With “Joker’s” stunning 11 Oscar nominations — the most of any film this year — director Todd Phillips’ gritty reimagining of the Batman villain has followed in “Black Panther’s” historic footsteps and taken a massive thwack at the ironclad conventional wisdom that comic-book movies cannot be major awards season contenders.
In 1978, “Superman” was the first live-action comic book adaptation to be nominated for an Oscar — for its score, editing, sound, and special recognition for its visual effects. Ever since, a string of superhero movies have earned nominations (and a few wins), from 1989’s “Batman” and 1990’s “Dick Tracy” to 2016’s “Doctor Strange” and “Suicide Squad.” Occasionally, a comic-book film has slipped in an above-the-line nomination or two — especially if it’s a graphic novel adaptation, like 2002’s “Road to Perdition” or 2005’s “A History of Violence.” Plus, last year’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” won best animated feature. But generally speaking, movies rooted in the superhero genre have long remained all but shut out from consideration during awards season beyond their technical virtuosity.
It’s almost redundant to catalogue the reasons why: The source material is too populist and juvenile; the movies are too nakedly commercial and theme park-y. But ever since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded its best picture field largely in reaction to the perceived best picture snub of “The Dark Knight” — and Heath Ledger posthumously won best supporting actor for his performance as the Joker in that film — the industry has slowly inched its way to recognizing more holistically the superlative craft and artistry in top tier superhero cinema. That momentum culminated last year with “Black Panther’s” monumentous nomination for best picture, and wins for best score, best costume design, and best production design. But the film’s cast, screenplay, and director were still shut out of nominations.
It took Phillips’ pared down, R-rated, character-driven approach to “Joker,” coupled with Joaquin Phoenix’s transformative performance in the title role, to push the movie past whatever anti-superhero bias might still linger within the Academy — and Hollywood in general. Phillips himself has made no secret that he sees “Joker” as an anti-superhero movie, and the film’s few “action” sequences are designed to horrify audiences rather than thrill them. (Indeed, the pre-release high anxiety that Phillips would treat his character’s anti-social psychopathy as heroic and inspirational has proven to be…let’s go with unnecessary.)
It’s telling, however, that “Joker” would not have been nearly as successful — at the box office or, I’d argue, during awards season — without the imprimatur of DC Comics. Had Phillips set his film in early 1980s New York City rather than Gotham City, and made Phoenix’s character an emotionally debilitated stand-up comic whose mother once worked for the Rockefeller family rather than Wayne family, it might have won similar praise. But I doubt it would have captured our collective imagination with nearly the same billion-dollar-grossing, Oscars record-setting, stairway-dancing fervor.
Now the question is whether “Joker’s” massive Oscar nominations haul will translate into major wins. The movie didn’t land a best ensemble nod from the SAG Awards — it really is the Joaquin Phoenix show, which is why Phoenix is the frontrunner to win best actor.
Beyond that category, however, “Joker’s” chances are less certain. Although Phillips earned a best director nomination at the Oscars, he was overlooked for the DGA Awards. And three other films — Sam Mendes’ “1917,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” — each earned 10 nominations, and each have a more well-trod path to wins in many of the craft categories, as well as best picture.
That puts “Joker” in an all-too familiar position for superhero movies at the Oscars: It’s at once the populist choice and the underdog contender.