Why so serious? Well, Joaquin Phoenix just won an Oscar for Best Actor after playing the Joker, a character originated from comic books. That’s one moment to be very serious about from tonight’s Oscars telecast.
Following in the footstep of Heath Ledger, who also won an Oscar for playing Mistah J in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Phoenix picked up the Best Actor trophy in honor of his work in Joker. However, Ledger’s win came in the Best Supporting Actor category whereas Phoenix made Oscar history by being the first actor in a comic book movie to win a plaudit from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in one of the leading acting categories.
Taking to the stage earlier tonight, Phoenix was reflective when he considered both his happiness to have won and also to use the platform of an Oscar winner for change.
“I’m full of so much gratitude right now,” Pheonix said. “I don’t feel elevated above my fellow nominees or anyone in this room because we share the same love of film.” He went on to speak about using systems of powers for systems of change, using as a specific example the cruelty of the meat and dairy industry. ” I think the greatest gift it’s given me and many of us in this room is using our voice for the voiceless. I think a lot about some of the issues we’re facing collectively… but for me I see commonality. “We steal her baby… and we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.”
He ended his speech by quoting what his late brother River Phoenix wrote at the age of 17, “Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.”
While Phoenix’s win for Joker was historic it is hardly unexpected. Previously picking up the equivalent prize at the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, and Critics Choice Awards, it was as much a foregone conclusion as possible that Phoenix would leave the Oscar stage victorious on Sunday night.
Nevertheless, it is a moment of vindication for both the actor and perhaps Phillips’ whole movie. Announced several years ago to snickers at the idea of a non-canonical Joker movie following the character’s less than inspired inclusion in Suicide Squad (where he was played by Jared Leto), the film was dogged by media heavy scrutiny that erred toward manufactured controversy.
While the film received a rapturous reception during its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, beginning with its next bow at the Toronto International Film Festival and onward, it was met with mixed thoughts from critics. In some quarters, it was even suggested the movie was “too dangerous” to be released in “these times.” It was further suggested the movie would encourage mass shootings and violence.
We are personally skeptical of this interpretation of the film. For whatever problems it has—and there are several, including how it rather derivatively replicates earlier Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy with far less nuance or perspective—it is always a slippery slope argument to suggest media that is shared all over the globe breeds violence specifically in the U.S. It also doesn’t evaluate the movie for its actual content. Particularly Phoenix’s undeniably compelling transformation into a mentally ill man with tragic delusions of grandeur.
That said Joker’s win in one of the four biggest categories of Oscar night is further vindication for the comic book genre and another example of how genre itself is becoming more accepted by the Academy. As we essayed in further detail here, the Academy has gone through a metamorphosis in the past decade, beginning with the inclusion of up to 10 films being nominated for Best Picture after The Dark Knight’s infamous snubbing. In the years that followed, genre films went from getting token nominations at the beginning of the decade to dominating them, as seen by The Shape of Water winning Best Picture and Best Director, and Get Out taking home Best Original Screenplay in 2018.
Phoenix’s win adds to that legacy, which has already seen superhero movies break through the glass ceiling in other ways, beginning by Logan earning a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination and Black Panther being nominated for Best Picture just last year. That Joker not only also got nominated for both of those awards, but then took home lead actor, suggests superhero movies—if produced with enough thought and artistry—are no longer a laughing matter.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of both the Critics Choice Association and the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.