Just a few months ago, the notion that a comic book movie could be an all-conquering force at next year’s Academy Awards would have seemed a little ludicrous. But then, Hangover director Todd Phillips’ Joker — featuring Joaquin Phoenix as the iconic Batman villain — premiered at the Venice Film Festival and had the proverbial awards season rocket strapped to its back by rave reviews. The movie left with the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, which was previously won by Netflix’s Best Director winner Roma and The Shape of Water, which went on to win Best Picture.
The film has now been released in cinemas all over the world and is raking in money from audiences, as well as continuing to delight critics. Its opening weekend in the United States smashed October box office records and the film looks set to fend off the threat of Will Smith vehicle Gemini Man — co-starring Will Smith — to win another weekend at the multiplex.
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But does it actually have the chance to win Oscars? Comic book movies have traditionally been ignored for the most part by the Academy — more on that, and the exceptions, later — but Joker has been defined by its difference to films like Avengers: Endgame and even the character’s other big screen appearances.
The film has well and truly entered the race to the stage of Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. When The Hollywood Reporter asked Academy voters for their anonymous opinions on the film this week, the response was clearly divided between those who think the film is a “home run” and those who refuse even to see it.
So, with an eye on the past and present of the Academy’s track record, let’s take a look at Joker’s Oscar chances.
Oscar victory is so often about narrative. For example, Leonardo DiCaprio’s win for The Revenant was as much about his status as being “overdue” a victory as it was about the commitment of his impressive performance. Joaquin Phoenix can’t match Leo’s five Oscar snubs, but he has been nominated three times in his career — for his supporting role in Gladiator, as well as lead performances in Walk the Line and The Master. He is frequently lauded as one of the greatest actors of his generation and there has always been a sense that he will win an Oscar, when the right role comes along.
His work as Joker ticks a lot of boxes in terms of factors that will play well with Academy voters. The physical transformation is stark, with the actor’s bones almost attempting to escape his skin as a result of dramatic weight loss. Phoenix has spoken at length about the extremes he went into to get into the mental state of the character and the performance is full of showy tics that certainly emphasise his acting craft. It’s also significant that the last person to play the character on the big screen — the late Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight — did go on to win a posthumous Oscar for his acclaimed performance.
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Phoenix has been listed as a potential frontrunner by many of the most prominent Oscar prognosticators, with Indiewire’s Anne Thompson describing him as “overdue” a win. And his presence at several cinemas to surprise fans during the movie’s opening weekend suggests he’s willing to go on the campaign trail — an essential element of winning that prize. If Phoenix begins to look solid as a frontrunner, that could be a big part of the film going on to land a slot in the Best Picture race.
Joker is, speaking charitably, one of the most controversial wide releases of recent years — and certainly a more divisive awards season contender than the average glossy biopic. Discussion swirled before its release about its possible sympathies towards online ‘incel’ culture and its opening weekend was marked by stories of cinemas tightening security at screenings and banning fans from showing up in costumes. Todd Phillips has expressed his confusion at the response to his film’s violence and star Marc Maron hinted that media reporting of the controversy is partially to blame for the climate of fear and anger surrounding the movie.
Meanwhile, the families of victims of the Aurora cinema shooting expressed their concerns about the movie in relation to gun violence. At the time of the attack, which took place at a screening of Batman sequel The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, there were reports that the shooter James Holmes had compared himself to the Joker. That element of the story was ultimately debunked, but the connection was indellibly made in the minds of many, as reported in a recent Vanity Fair article. The cinema in question has opted not to show Joker.
Oscar voters already seem divided too. One of the most talked about quotes from the aforementioned Hollywood Reporter piece was one from a voter who said they don’t think the Academy should “honour a film with such controversial elements”. Another said: “I don't know if it should be banned or it should be given every award.”
The controversy is evidently going to play a part in the Academy’s decision making around Joker, but it wouldn’t be the first time that a divisive movie was garlanded at the Oscars. In recent years alone, movies like Green Book and Crash have managed to walk away with Best Picture, despite their controversial edges. The Academy has also shown itself to be unconcerned by cinematic violence, having given its top prize to films like The Silence of the Lambs and Unforgiven.
In the oddest of ways, Black Panther may have paved the way for Joker. Marvel’s 2018 blockbuster was nominated for seven gongs at this year’s Oscars ceremony, including Best Picture, and won three — the same number claimed by Best Picture winner Green Book. The comic book stigma at the Academy Awards appears to be fading away, and Joker could be one of the first major beneficiaries of that thawing in genre relations.
Joker is, in many ways, the perfect balance of the sort of commercial elements that make comic book movies so successful and the prestige, artistic touches that encourage the Academy to vote for movies in the major Oscar categories. This puts it in an entirely different area to something like Avengers: Endgame, which rewards audiences for a decade of storytelling commitment. Joker is a stand-alone story that simply has elements of comic book mythology running through it.
The fact that the Oscars have already honoured a Joker portrayal before with Ledger goes in Joker’s favour. In fact, the year after Ledger won and The Dark Knight missed out on a Best Picture nod, the Academy increased the size of its shortlist from five to a potential ten, in recognition of the need to honour a broader range of works. The journey towards a superhero movie winning Best Picture has been slow, but it might finally be winding towards a conclusion.
There’s no doubting that Joker has been a commercial success. With a modest budget of just $55m (£43.9m) in comparison to other comic book films, its current box office haul of almost $300m (£239m) already positions the film as a solid hit for Warner Bros. The response from audience members has been positive too, with the film nabbing a B+ grade from audience pollsters Cinemascore. Over at Rotten Tomatoes, meanwhile, 90% of users the site has verified to have seen the film gave it a positive score.
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While mass audience approval isn’t necessarily a primary factor in Oscar success, it’s certainly significant that so many of the people who have seen the film have left satisfied. A vocal fanbase advocating for a movie can ensure that it’s not a film Academy voters are able to justify not watching.
The jury is very much out on Joker’s chances of winning big at the Oscars. The film has impressive craft elements, as well as a performance with serious Academy prospects, and appears in many of the Best Picture shortlists being put out by the major Oscar prognosticators. It seems reasonable to assume that the film will be a player on Oscar night, but its chances of success remain to be seen.