The importance of DC’s “Joker” in an era of Marvel Cinematic dominance

I understand how Marvel’s gimmick works: why should a studio invest in new ideas?

Tyler Palicia

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The 2010s have offered a long line of commercially successful American movies that lack both artistry and substance. But as this decade comes to a close, Warner Brothers has offered us a film that seems to miraculously align with the tradition of a bygone era in Hollywood when aesthetic quality and the commercial greed of the studios were not mutually exclusive.

Although DC Films’ “Joker” is rooted in the lore of superhero themed comics, it shares virtually nothing in common with today’s superhero blockbusters — i.e., Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films.

“Joker” is an ambitious movie that offers an immersive character study, realistic conflicts such as issues of mental illness and most importantly, originality. In contrast, the shallow characters of MCU films (DC’s competitor) face unrelatable, often absurd obstacles. The plots of MCU films are convoluted and don’t necessarily matter because each movie follows the same, predictable template. Even key plot developments seem superfluous in these films.

For example, the infamous “dusting” scene at the end of “Infinity War” was perhaps Marvel’s greatest crime, as well as the moment I gave up on the franchise. After witnessing half of the characters killed off at the end of “Infinity War,” I was appalled when I heard people crying in the theater. It is insulting to the viewer’s intelligence to create these emotional sequences that have no real dramatic weight, because we all know that the franchise obviously wasn’t going to permanently kill off half of its biggest stars without resurrecting them for the sequel. The same criticisms could be made of the DC Extended Universe franchise. It is worth noting that “Joker” is not connected to the DCEU film world.

“Joker,” on the other hand, is important because it dominated the box office—both domestic and global—while avoiding the pitfalls that make MCU films aesthetically poor and thematically generic. “Joker” not only received the same commercial success as the average MCU film, but did so at an artistic level unmatched by most films that are produced by modern studios.

I am not challenging people who like the MCU canon. I have seen roughly half of them and have often found myself enjoying the spectacle of sensory overload.

However, I am challenging the decay of modern film criticism coupled with the corporate greed of studios that has allowed artistically stale MCU films to thrive at the expense of less corporate, more artistic films.

I understand how Marvel’s gimmick works: why should a studio invest in new ideas when it can make billions of dollars with the same idea drawn out over a seemingly endless number of movies? After all, innovation entails risk.

It is simply a fact that studios have drastically fallen in their output of daring movies. The ‘70s explored an uncharted terrain of graphic content as well as tamer movies with new styles of storytelling with the first two “Godfather” films, “Taxi Driver,” “Annie Hall,” “Apocalypse Now” and the “Star Wars” franchise. The ‘80s were dominated by experimental directors like Spielberg (“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”), Kubrick (“Full Metal Jacket” and “The Shining”) and Scorsese (“Raging Bull”).

The ‘90s gave us innovations in style with “Pulp Fiction,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Lion King,” “Jurassic Park,” “Fight Club” and “Goodfellas.” The early 2000s evolved and blended genres with “There Will Be Blood,” “Gangs of New York,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Departed.”

Of course, great movies have been made in the 2010s, but there was once a time when every month a movie hit the theaters and blew people’s minds. These movies remain obdurate in America’s identity. Nowadays, such movies are few and far between.

Even modern blockbusters like the most recent “Star Wars” trilogy, “Jurassic World” and “The Lion King (2019)” come off as exhausted bastardizations of the originals. The few novel creations come from Netflix movies and TV shows rather than studios, which explains why Scorsese was forced to use the streaming service to make his recent crime epic, “The Irishman.”

As this decade ends, I fear that American filmmakers have done very little in the last ten years to expand on the work of their predecessors, and have devolved American film into a childishly indulgent version of its former self.

The MCU is symptomatic of the Hollywood exodus from profound cinema. The global popularity of these mass-produced superhero flicks incentivizes the studios to spend ridiculous sums of money pumping out even more of these vapid candy movies.

Lest you accuse me of wasting time nitpicking something as inconsequential as film aesthetics, there are societal implications to studios spending hundreds of millions of dollars to produce movies for global audiences.

For example, MCU films lack even the most innocuous hints of gay representation because they must be able to make money in countries where acts of homosexuality are often censored from entertainment, such as China and Russia. By pandering to global audiences, MCU films do not truly reflect the realities of modern life, which detracts from their aesthetic quality.

Of course, the movie is not entirely original, often skillfully paying homage to its spiritual predecessors—mainly Scorsese’s loner films: “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” The writing and directing are well complimented by a near-perfect score and set design, which varies from wide shots of the scum-ridden metropolis of Gotham to claustrophobic, gritty apartment rooms.

But most importantly, “Joker” made my skin crawl even as I walked out of the theater.