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How Joaquin Phoenix's Joker changed the comic book movie landscape

While comic book movies have been a pop-culture staple for decades, it wasn't until 1978 and Superman: The Movie that audiences got a taste of what a big-budget and slightly less campy comic book film would look like, with well-known actors and state-of-the-art special effects to make the impossible seem real. As years have gone by, comic book movie budgets have grown along with their popularity, luring a growing list of directors to put their spins on well-known and beloved characters and stories — like Tim Burton's gothic Batman, Ang Lee's 2003 Hulk, Robert Rodriguez's neo-noir Sin City, and of course Christopher Nolan's gritty Dark Knight trilogy. With Marvel Studios' Iron Man in 2008, comic book movies truly started to take over the box office, a domination cemented when MCU crossover films like The Avengers entered into the mix. 

And then came Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix's Joker, a comic book movie only in name and DC studio affiliation. Joker is certainly not the first comic book movie to serve as a character study — niche genre adaptations like the Hughes brothers' From Hell and Marc Meyers' My Friend Dahmer fit this bill — but it's shifting what we expect from the genre in many other ways. How has Joker changed the landscape for comic book movies going forward? Let's put on a happy face and explore. 

Why so serious? Phoenix's Joker is a drama, not an action fantasy

In 1989, when we danced with the devil in the pale moonlight with Jack Nicholson's Joker, the character had already made leaps and bounds away from Cesar Romero's campy version from the '60s TV show. Joker was always a psychopath, but Nicholson also managed to bring brief moments of humanity to a character previously considered a monster, which only deepened with Heath Ledger's version of the Joker in The Dark Knight Rises. Even though Joaquin Phoenix's Joker is mostly set outside the known timeline, the exceptions are the problematic presence of the Waynes in his life as well as the deaths of Bruce Wayne's parents. 

But unlike other Jokers, Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is 100% human: he has no money, no power, and is trapped in a body that was so badly abused it continues to betray him at all turns, maintaining his marginalized position in society. His only arsenal is a small revolver and an off-putting laugh. The only chases in Joker are Arthur frantically running from people trying to hurt him. In another context, without the mention of Joker and Wayne Enterprises, on its own Arthur Fleck's story would be considered a character study and an arthouse drama. Even the post-apocalyptic Avengers: Endgame found moments to crack a joke and bring some much-needed levity. Joker did nothing of the sort; its jokes were not meant for actual laughter. Other comic book movie adaptations have been dark and gritty, but Joker is still highly unusual in the genre.

Phoenix's Joker almost entirely ignores the comics the character is based on

Thomas Wayne and his young son Bruce might not get much screentime in Joker, but their roles as Joker's foils are still well established with several key twists that only deepen the enmity between them all. That's as close to the comics Joker gets, however: Director Todd Phillips said that his story was loosely inspired by Alan Moore's dark and violent The Killing Joke, but he basically crafted the character of Arthur Fleck from scratch. Joker is a comic book movie whose source material is incidental, since the film relies on strong character development as well as a powerful performance from its lead actor to tell a different version of a well-known story. 

And unlike previous versions of Joker, Phoenix's portrayal of the character is just an average guy who was just trying to survive with the physical side effects of horrific childhood trauma and a traumatic brain injury. Arthur Fleck's trigger isn't getting disfigured in an acid bath, it's losing his state-sponsored health care and no longer having access to the medications that kept him even slightly on keel. Also, unlike other Joker narratives, Arthur Fleck's first murders are in self-defense, a far cry from other takes on the character.  

Joker proves that comic book movies can break from traditional molds

Before Joker, studios generally timed the release of superhero and comic book movies to coincide with summertime theater-going audiences, although there have been notable exceptions, like Black Panther. The surprise was palpable when the the autumn Venice International Film Festival announced that Joker would land its premiere during the prestigious event — and that turned to shock when the film took home the festival's top prize of the coveted Golden Lion award as well as the Premio Soundtrack Stars Award for composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. The film has the score of an Oscar-worthy drama, and the cinematography and performances to match. 

Joker broke more comic book movie expectations after it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, with Joaquin Phoenix taking home the TIFF Tribute Actor Award. Joker might not be the first comic book movie to win prestigious awards, but it's still rare for an actor in this genre to earn such prestigious notice. In this respect, Phoenix followed in the footsteps of Heath Ledger's Joker, suggesting there's something deeper about this character that transcends genre.   

Joker moves away from cinematic comic book universes

These days, many comic book-inspired movies are released with the intention of being part of a larger universe, whether in sequels or crossover events to other storylines taking place simultaneously. But not Joker. While the titular character is indeed a part of the DC multiverse, this movie isn't an installment in the DC Extended Universe, and it hasn't made much if any visible difference to audiences. Fans have turned out in droves to see a Joker story largely unrelated to the comic book canon. 

Also, Joker demonstrates there can be multiple versions of the same character at the same time. Jared Leto's take on the Joker is still a part of the DCEU, but this didn't stop Phillips and Phoenix from doing an entirely different deep dive into the character at the same time. When we have corporate battles over characters like Spider-Man, forcing a new actor into the role every time the studio changes course, it's refreshing to see a studio allow more than one version to exist simultaneously.

