Each year for the past few years, I have attempted to watch as many of that year’s Oscar nominees as possible before the awards are presented. It’s just a little personal challenge for fun, and I’ve had varying degrees of success in both seeing the films, and making predictions (ok that’s stretching the truth- my predictions are always failures). This year the nomination announcements caught me by surprise somehow. I’d managed to completely miss the Golden Globes (whose nominations I usually use to get a jump start), and for the first time ever, I have not seen a single one of the nominees already on my own. Doh! Lots of work to do! Last year I wrote up reviews of all the nominees I managed to see, and published both my predictions, and my reactions. I hope to do the same this year, but I’ll try to write up my reviews individually as I see the films, and then will do a big prediction post at the end. Today we focus on…
(11 nominations, including best film, actor – Joaquin Phoenix, director, adapted screenplay, cinematography, score, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, film editing, and makeup and hair styling)
I think it’s pretty clear that most of my reviews here are based on my own personal preferences and experiences. And this review is no different. I am, and always have been, a big Batman fan. He’s my favorite super hero (yes yes, I know, no super powers, blah blah blah). As a Batman lover, I was extremely excited for this movie, and I was absolutely NOT disappointed. It was a perfectly-crafted addition to the Batman family. The question for tonight’s awards, though, is whether a comic-book movie, no matter how perfectly executed, is appropriately elevated to qualify for a Best Picture Oscar. A Facebook friend commented on my review of another film (1917) with his own two cents and said, “On the other hand, it’s a hell of a lot more meaningful than ‘Joker,’ so there’s that.” This gave me pause; is he right? Is Joker not meaningful? To my mind, Joker’s contribution isn’t to the world in general, but to the world of Batman. It is an example, much like 2017’s X-men film Logan, of just how good a superhero movie or show CAN be (and, in my mind, why we shouldn’t be heaping so much praise on shitty superhero blockbusters like Avengers). I don’t think Joker has much to say to anyone on its own outside of the world of Batman, and for that reason alone I don’t believe it deserves Best Picture.
Inside the world of Batman, however, it is an absolute masterpiece. Let me try to explain why Batman has always appealed to me. It’s the odd balance between realism (eg. no actual superpowers) and that over the top absurdity (a city full of colorful wacky villains). There have been many takes on Gotham City over the years, and watching the creators’ attempts to balance these two extremes (almost) always yields wildly varying, yet successful results. How do you balance grit and color? Violence and playfulness? Film noir with neon and tech?
This balance gifted my childhood Batman: The Animated Series, where a children’s daytime cartoon managed to give us terrifying images like this one:
This balance gave us my favorite Batman movie, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, where we learn the origin story of my favorite Batman character, Catwoman, as epically brought to life by the marvelous Michelle Pfeiffer:
(I’m sure it’s no coincidence that my favorite Batmans (Batmen?) came out during my most formative childhood years, but put that aside for a second.)
Batman can be realistic and gritty, like Chris Nolan’s recent film takes. Or it can be a slapsticky shark-repellent funfest like the 60’s TV show. But no matter how you approach it, you have to face the fact that your characters are weird, and you have to decide how (or if) you are going to explain them. The reason why Catwoman is one of my favorite characters of all time, is because she is herself a personification of these contradictions. She is a good guy and a bad guy, a love interest and an enemy, a complex woman who does her own thing. She is unapologetic and confident even though she’s also a weirdo in a cat outfit. For the creators of Batman fare, no matter how gritty of goofy they approach their version, they always have to face the reality that Catwoman is sexy as hell, and the absurdness that she’s in a goofy costume.
What does all this have to do with the film at hand? The Joker has always presented a similar challenge to Batman filmmakers. He’s an over the top supervillain. He’s the most evil of all the evils. And yet, he’s a weirdo goofball in a clown outfit. So… how do you balance that? Goofier takes on Batman have an easier time with this menace. But on what planet could you make a realistic take on the Joker? How could you have a real-world person who is both so goofy, and SO evil? And how could he get so many weirdo clown-faced followers? (That’s a question I’ve always had.) What could the origin story possibly be?
This movie fills that gap, and does it perfectly. I know I’ve called it perfect like 3 times now, and that’s because I really mean it. We’ll start with the stuff that transcends genre. We have fantastic acting. I would be absolutely shocked if Joaquin Phoenix doesn’t win best actor; his performance is haunting. Robert DeNiro is perfect as a late night talk show host. Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry had a single scene that broke my heart. Everyone else is spot-on. Cinematography, directing, lighting, production design, etc. It all comes together wonderfully to present a sad new pre-Batman Gotham.
But it’s the details with the Joker himself that really got me, though it’s tough to talk about most of them without spoilers. This movie is basically Incels: The Movie. And I have heard criticisms that this film glorifies or justifies the concept of violent revenge by incels. I can understand that take; I’m sure there will be sick people who see this movie and see themselves in the protagonist. BUT, the film is careful to make sure that, while we feel sorry for Arthur Dent, we don’t like him or forgive him. The dude has PROBLEMS. They are serious, they are sad as fuck, and they are not his fault. He has reason to be upset at the world. But he doesn’t have reason to think the world owes him.
For example: One of my favorite details was the inclusion of real-life comedian Gary Gulman, and a snippet of his actual routine, which is amazingly hilarious and you should check him out. Our guy tries his hand at the same stage, but his routine is simply not as good. The world isn’t giving him a comedy career because we don’t like incels and the world is unfair; he’s not getting a comedy career because he’s no Gary Gulman. It doesn’t help that, when we catch glimpses of his joke diary, it’s full of creepy porn photos that he has taken the time to cut out and glue into the book (eww eww eww). If we’re thinking about internet personalities, the Joker is a Nice Guy. “Hi, I’m a nice guy with a joke diary! Also I have violent fantasies about hurting naked women!”
The film is careful to not stray from the Batman universe. We have plenty of tie-ins to the existing cannon, particularly regarding the Wayne family. There’s an iconic alleys scene that will be recognizable to any Batman fan. The stage is set for us to move on with basically any other Batman take from here, and for the first time (I think) we get a real idea of where and how such a crazed evil super villain came about. This take is gritty and dark, but the backstory could fit into pretty much any other Batman series I have seen. And that is an impressive feat.
In the end, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film won Best Picture, because it did execute its goal very well. But given that the goal is so niche and franchise-specific, I personally think the award should go elsewhere, to something a bit more universal and self-contained. Still… BRAVO.