Propelled by Joaquin Phoenix‘s performance as Arthur Fleck, a man struggling with mental illness, the $1 billion box-office hit is surprisingly leading the pack with 11 Oscar nominations, including best picture and best actor, at the Academy Awards on Feb. 9 (ABC, 8 p.m. EST/5 PST).
Considering the journey, even the outcry when the movie by director Todd Phillips was announced, it’s something of a dark miracle.
“It’s been a wild, volatile, chaotic journey for the film. And it certainly fits the character at the center, which is pretty cool,” says Erik Davis, managing editor of ticket and news site Fandango.com. “It’s like you never know where ‘Joker’ is going to go next.”
Davis says he was excited to hear about the project in 2017, when comic-book movies were moving toward complex antiheroes such as Ryan Reynolds’ “Deadpool” or Jared Leto’s Joker in “Suicide Squad.”
But the conversation around the movie centered on why “The Hangover” director and, louder, why Joker again? Leto was poised to reprise the role in his own solo film on the heels of “Suicide Squad,” the Joker had played a sizable role in 2017’s “The Lego Batman Movie” and there were already unforgettable film performances by Heath Ledger (“The Dark Knight”) and Jack Nicholson (“Batman”).
The Hollywood Reporter led the fanboy backlash with a piece titled “The Depressing Inevitability of a Joker Movie,” arguing that the Bat-baddie has been overexposed in film and TV projects. “Isn’t it time to let the Batman villain rest for awhile?”
But with its brooding take of a troubled man abandoned by the system, “Joker” stepped forward as an awards contender. The film not only premiered at the Venice Film Festival, it went on to take the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion.
“The minute it broke out at Venice, ‘Joker’ was in the awards derby,” says Tom O’Neil, founder of the awards site Gold Derby. “The critics haven’t always been on board with it. ‘Joker’ has just been assumed to be a joke on the awards scene. But it keeps coming back with a powerful punch and calls out to be taken seriously. As it should be.”
The release of “Joker” last fall was marked by increased security at theaters and theater chains banning clown costumes, to head off potential violence inspired by the film. None materialized and “Joker” hit a nerve with moviegoers. The film set an October opening weekend record of $96.2 million and became the first R-rated movie to pass $1 billion in box office worldwide, despite mixed reviews (69% positive on Rotten Tomatoes).
” ‘Joker’ is certainly a polarizing film. What it has needed all along the journey is a pack of passionate fans,” says Dave Karger, correspondent for IMDb.com. “These fans propelled it at the box office, and they put it number one on their Oscar ballot.”
“Joker” chugged through awards season, with Phoenix taking best actor at the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards. But no one was expecting the movie to dominate the Oscar nominations.
“The overwhelming reaction on nomination morning was shock that ‘Joker’ could actually lead all films. It seemed impossible,” says O’Neil. “It’s one of those cases where the critics have been wrong. And it’s going to be great news for the Oscar show to have such a fan favorite.”
The ultimate irony: The critically embraced “Dark Knight” was snubbed for a best picture nomination, which prompted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to expand the category from five to up to 10 films. “Yet you can clearly say, even if there were only five (slots) this year, ‘Joker’ would have one of them,” says Karger.
Dominating Oscar night would be the next step. Karger anticipates that “Joker” could win up to three awards, with Phoenix’s best actor and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s original score being the best bets. Best picture might be a long shot.
” ‘Joker’ has had an incredible run. But I think it’s too far behind to win best picture,” says Karger. Still, with the best-picture competition wide open this year, “a surprise isn’t out of the question.”
This is “Joker,” after all.