respects, a good thing.
But Hollywood also has a tendency to take the wrong lessons from its hit movies. It wouldn’t be surprising if Joker’s inevitable success leads the industry to assume that the only way to lure in enormous crowds to more offbeat work is to somehow make them comic book-adjacent, with masks, capes or superhero mythologies used as necessary fronts for odder, stranger stories. Because apparently no one would show up otherwise.
It all adds to a growing concern that much of film culture and the way we talk about film has been flattened by the box office dominance of Disney and superheroes – that their commercial power has reworked what we collectively constitute the pinnacle of filmmaking, and the most desirable and worthy methods to tell great and relevant stories. It’s in the calls to have filmmakers like David Fincher, George Miller or Dee Rees direct superhero movies, rather than wishing them to continue making singular work. And it’s in the recent Twitter fan-casting for a live-action reboot of Coraline, as if animation is now a mere second-tier pit-stop to an inevitable live-action remake. Joker, and what it represents, feels like a natural end point to that kind of conversation.
It should be said that absolutely none of this is guaranteed to happen. Joker may come and go, make money and then vanish, its sole legacy a run of standalone DC Comics movies anchored by villains or B-list Gotham City characters and directed by Hollywood auteurs. But there is already a feeling that Joker will mean more than that, as evidenced by the outrage over its less positive reviews, the claims that it depicts The Joker as the world’s “patron saint of incels”, and the pondering of what the film says about violence, society and masculinity. As much as we may want it to, Joker doesn’t seem like it’ll go quietly into the night.
This weekend, film critic Alex Billington of First Showing wrote a viral tweet that dramatically claimed “there will be before Joker and there will be after Joker”. “I don’t know if the world is ready for this movie,” he claimed. “It is gnarly. It is crazy. It is audacious.” It was a tweet that was immediately, and justifiably, memed and satirised. But in terms of what Joker will mean for the future of filmmaking, there is an uncomfortable, nagging glimmer of truth in Billington’s overzealous prophesying, just maybe not in the way he intended.
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