“Not cinema”?: Joker (2019) and the State of the (Superhero) Nation in 2020

By Terence McSweeney and Rebecca Cohen

Joaquin Phoenix claimed the Oscar for best actor for his performance in Joker, solidifying the movie’s position at the forefront of current cinema. Terence McSweeney, author of Avengers Assemble!: Critical Perspectives on the Marvel Cinematic Universe and a forthcoming volume on superhero cinema, and Rebecca Cohen, PhD candidate at Solent University, join us on the blog to discuss how we can understand the effects of Joker and superhero films as a genre.

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In our current hyper-mediated society, one in which everyone seems not only to have an opinion about everything, but also a platform to express it and the sincere belief that it and only it is the absolutely correct one, what might be the criteria by which one defines a cinematic phenomenon? Should it be a film that has earned a billion dollars at the global box office? Should it be one which has been nominated for and won a diverse variety of awards all around the world (AFI, BAFTA, the Golden Lion at Venice, Academy Awards)? Should it have inspired as much devotion as opprobrium? One which was just as likely to have been called a “masterpiece” (Bleasdale, 2019) as “a danger to society”? (Kelly, 2019).

While the genre is undeniably experiencing what some have described as a ‘renaissance’ or a ‘resurgence,’ others have used far more pejorative terms.

Of course, the above comments all refer to Joker, directed by Todd Phillips, which on Sunday, February 9, 2020 confirmed its status as one of the most discussed films in recent years when Joaquin Phoenix won Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance, not much more than ten years after Heath Ledger had posthumously won Best Supporting Actor for playing the same character in Christopher Nolan’s genre defining The Dark Knight (2008). In 2018 Black Panther became the first superhero film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, now the tremendous success of Joker just a year later is further evidence, should it be needed, that the superhero film is the film genre with the most cultural impact of the modern era. While the genre is undeniably experiencing what some have described as a “renaissance”1 or a “resurgence,”2 others have used far more pejorative terms, like Alejandro González Iñárritu, who remarked of superhero films, “They have been poison, this cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and shit that doesn’t say anything about the experience of being human” and renowned graphic novelist Alan Moore who declared they were to be considered a cultural catastrophe.”

Of course, if anyone has earned the right to an opinion about the American film industry it is certainly Martin Scorsese, yet his emerged as distinctly problematic with the admission that he had never actually seen a superhero film from start to finish.

This debate came to a head in 2019, the year Joker was released and the year in which Avengers: Endgame became the most financially successful film ever made (two of the four superhero films to end up in the top ten global box office), with Martin Scorsese’s comments describing superhero films, in particular those from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) , as not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well-made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Scorsese’s criticisms sparked a discussion about the artistic and cultural value of films from the genre which raised some valid points about the ubiquity of franchise films and their hold over what audiences are offered at the multiplex. Of course, if anyone has earned the right to an opinion about the American film industry it is certainly Martin Scorsese, yet his emerged as distinctly problematic with the admission that he had never actually seen a superhero film from start to finish. A more reasonable recommendation, one that can be applied to any film regardless of the genre it contributes to, might be to use an approach suggested by veteran cinematographer Dante Spinotti. The renowned Italian director of photography has worked on a superhero film, Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), but is more famous for the two Academy Award nominations he received for Curtis Hanson’s L.A Confidential (1997) and Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999). In the wake of Scorsese’s remarks Spinotti said I divide movie-making into two large categories, good movies and bad movies. That’s all there is to it.”

Does it even belong to the superhero film genre many asked? What relationship does it have to Scorsese’s oeuvre? Does it glamourise violence? What does it have to say about the shifting coordinates of contemporary masculinity in the turbulent new millennial decades?

Whether Joker is a good movie or a bad movie is a matter for audiences to decide and whether the superhero film has anything interesting to say about the culture which formed it is something that will continue to be debated. However, there can be little doubt though that Joker is an important film, with much about it worthy of discussion in more detail than we could offer in this brief blog post. Heroes and hero-worship have become pervasive symbols of post-9/11 American cinema, with the proliferation of superhero films resonating around the world for audiences more emphatically than they have ever done being something not to be disregarded as easily as it has been. The authors posit that much of the importance of Joker comes from how it has been received by audiences, but also from within its own diegetic frames: in particular its jarring inversion of the codified superhero film which has seen it problematically labelled as a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels,” an incendiary glorification of narcissistic rage, or a demonization of mental-illness. Does it even belong to the superhero film genre many asked? What relationship does it have to Scorsese’s oeuvre? Does it glamourise violence? What does it have to say about the shifting coordinates of contemporary masculinity in the turbulent new millennial decades?

Todd Phillips suggested that “movies tend to be a mirror, they hold up a reflection of what’s going on in society. And I do think sometimes when you hold that mirror up, people don’t always like what they see.” With the likes of Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, Morbius, The New Mutants and several other superhero films all due to be released in 2020 and many more in 2021, it is a genre which shows no signs of going away anytime soon. So rather than dismissing the superhero film we should instead discuss why it appeals so powerfully to audiences across the globe and what this continued fascination with the form has to say about the world in which we live.

1Darragh Green and Kate Roddy, “Introduction,” in Grant Morrison and the Superhero Renaissance: Critical Essays, ed. Darragh Green and Kate Roddy (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 2015), 2. [1] Steven Chermak, Frankie
2Y. Baily and Michelle Brown, “Introduction,” in Media Representations of September 11, eds. Steven Chermak, Frankie Y. Baily, Michelle Brown (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003), 11.

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