This is an interesting film. Not only has a comic book movie generated a ton of buzz following its historic win of Venice’s Golden Lion, but it’s sparked controversy, outrage, and a very conflicting online response.
And that’s before the film’s even been released to general audiences.
Either way, it’s certainly interesting – especially given its gritty realism in a kinda cinematic universe.
We can confirm that Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker interacts with a young Bruce Wayne, so it kinda sorta takes place in a prequel DCEU (kinda sorta).
The events of the film are certainly removed from anything going on in their cinematic universe. Otherwise, we’d have a tragic origin to one of fiction’s greatest comic book villains amidst a backdrop of SHAZAM – that DC movie where kids getting superpowers. Would have been really weird having them fly on by in a film discussing mental illness and society.
But it does all raise the question of the DC movie model. Joker is the start of what’s called “DC Black” – quote/unquote standalone films that are more designed for a mature festival crowd than a casual popcorn flick.
That’s what I really wanted to focus on in this post; the DCEU and their identity, and what it means for expanding (or shrinking) their cinematic universe.
DO YOU WANNA KNOW HOW I GOT THESE AWARDS?
There are talks of various Oscar nominations for Joker – especially following its phenomenal festival run.
I would describe Joker as the first Oscar superhero movie.
Of course, I’m not forgetting that Black Panther was nominated for best picture, but that struck me more as a superhero movie that was nominated for an Oscar.
Joker took a really interesting route. As a film with minimal CGI and character study, it feels more like the type of film the academy would go for – it’s an arthouse film of a comic book character.
Even if you didn’t know who the Joker was, this movie offers an entirely new origin to the character and very little ties to the Batman mythos. Honestly, it could have just been a powerful film about a man suffering with mental issues – a dark, gritty, Pagliacci.
I’ll be interested to see how it does in the next academy awards.
DARKER AND GRITTIER – HOW THE DCEU CAME TO BE?
DC always tried to go darker and grittier than the Disney family-friendly Marvel, really starting with Nolan’s commercial and critical successes with the Dark Knight trilogy.
This continued over into the DC Extended Universe with Man of Steel – a movie I’m personally not a fan of for putting a military, sci-fi backdrop, amidst Metropolis completely getting destroyed; all with an American icon snapping the villain’s neck.
Following the mixed reception to that, and the negative response to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice rebranding was needed. Wonder Woman, Justice League, Aquaman, and SHAZAM! all made the effort to be less grim and more commercial – again, SHAZAM! literally has foster kids get superpowers!
But then we have this year’s Joker which is dark dark – rated R dark. It’s not DCEU dark where it’s grey lighting, Batman using a gun, and pseudo-philosophy, it’s something new for the brand.
There are some heavy scenes of violence and emotional tragedy in this award-winning character study of this interpretation of the Joker. There are no bat planes, rocket launchers, or green gas balloons here; just raw human emotion.
All that shows a greater diversity in the DC films in terms of genre and thematic exploration. It feels like Joker has something to say and something that couldn’t be explored amidst the fantastical backdrop of flying aliens, Amazons, Atlanteans, wizards, and billionaires.
POLITICALLY CORRECT WOKE COMEDY?
I really was hoping I wouldn’t need to write about this, but I feel it needs to be addressed; especially given some of the darker elements of this film. Following the tragedies of numerous mass shootings in the US many are questioning the appropriateness of creating a sympathetic white, male, loner who has that infamous “One Bad Day” the Joker is known for.
This has sparked a lot of debate about gender politics, victimisation, toxic masculinity, and political correctness; even before the film has reached general audiences.
Film marketing now has a political element to them, an almost unavoidable one. As we experience both fiction and politics on the same social media platforms, we have seen a strange convergence.
I want to first address “woke marketing” with Captain Marvel as an example. Captain Marvel (a somewhat generic superhero origin story about getting space powers) isn’t a revolutionary feminist masterpiece – but it certainly marketed itself as that.