Joker is a successful comic book movie that does not feature any superheroes

Joker is the first time the character has hit the big screen without Batman, and even so the film has broken box office records, a massive win considering its small budget in comparison to other comic book spectaculars. In fact, there are no superheroes in the traditional sense at all in Joker, only very real folks who are living lives determined by their privileges or lack thereof. The grittiness of Joker as well as its uniquely tortured depiction of the title character end up being more than enough to drive this story in unexpected directions that couldn't happen if superheroes and superpowers were thrown into the mix. 

Phillips and Phoenix's Joker also proves that big budgets and a reliance on special effects aren't compulsory for comics-derived films. Without the presence of a notorious comic book villain, Joker would be considered a small-budget drama, and yet its ties to the medium — and its impressive box office performance — puts it in the same conversation as huge popcorn hits like Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame

Joker doesn't play it safe like most other comic book movie adaptations

Most comic book movies are geared toward a large audience with a diverse age range; fun for an entire family. But with its R rating, Joker is not for children, nor is it for the faint of heart. This violent character study goes deep into the psyche and past of a deeply troubled man who, through no fault of his own, loses the one lifeline he had to lead a normal existence. While many critics of Joker feared that the film would inspire incel or white supremacist violence, Arthur Fleck's crimes arguably don't fit either of those profiles. His first killings are in self-defense, and when the events hit the news, it's the media and the public who put a political spin on the murders that at first even Joker himself doesn't necessarily agree with. Arthur Fleck eventually embraces his role as provocateur, but it's certainly not how he started out.

Joaquin Phoenix's emotional, realistic, and no-holds-barred performance is also rare in a genre that relies on archetypal characters that often border on caricature or cliche. Both Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix treat Joker as if it's high art, even though at its core it's inspired by a comic book villain.

Joker handles trauma and childhood abuse with a compassionate touch

Comic book movies are known for their epic fight scenes, flashy costumes, quippy moments of comic relief, and kinetic soundtracks and scores to complement the action. This doesn't leave a lot of room for nuance, especially when it comes to tackling serious social issues like childhood trauma as it may relate to a character's — and in particular a villain's — development. Anti-hero Loki (Tom Hiddleston), for example, suffers from abandonment and neglect issues when he finds out he was adopted. Ivan Drago (Mickey Rourke) in Iron Man 2 is shaped by the imprisonment and death of his father because of Howard Stark's (Andrew Slattery) betrayal. 

But Joker goes all the way back and explores in great detail the childhood events that made the title character who he was. In particular, the grotesque physical and emotional abuse Arthur Fleck survived as just a toddler, and extreme traumatic brain injuries that followed him into adulthood. Joker doesn't exploit this backstory for dramatic effect, but instead allows us to process the information at the same rate Arthur does: as his eyes dart over medical files and recreates the interviews described inside with his vivid imagination. There are no flashbacks to the violence. We only experience it through the pain that overwhelms Arthur's wracked body, brought to life by Joaquin Phoenix's masterful performance. This sets an entirely new paradigm for how a comic book movie can compassionately present trauma in order to fully flesh out a character without cheapening it.

Joker brings a hefty dose of ultra-realism to the comic book movie landscape

Comic books and their movie adaptations have often been set within social, political, and cultural landscapes that offer different levels of fictional commentary on real-world issues. The Watchmen explores the politics of the 1950s through the 1980s, highlighting the nuclear threat that shaped those decades in real life. The different adaptations of Hulk's story on the big screen warn about the lasting effects of childhood trauma and the dangers of medical experimentation, in particular for military uses. Joker, meanwhile, presents its social commentary with a level of realism that sometimes feels like a documentary. 

Joker highlights a very real mental health services crisis in America that began around the time the film takes place, and has only worsened in the decades since. What sets Arthur Fleck off in Joker is the fact that the city cut its social services for mental health care, preventing him from getting his medications. Without them, his tenuous grip on reality loosens once and for all. Comic book movies are heralded as great escapes even with their links to real-life happenings, but Joker is not an escape in any way, shape, or form. It is a visceral visual description of what happens when vulnerable people cannot access the care they need.

Other prestigious actors may consider arthouse comic book movies after Joker

The comic book movie landscape is filled with award winning actors like Sir Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Sir Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin, Hugo Weaving as Red Skull, Cate Blanchett as Hela, and many more. But their roles can be campy and comedic, often relying heavily on CGI for their costuming and appearance. 

Joaquin Phoenix had been on the short list for other comic book adaptations like Doctor Strange, but he resisted the call until Todd Phillips' version of Joker. Might the film's success encourage actors like Leonardo DiCaprio who have previously derided comic book movies to pursue similar character-based adaptations? Seeing the prestigious awards nods Phoenix's Joker is getting could inspire more writers and directors to shift the focus of future films to intimate portraits of characters rather than the huge big-budget ensemble pieces we've come to expect. This wouldn't just change comic book movies, it would further elevate and legitimize the entire genre.