Will Oscars Embrace 'Joker,' a Comic Book Movie Without a Superhero but With Gun Violence?

Joaquin Phoenix stands the best shot of garnering recognition for Todd Phillips' dark and disturbing origin story.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment

Heath Ledger was awarded the best supporting actor Oscar for The Dark Knight. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse snagged a best animated feature Oscar. And Black Panther was nominated for the best picture Oscar, plus six other Oscars, three of which it won. In other words, over the past decade or so, comic book movies have not only taken over American cinemas, but have made major inroads at the Oscars, too.

But could a comic book movie without a superhero, centered solely on a truly despicable villain, also be embraced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? Joker, which The Hangover helmer Todd Phillips co-wrote (with Scott Silver) and directed, and which stars Joaquin Phoenix as the eponymous DC Comics maniac who terrorizes Gotham City, will be a test case.

The $55 million Warner Bros. production, which will hit theaters Oct. 4, had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 31, and then rocked the Oscar race with the Sept. 7 announcement that Venice's jury had awarded the film the fest's top prize, the Golden Lion. It subsequently made its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 7, and screened again north of the border Sept. 10.

The hard facts are these. The film is very good — well written, directed, designed and, above all, acted by Phoenix. It is not cartoonish, but frighteningly plausible — an origin story reportedly set in 1981, it suggests that America's morally bankrupt society turned Phoenix's Arthur Fleck into the deeply troubled man that he is. But it currently stands at 77 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which is good but not great — this, I think, may be because even critics are hesitant to champion a film that is as dark and disturbing as this one. Indeed, at a time when inexplicable mass shootings seem to happen every week in America, gun violence, mental illness and senseless killings don’t play like they used to at the movies.

The one thing about which everyone seems to agree, though, is that Phoenix, as usual, does his job remarkably well. He is frighteningly believable as Fleck/Joker, not least because, frankly, he has always come across as a little disturbed himself — see not only the 2010 "documentary" I'm Still Here, but even his speech at Monday's TIFF Tribute Gala, where he was honored. He totally committed to the part, dropping an astounding 52 pounds, which certainly makes him look like something is seriously wrong with him. And, most effectively, he plays the character, who has a Tourette's-like disorder that causes him to laugh at odd times, as someone who is trying his best to be better, but just can't get out of his own way.

Deranged nutcases play quite well with the Academy — usually in the supporting race, but not infrequently in the lead race, as well. The film to which Joker has been most likened is Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver — there is even an homage to that 1976 film in Joker involving a finger pointed at a head like a gun — and Robert De Niro received a best actor Oscar nom for that, losing to another actor who played a crazy guy not unlike Joker (who gets violent on live TV), Network's Peter Finch. Others nominated in the best actor category for playing wackos include Jack Nicholson for 1985's Prizzi's Honor; Anthony Hopkins for 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, who won over De Niro for Cape Fear; Billy Bob Thornton for 1996's Sling Blade; Edward Norton for 1998's American History X; Daniel Day-Lewis for 2002's Gangs of New York; Johnny Depp for 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street; and Steve Carell for 2014's Foxcatcher.

While I'm not sure how Joker will do across the board with Oscar voters, I do expect that Phoenix — who has previously been Oscar-nominated for 2000's Gladiator, 2005's Walk the Line and 2012's The Master — will join the aforementioned nominees, and could even win.