I’m sure that the majority of people have heard about the overwhelming success of the recent Joker movie. Arguably, most of this success can be attributed to the award winning performance by Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character, but when you take a larger look, it becomes obvious that there are other forces at play. People have often made the point that comic book movies tend to be repetitive and follow certain formulas, and while this may lead to highly successful movies, they also suffer from a sense of predictability. Society seems to have reached the point now where movie goers, whether they be comic book fans or not, are prepared for a different style of comic book movie. Joker is a prime example of how this difference can still lead to success.
As a brief recap, Joker depicts the origin of Batman’s arch nemesis and arguably the most notorious comic book villain of all time. We watch Arthur Dent undergo a remarkable transformation from a mentally ill outcast to an enigmatic villain, who is almost shown to be somewhat of a folk hero for the disenfranchised. The movie spares no effort in its realistic portrayal of just how brutal and depressing life can be, especially for someone as down on his luck as Arthur. Throughout the movie, he is beaten, insulted and looked over in small part because of his mental illness. The treatment is so bad in fact, he states that ‘he never knew if he was actually alive’ and ‘he thought his life was a tragedy’. As events in the movie unfold, he comes to terms with the dark turn his life has now taken and adopts the Joker persona with a revitalising joy that you might find in a ‘coming-of-age’ movie. His baptism is one born of blood and violence and yet even amongst the visceral nature of what we see, the audience still can’t but help to silently root for him. There is a strange sense of satisfaction as Arthur Dent takes control against a world that has turned his back on him.
Now I should take this time to say that I in no way condone Arthur’s actions, and I’m sure many people feel the same way. Many people were afraid that the release of this movie would fuel the narrative that our society holds of ‘mentally ill white men’ going on killing sprees to cope with their situation. I personally don’t believe that this movie is a justification for those actions but I can see how people are worried that it may serve as a form of glorification. It is this factor that interests me the most and is the one I think requires the most analysis when discussing the movie’s success. Obviously, most comic book movies are centred on the hero’s perspective. They are the main character and most of the time they come out on top against the evil force that they fight against. Yet, even in these movies, the villain tends to be the favourite character in the eyes of the audience. For example, fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) are quite taken with the portrayals of Loki and Thanos in the movies and Kingpin and Kilgrave in the Netflix shows. Even Heath Ledger’s previous performance of the Joker in The Dark Knight was seen to be award worthy and to this day is still spoken with high praise amongst DC fans. So I suppose the real question is why? In a world where we have been bombarded with lessons on morality and how good must defeat evil in the end, why are we so fascinated by the ‘bad guy’?
Off the top of my head I would suggest that it's because it is a refreshing departure from the stories we’ve come to know. As I stated before, the traditional formula of storytelling can be quite predictable and a different perspective could be the solution to that problem. However, I think the answer goes further beneath the surface than that and also extends beyond comic books. Dexter and Breaking Bad are both shows that focus on protagonists who engage in illegal activities (murder and drug dealing respectively). While the majority of the audience is made up of law abiding citizens, they still get a thrill from following a character who continues to elude the authorities at every turn. It can even be argued that this is their chance to live vicariously through the protagonist as they get to experience a lifestyle they wouldn’t engage with otherwise.
Even when we push criminality to the side, there is still a desire for movies with a darker tone to them. Logan was released in 2017 to great reception amongst both fans and critics. It was loosely based off of the ‘Old Man Logan’ comic book story where the majority of heroes had been killed off. In this movie, we had a much greater chance to observe Logan’s tortured soul and how life had taken its toll on him. Similar to Joker, it contained bloody scenes and was not shy with swearing. The gritty realism was perhaps a welcome break for the audience compared to the usual light hearted, if not slightly campy demeanour of the X-Men franchise (once you push the mutant racism to one side, of course.)
Movies like Logan, Deadpool and Joker serve as proof that society is prepared for a different breed of comic book movie. The genre has always had to evolve to cater to an audience that will no longer settle for just the traditional stories of ‘Truth, Justice and the American way!’ Now, we’ve made our voices heard that we are open to exploring the dark. I’m sure that studios have taken note of this, but how they choose to use this information in the future, only time will tell!