DC comic book movies have generally been bashed by critics. Meanwhile DC has been outpaced by Marvel, which has an average “fresh” critics rating of 83.8% while routinely receiving scores in the 90% range. In fact, DC’s mainstream critical reviews are so paltry some fans insist Rotten Tomatoes has a bias against the Batman-led franchise. However, “Joker,” DC’s upcoming stand-alone film directed by Todd Philips, is garnering praise in a way Marvel films never could with an unprecedented run at film festivals such as Venice and the Toronto International Film Festival.
Superhero movie studios, especially Marvel, crave nothing more than a juicy fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. The Technology Policy Institute states higher Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB scores correlate with increased revenues for popular film releases. Profit above all else is key to Marvel, Warner Bros. and Hollywood films in general.
Many critics outside of mainstream sites such as Rotten Tomatoes or major American newspapers simply do not care about superhero movies, especially Marvel. To such critics, superhero films are just another glimpse of Hollywood’s excess on display amidst a big studio’s quest for dollars. Such critics blast even the Oscars for rewarding bland projects such as “Green Book.”
This crowd consists of those who are more than casual viewers, often studying film and attending high profile film festivals such as Cannes, Venice and TIFF. Artistic merit, directorial boldness and emotional power are the key criteria for pleasing stuffier and film-focused critics.
While superhero movies are blockbusters made to entertain crowds for two hours or more, festival film critics prefer an intimate and immersive masterpiece. Smaller-production and often foreign language films such as last year’s “Roma” are preferred to films like “Avengers: Endgame.”
While exceptions such as “Black Panther” exist, the blockbuster status of most Marvel and DC properties is a major reason why awards ceremonies traditionally snub superhero franchises. DC’s newest upcoming release, “Joker,” is breaking the mold by not only premiering at the Venice Film Festival, but winning the prestigious Golden Lion. “Joker” is being called a “masterpiece” by critics at Venice and TIFF.
Winning the Golden Lion at Europe’s oldest film festival is a big deal. Films making a festival run are often smaller budget projects wanting to garner extra attention in a bid for Oscar nominations. Other films to receive a standing ovation at the floating city before winning the grand prize include 2018’s “Roma” and 2019’s “The Shape of Water.” Both films went on to have huge Oscar success with Guillermo del Toro’s piece winning the Academy Award for best picture.
European festivals do not care about how many tights-wearing heroes are crammed into an action scene so the success of “Joker” is incredible. The Oscar success of “Black Panther” was considered a surprise, and “Joker” is now a favorite to be nominated for best picture. The festival success of “Joker” also shows how the clown prince of crime’s origin story has different goals than most superhero movies.
The most obvious sign “Joker” is no ordinary superhero film is that Phillips has crafted the narrative exploring the makings of a villain. Audiences are oversaturated with origin stories yet exploring how Arthur Fleck became the Joker is a new way to view a comic book story on the big screen. Villains rarely feature as the protagonist so “Joker” is a risk Phillips and Warner Bros. are taking since they are not as marketable as heroes.
Phillips’ casting choices also separate “Joker” from the pack. Casting the lead part of Joker is no easy challenge. The Joker is a role that has both a number of legendary previous iterations and an importance to pop culture audiences few characters possess.
Phoenix, while being a celebrated actor, is not as marketable as some blockbuster actors, appearing in smaller films like “The Master.” Casting Phoenix, who carefully selects his roles, is not a risk as much as a message that “Joker” will not be made in the same style as most superhero flicks.
Robert De Niro stars alongside Phoenix as a famous TV show host and comedian whose show Phoenix’s character dreams of performing on. De Niro is also not an actor to typically associate himself in the superhero drama, reserving himself for highbrow dramas or films directed by his bud Marty. Phillips’ choice to cast De Niro is not only a sign of the style of film “Joker” will be but also an explanation of the film’s direction.
Phillip’s direction in “Joker” appears to stand in stark contrast to superhero blockbusters. Movies like “Avengers: Endgame” typically feature sprawling battles packed with explosions and quips, accompanied by swelling theme songs.
“Joker” looks to be an intimate look at the isolation modern urban life forces its victims into, featuring a gray, gritty ‘70s New York-like Gotham. The Joker appears to be cramped in the unsympathetic wild urban jungle, provoking his turn to madness.
The cinematography and a distinct film language are present in the trailers for “Joker.” Arthur Fleck’s descent into madness clearly takes inspiration from director Martin Scorsese. De Niro is of course a fixture in Scorsese’s films, starring in “Raging Bull” and “Goodfellas.” Phillips seems to be drawing from “Taxi Driver,” the story of a mentally unwell cabby’s descent into madness in ‘70s New York, and “The King of Comedy,” a tale of a comedian who feels like a failure — both of which star De Niro.
The trajectory of “Joker” into theaters is also unusual for a comic book property. Most big budget superhero blockbusters would have their world premiere in a glamorous red carpet affair for the cameras before immediately hitting theaters. Instead Warner Bros. has chosen to have “Joker” go through the festival cycle, as if it were an arthouse drama attempting to gain buzz for an Oscar. This is likely due to the film itself being made for festivals in all but name and brand.
“Joker” appears to be a stark departure for DC. Warner Bros. has obsessed over marketability for a mainstream blockbuster audience, notably reshooting and creating a “Suicide Squad” cut significantly different than the original composed by director David Ayer in a failed attempt to pander to a more widespread audience. Phillips has curiously been allowed to craft a thoughtful and provocative film after a strategy change at DC.
Perhaps “Joker” is a sign superhero movie studios are ready to tell thoughtful stories in an intimate, small to medium-sized production. Or studios will keep making entertaining blockbusters with glamorous premiers and big stars. That question will be answered by how well “Joker” does at the box office.