The gluttonous conveyer belt of comic book inspired superhero films, which mainstream audiences have willingly gorged on, has created an ever fattening cash cow for the movie industry. As studio execs climb over one another to suckle on the comic book teat, the only sour taste has been that critics and the academy have afforded only fleeting recognition to the powerhouse franchises which have repeatedly smashed box office records. Save for the late Heath Ledger’s supporting actor award for the previous incarnation of the Joker, the world of DC and Marvel have only featured in the lesser Oscar categories. Perhaps then it was even Ledger’s character that best summed up the sentiment of movie studios towards the Academy:
“Why so serious?”
It has been the Oscars that have come under the most pressure to better align with the increasingly evident tastes of widespread audiences, introducing the “outstanding achievement in mainstream film” category. However, this does little more than to further underline the stance that prestigious core categories are reserved for art which draws on thoughtful themes of society and culture. This has come under increased pressure when recent films like “Get Out” and “Black Panther” pushed strongly on racial tones. The Academy’s attempted counter, that “Green Book” covered the racial challenges faced by black Americans in a more poignant fashion, fell decidedly flat.
So how delighted they must be to see their Dark Knight arrived in the unlikely form of Todd Phillips and his origin story of Artur Fleck and Gotham City. The cartoonish lunacy becoming tangible when tied to the prominent societal topics of our time: Marxism, Mental health and abandonment of those in society that need protection most. (Racial elements aren’t covered here but we at least have a stellar supporting showing by the ever powerful Zazie Beetz)
The DC universe is only lightly referenced throughout and if we were to rename the characters and the city, this would make a fine standalone story of one man’s decadence into lunacy (think the “Falling Down” of our time). Of course, the box office intake of such an effort would be fractional and those sturdy mainstream DC foundations allow Phillips to build emotional connections with just a fleeting reference to an infant Bruce Wayne. Interestingly, where previous efforts depicted the Wayne family as noble and morally bulletproof (poor choice of words) in their vocation to help the unrelatable lower classes, here Philipps deftly builds Thomas Wayne as a political tyrant who sides with the wealthy and shows frustration and disdain for those less privileged. Phonex’s Fleck is made far more relatable as a softly spoken aspiring stand up comedian with a harrowing childhood rather than a criminal Mastermind with perplexing motives.
What perhaps makes this all even more compelling is that the storyline is based on a 1990s New York (Gotham) rather than some futuristic dystopia. As a result, we are left with a deepening sense that not only is this sort of violent revolution a real possibility in the current political environment but perhaps it is even surprising that we haven’t seen a stronger emergence of anarchy to date.
Considering Philipps pedigree has been delivering such comedic powerhouses as Old School, The Hangover and Borat, the accomplishment is all the more staggering.
With such a back catalog, on his venture to make this film how often Philipps must have been asked: “Why so serious?”. It is to his immense credit that he and his stellar cast remained true to form and delivered a triumph.