This is nothing new, sadly eliminating character flaws to project an “inspirational” icon. Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Ghostbusters all reinforced a new woke identity for characters that could have been strong enough to stand on their own right. Certainly, it is for a good cause – showing young girls everywhere that they can grow up to be whatever they want. Yet the execution and unsubtle marketing can be a turnoff for many.
Captain Marvel actor Brie Larson added to the then controversy claiming how she didn’t care what an “Old white dude” had to say about A Wrinkle in Time. Unsurprisingly this made some white dudes feel alienated.
It’s no longer a case of reading too much into a text, so much as studios loudly proclaiming their gender ethics.
Now, we have Joker – a film about a poverty line, white dude with mental issues seeking an outlet in comedy only to get trampled on and pushed more and more into becoming one of history’s greatest villains. A sort of angsty gut roar of the alienated white male (at least, according to some articles out there).
Director Todd Philips (previously known for his bro-comedy Hangover movies) stated that he got out of comedy because of PC and Woke culture, and it’s understandable to see why. Comedic films have been in decline for a number of reasons (Chinese box office, subjective tastes, and woke culture) so I think it’s almost cathartic to see something like Joker on screen; a complete subversion of the genre.
This isn’t a discussion on the film text itself; more the toxicity around it. I think it’s commendable that Joker isn’t manipulating its marketing by saying that ‘you have to see this film if you support/don’t support …’ the way that Star Wars and Captain Marvel have. It knows it’s a character piece, and that’s fine.
The overwhelming majority of people have yet to see the film – as it isn’t out yet. Yet it’s interesting how something like the Joker – a character who never really embodied anything about male power, aggression, dominance, patriarchy, has now become so interconnected with modern male alienation.
There’s a lesson here with marketing and politics. Joker won the Golden Lion at Venice for a hauntingly tragic portrayal of a lonely man living with his mother. Captain Marvel is slowly being moved to the back of the MCU following a mixed reception after manufacturing a socio-political issue. Perhaps a character-focused marketing approach is best, regardless of the politics surrounding it.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I question how sustainable political marketing is. There’s a danger of completely alienating your audience to create a pure, wholesome product that thrives only in an echo chamber.
I just hope Joker hasn’t fallen into this trap.
This is the first movie of the “DC Black” line and given its successes so far it looks like this sub-brand will continue going forward. Essentially, DC Black will be a series of standalone movies that will be rated “R” or have more mature elements in them and a tentative connection to the broader DCEU.
They haven’t marketed it so far with this label – relying more on the festival runs and character recognition to bet people in the seats.
The same thing is happening in their comic line up as well. With the closing down/rebranding of the Vertigo imprint, DC now has their “DC Black Label” which explore grittier stories outside of the ongoing comic book continuity – but still a part of the same multiverse and brand.
It’s a nice bit of cross-platform branding between the films and comics and could be a good way to explore new concepts across both mediums. Although nothing’s been confirmed yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if this incarnation of the Joker (Arthur Fleck) made some sort of comic book appearance in future.
As for the DCEU, it’s still going on. We have Wonder Woman ’84 coming out soon, where Diana goes against one of her nemesis “Cheetah” amidst an 80s backdrop. There’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), and then there’s the new Batman movie starring Robert Pattinson and rumours of Jonah Hill as the Riddler slated for release.
But DC Black seems to be more secretive, perhaps in order to make it feel like less of an MCU-formula cinematic universe where they announce a ton of movies for the next three years; distinguishing themselves from their mainstream Disney counterpart.
Now it’s just a case of waiting to see what other classic characters will get this treatment.
I’d certainly be up for an Oscar-worthy Riddler movie called The E. Nygma Machine, but that’s just me.
What is important is that DC finally has a critical and commercial counterpoint to a Disney+ MCU.
Of course, I’ll know soon enough whether the film actually lives up to the hype.