It’s inarguable that we’re living in the age of comic book movie supremacy. Looking at the top-grossing movies in U.S. history, four of the top 10 are Avengers flicks, with many more Marvels in the next 10. And this trend doesn’t look to be changing.
But moviegoers are fickle beasts, and we’re already feeling a little burned out by how formulaic most superhero movies are. Just like the material they’re based on, they have to uphold a certain status quo in order for familiar characters to anchor their franchises. Sure, Marvel’s Phase 3 ended with Iron Man and Captain America out of the picture, but most of the movies won’t make any real changes. The intellectual property is more valuable than the story. Even DC brought the Man of Steel back to life pretty quickly after killing him in Batman vs. Superman.
That level of stasis is one of the things that’s killing the comics industry, as characters like Spider-Man are continually stuck in first gear after half a century of publication or more, any major changes eventually reversed to pander to licensing needs. Although long-running continuity is seductive and fun, it’s also limiting. If the good guys don’t eventually win the day, there are no more stories to be told.
This week, Todd Phillips’s Joker might be showing us how the rich fictional worlds we see in comics could lend themselves to something a little different, moving beyond the predictable battles of good vs. evil and into more complex, mature and interesting stories. And it does so by simply taking out the good guys.
The First King
While Joker is ostensibly the origin story of the DC Comics supervillain, it really doesn’t have to be. The rich antagonist doesn’t have to be Thomas Wayne, the mental hospital doesn’t have to be Arkham Asylum. It’s loosely based on parts of The Killing Joke that depict the Clown Prince of Crime’s entry into villainy, but Warner Brothers could have just called it Clown and no one would have been the wiser. Arthur Fleck, the man who would turn into the monster, is a creation in and of himself.
The film actually takes a large chunk of its inspiration from another comedian gone bad movie, Martin Scorsese’s bleak 1982 The King Of Comedy. In that flick Robert DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, a similarly talentless entertainer who gets pushed to the brink of madness by his continued failures. Pupkin, though, plays his cards closer to the vest by kidnapping the TV host he’s obsessed with and ransoming him for an appearance on his show. It’s a bleakly funny flick that feels intimate in that late-70s way that movies aren’t allowed to be anymore.
By dint of its superhero origins, The Joker can’t do that in the end. Donning white facepaint, Fleck becomes a Bernhard Goetz-esque subway vigilante after he perforates a trio of Wall Street douchebags on the train. This then inspires a street-level movement of ordinary Gothamites to rise up against the 99% in an orgy of violence that would make his comic book counterpart proud. In a normal superhero movie, this would be where Batman swoops in to set things right, but that doesn’t happen here.
The Joker ends – sorry for the spoilers – with the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the parents of the future Batman. Obviously this opens the door for more movies, but one of the best things about the film is that it probably won’t.
Joaquin Phoenix turned down previous superhero films specifically because he didn’t want to sign on to the grind of having to come back to the same character again and again. And there would be absolutely no artistic upside in bringing Arthur Fleck back to get punched around by Robert Pattinson’s Batman. While hearing that might be disappointing to fans, it’s significantly better for DC movies. We’re already starting to tire of the cliffhanger endings and “just wait until you see the next one” marketing that accompanies these superhero flicks, as they start to blur together into an undifferentiated mass.
That’s one reason Black Panther was so commercially and critically successful – although it was certainly set in the Marvel cosmos, it wasn’t rigidly beholden to it. Same with Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse from Sony. Although they both worked in the standard three-act formula of heroes eventually triumphing over villains, they ventured outside of the presentation that has become a cliche and gave us something that felt new, like Joker does.
The Next Joke
What makes comics so interesting is their vast field of potential. While Marvel’s Cinematic Universe hooks viewers in with the promise of a network of connections and references to get (or read about afterwards on the Internet), the fractured continuity of the major comic book universes points to the eventual collapse of that model. Both Marvel and DC have rebooted and retconned their timelines dozens of times. Pretty soon, your movie actors are going to age out of your spandex as well, and then where will you be?
How much better, then, to go the other way and tap into the multiverse? And not just the idea of “here’s the superhero you know, but with a different costume, watch him fight,” but in a way that harnesses the charge of these iconic characters to make movies that have the idiosyncratic vibe of a Joker. Movies where the good guys and the bad guys aren’t smashed against each other like action figures. Movies that aren’t so occupied with setting up the next movie, and the one after that, that they can’t take the time to let great actors make gutsy choices with interesting scripts.
Think about the kinds of stories you can tell when you don’t have to end your film with a big superpowered punch-up (or the closing of a CGI vortex)? If superhero movies want to avoid the risk of burnout, they’re going to need to embrace change. For all its faults, Joker shows us one way that could happen, as do projects like Venom, the comedy-centric Deadpool movies and Fox’s long-delayed New Mutants film, which was supposed to be a straight up horror flick starring Xavier’s young students. None of those movies have “heroes,” but they were all interesting.
Imagine movies that took the rich lore of the Marvel and DC universes and explored them in different directions. Imagine a Fantastic Four movie along the lines of something like Annihilation, where the cosmic ray-changed quartet grapple with the changed nature of their lives instead of smashing up Dr. Doom. Or take Jonathan Hickman’s recent reboot of the X-franchise as a way to explore mutant-human relationships and futuristic science, instead of a one-way path to CGI energy explosions before the credits (and near-mandatory post-credits scenes). Ava DuVernay’s upcoming New Gods has us intrigued for just that reason – although the Kirby originals are choked with bombast, they’re also morally rich, complex and super weird, and we can’t see her and Tom King settling for just another good vs. evil plot.
Comic books haven’t been kid stuff for decades. It’s time for comic book movies to make the same transformation. We’re not arguing for everything to be another Joker. We do love a good superpowered slugfest, and always will. But if the genre is going to be more than just a fad, it needs creators willing to push outside of the commercially successful comfort zone and really embrace what makes these fictional universes special beyond beefy guys with their underwear on outside of their spandex.