Black Panther made history earlier this year by becoming the first superhero movie to score a Best Picture Oscar nomination (and ended up scoring three wins), but we could have yet another comic book adaptation in the awards race this season: Joker. Some were taken aback when Warner Bros. announced that The Hangover and War Dogs filmmaker Todd Phillips’ R-rated spin on the iconic villain was world premiering at the Venice Film Festival, but Joker got the last laugh when the film won the top prize at the festival’s awards. Now Joker has screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, where I got a chance to see the sincerely disturbing character drama, and I can personally attest that it’s probably going to be in the Oscar conversation.
The biggest shot Joker has at the Oscars is Joaquin Phoenix, who is truly astounding in the lead role as Arthur Fleck. The film itself is a psychological character study akin to Taxi Driver, and Phoenix commands the frame every second he’s onscreen—which is quite a feat, as he’s literally in every single scene. Joker is essentially an origin story for the titular character, but Phoenix tracks his descent into madness in grotesque, harrowing detail.
The Academy loves a good physical transformation, and indeed Phoenix disappears into Fleck here. He’s gaunt and takes on the silhouette of a Quasimodo-like gargoyle at times, and his spin on the Joker laugh is unforgettable in the worst way. If Joker purports to be an unnerving, grisly, R-rated twist on the most iconic Batman villain in history—the Big Bad to end all Big Bads—then Phoenix delivers exactly what is needed to create this new iteration of the character. After Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight it felt impossible that anyone could deliver a more iconic spin on the character, but Phoenix gives it his all.
The unique quality of Phoenix’s performance is made possible by the standalone nature of Joker, and indeed that makes it quite unlike most other superhero movies. It’s also why the film as a whole probably has a better shot at awards contention than other superhero movies in years past. Free from the constraints of building out a franchise, selling toys, or playing to younger moviegoers, Joker is prickly, violent, and disquieting. Again, it’s more like Taxi Driver than The Wolverine, and while films like Black Panther, Logan, and Deadpool have stretched the constraints of the superhero genre in the past, nothing comes close to the level of psychological trauma depicted in Joker.
Consideration in categories beyond Best Actor is certainly possible, especially if the film is a hit. The Venice Film Festival award win was huge for boosting the film’s reputation as a viable candidate, and if it’s a genuine box office success, that only helps its chances and keeps it in the zeitgeist throughout the key Oscar months.
Joker began as an idea from Phillips, who crafts a handsome film here and keeps the focus on Phoenix’s performance throughout. If the film does hit big with Academy voters, I wouldn’t be entirely shocked to see him land in the Best Director conversation. Best Adapted Screenplay consideration is possible as well, although despite the notation, Phillips and co-writer Scott Silver didn’t pull anything from the comics except the bare bones qualities of the title character.
The crafts across the board are impressive and warrant consideration. Hildur Guðnadöttir’s original score is haunting, beautiful, and at times downright terrifying—it’s one of the best of the year. Lawrence Sher’s cinematography is elegant and focused, always keeping Arthur in the frame. And it’s certainly a contender for consideration in the Makeup & Hairstyling and Costume Design categories.
It’s tough to come down too confidently about anything at this admittedly early stage in the awards race, but I would be gobsmacked if Phoenix wasn’t in the Best Actor conversation. Beyond that, it kind of depends on how Joker is received commercially and by critics at large—does the Academy embrace it? Does it fare well on the precursor awards circuit (SAG, DGA, etc.)? Yes, it could definitely score a Best Picture nomination. But it could also just net Best Actor and a couple of craft nominations.
Joker does have one major asset that many other Oscar contenders have to work to attain during the season: everyone is talking about it. It’s a conversation piece, and while plenty of editorials and hot takes will surely be written about the film’s themes and larger implications after it hits theaters in October, that only keeps it in the zeitgeist that much longer. And with prestige recognition in its back pocket after Venice, the prospects are promising.
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