Did Joker break the glass ceiling for superhero films at award ceremonies?

Normally I don’t pay a huge amount of attention to awards season in film, because most of the films nominated are films I’ve never heard and almost certainly haven’t seen. But this year, one film broke into the party from a genre that is generally ignored by the various academies and guilds. Superhero movies generally garner a lot of praise from fans but critics tend to simply focus on the ‘spectacle’ and the visual effects and look down on the rest of it for being a superhero movie. They’ll get nominated for all the technical things like effects, editing and make-up but they very rarely get nominated for any of the big awards, like best film, best director or best actor.

Joker has changed that. Joaquin Phoenix has won four Best Actor awards for his performance and was nominated for an Oscar. The last actor to be nominated for an Oscar for a performance in a superhero movie was the late Heath Ledger with his iconic take of the same character. The movie itself has been nominated for best film by most of the major academies and guilds as well as Todd Philips receiving multiple nominations for best director. And that’s left me wondering; has Joker broken the glass ceiling for comic book movies at award ceremonies?

Will we see critics move beyond their blinkered view of what has artistic merit and embrace the virtues of these films? Critics used to laugh and look down at superhero films because they were a bit hokey, Like Superman: The Movie. Iconic and much loved, but it is a bit hokey. A film like Spawn meanwhile, or Batman and Robin, is looked down on because it’s utter rubbish. No one argues, there are some truly awful superhero films out there. But they’re all mostly in the past. Since the turn of the millennium, comic book movies have been getting better and better, bringing world renowned actors and directors into the genre. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogies got the ball rolling. And they have a number of coincidences shared between them. Both had solid first instalments, had superior sequels before not quite managing to stick the landing with the third. But they both featured mature themes, good and sometimes great performances, lead actors who were believable in the role, great stories and directors who took the source material seriously.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe took that attitude and ethic and ran with it to so much success that any other Marvel characters that they didn’t hold the cinematic rights to are being integrated in. Not only did they agree a deal with Sony to first bring Spider-Man into the MCU and then another to keep him there, but with Disney’s (Marvel’s parent company) purchase of 20th Century Fox they can integrate both the X-Men and Fantastic Four and complete the set as it were. The attitude has always been the same though. To take the material seriously, cast the right actors who will commit to the role and hire directors who can offer up a visually exciting and emotionally engaging film that brings the audience back time and time again. DC and Warner Bros. haven’t quite got back to the ideal balance yet, but their upcoming movie schedule shows a lot of promise.

And now we have the first comic book movie film since The Dark Knight to have some serious critical backing and success in awards seasons. Could this be a sign that critics are finally seeing what ordinary moviegoers are seeing? That films don’t have to be maudlin and depressing and focus on somber subjects to be worthy of praise? Well, probably not. Joker was a very dark film that highlighted how one man’s mental frailties combines with an apathetic society to create something truly terrifying. Martin Scorsese also made comments last year comparing comic book movies and Marvel films in particular as being more akin to theme park rides than what he considers to be cinema.

Now, Scorsese’s name speaks for itself. The man is a master at what he does and he takes it very seriously. What he considers to be true cinema is more likely to be Akira Kurosawa or Stanley Kubrick than Michael Bay. But your average moviegoer doesn’t go for that sort of thing. They go to escape for the 90 minutes or two hours that the film lasts in a world that is so completely separate from ours that mundane worries fade away for the time you are in the cinema seat. And there is no reason why superhero movies can’t address the serious issues of the day. Art imitates life after all and it has been proven very recently that moviegoers do not react badly when these types of films do move into more mature territory. It may take the critics a few more years to catch up with the public, but in the meantime, we can continue to enjoy the great pieces of entertainment that are being made in the genre.


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