Audiences Are Ready For Risky Cinema (Even If They Don’t Know It)
A few weeks ago, I finally found the free time (having a new kid will take it all from you) to treat myself to a double feature of Joker and Doctor Sleep in theaters. Of course, I’d heard the praises and criticisms, but I was excited to just sit down and take it all in. By the time Joker ended, my mind was reeling.
This movie should not exist.
The only other movies I’ve been able to see in theaters this year (again…new kid) have been Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home. Both are Marvel superhero movies that made over a billion dollars at the box office. Two juggernauts made by one of the most profitable machines in the film business. They’re family friendly, exciting, and perfectly produced to appeal to the widest range of movie-goers possible to make those billions.
And then we have Joker. A lower-budget DC Comics (Marvel’s rival) film with a small, talented cast and a dark personal story to tell. It’s a movie that’s violent and hard to watch at times. It’s a movie that tackles challenging subject matters such as mental illness, abuse, and social gaps. It’s a movie that did pretty much the opposite of what Marvel did in every way. This isn’t a movie meant for general audiences. But, here we are, months after it’s initial release and Joker is one of the few films this year to make over a billion dollars at the box office.
This movie clicked with people. Whether they loved it or hated it, they couldn’t stop talking about it. All the talk has produced hundreds of articles debating the meaning of the film. What is it trying to say? Is it dangerous? Is it really that good? Is it that bad?
The majority of the film revolves around Arthur Fleck, played by Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who has never been a major box office draw. It’s directed by Todd Phillips, who is known for making early 2000’s raunchy comedies such as Old School and The Hangover. It’s rated “R” which automatically restricts a giant portion of the general audiences. Yet, somehow this movie won the box office week after week and is a real contender this award season.
This movie should not exist. But it does…
This is technically a DC Comics villain origin story, but if you take out the “DC” stamp, rename it The Clown, and change the recognizable names in the movie (the Wayne’s, anyone?), this is very clearly not a comic book movie at all. At least not the ones we usually get from the likes of Marvel and other DC outings. And I’m not just talking about the idea that it’s a gritty “R” rated story. We’ve had plenty of those kind of comic book movies over the past few years with Logan, Deadpool, and even Zach Snyder’s original cut of Batman V Superman before they decided to cut it down to PG-13.
This movie doesn’t even follow any of the hundreds of DC Joker stories they have in their back pockets. Instead, it follows an original story with a version of the Joker that rarely feels like this decades old character we know and love. Sure, Todd Phillips has mentioned he used The Killing Joke as inspiration, but this film has none of the same story beats as that beloved comic. Joker has much more in common with early 70’s cinema such as Taxi Driver and the King of Comedy (influences which it wears proudly on its sleeves) than it does with any comic book movie. It’s realistic and damaging, beautiful, artistic and…it made over a billion dollars just because it had a recognizable name and the DC stamp.
Contrast this with Doctor Sleep, an amazing, risky film in its own regard, which when I saw it was sitting on its second week in theaters. No one sat in there with me, and this movie made abysmal box office numbers all because it doesn’t have a DC-type stamp or the name of a popular character in the title. Sure, Stephen King is a household name, and his movies have made huge numbers in the past (IT ring a bell?), but compared to the likes of Disney, Marvel, and DC, no one flocks to see his stories in theaters the same way. Even though it is a semi-sequel to one of the best films of all time The Shining, Doctor Sleep hasn’t been able to find an audience. There were barely any showings left to see.
Funny enough, Martin Scorsese recently made comments about the state of cinema and the success of superhero films. He stated that they aren’t truly cinema, they’re more like theme park rides. This caused many people to jump to the defense of those movies and the people who work on them. Others jumped to defend Scorsese. But everyone seems to be missing the point. Scorsese isn’t saying they aren’t real films, of course they are. He’s saying they aren’t challenging like the cinema he knows and loves. They’re predictable and made to give audiences an adrenaline rush. They’re packed with fan service, recycled plots, and huge casts of characters. They’re theme park rides.
This isn’t anything against Marvel films. I LOVE theme park rides. I spend more time at Disney than any grown man should. I also love Marvel films, hence the only other movies I saw in theaters this year were Marvel movies. But they aren’t challenging. They’re safe and comforting. There’s a place for movies like this, and that’s perfectly fine. That's why Joker is such an amazing achievement. When comic book and superhero movies are taking over our screens year after year, making billion after billion at the box office, you see the small movies on the wayside barely make a splash with audiences.
Meanwhile, the greatest joke that Joker pulls is that Todd Phillips made a small film with hard-to-stomach themes and a mesmerizingly strange lead performance by Joaquin Phoenix, and it tricked you into thinking it was just a superhero movie with a few clever name placements.
And you can’t stop talking about it.
If you loved Joker, and you wish you could see more movies like this, they aren’t hard to find. They might not be superhero movies and they might not have explosions, or feel like a theme park ride; but they will give you the same feeling as Joker where you can’t stop thinking about the story and want to talk about it with people. Because that’s what cinema is supposed to do. It’s meant for dissection and discussion. It’s meant for community.
If you need recommendations for films that may be flying under the radar, but that definitely deserve your attention, check out these options:
- The Lighthouse: big themes in this movie are isolation and madness (similarly to Joker), and told by a brilliant voice from Robert Eggers.
- Parasite: focuses mainly on class divide (another theme in Joker), this movie is getting love from film goers, but not the general audience only because it’s a Korean film.
- Doctor Sleep: give this movie some love! Mike Flanagan wrote and directed an emotional and effective sequel to The Shining that centers around childhood trauma and addiction more than horror.
Written by: Dustin Weible
Image by: Observer via © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.