The 2020 Oscar nominations are here, and Joker leads the pack with an astounding 11 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. The film, a dark and derivative take on Batman’s most infamous villain, should feel like a success story for legions of genre fans who have long wished that the Academy Awards would take comic book-based films more seriously. So, why does Joker's success feel … wrong?
Movies based on comic books — especially superhero comics — have been the dominant force at the box office for the better part of a decade. The Marvel Cinematic Universe changed the landscape in Hollywood, and films like Avengers: Endgame regularly dominate moviegoers' attention and wallets. However, superhero movies tend not to get much recognition at the Academy Awards outside of the technical categories, like Best Visual Effects. (For instance, despite being the highest-grossing movie of all time, Endgame only earned a Visual Effects nomination this year.)
When comic book movies get nominated in more prestigious categories, like for Best Picture or the acting awards, it tends to be because they’re seen as "important" and "serious." There aren't a ton of examples of this happening in recent years. Heath Ledger famously won a posthumous Oscar for The Dark Knight, and the uproar that the movie didn't get a Best Picture nod is largely responsible for the Academy changing the rules so up to 10 films are eligible, ensuring there's additional room for more populist fare. Even so, Black Panther was the only superhero movie to get nominated for the top award prior to Joker.
Black Panther is widely considered to be one of the best movies in the MCU, and it's still shocking that it dealt with racism and colonialism as earnestly as it did, given that it was a Disney movie whose primary function was to make gobs of money (and it did that too). Still, Black Panther only received six nominations to Joker’s 11, and only one, Best Picture, was for an “above the line” category. Ryan Coogler didn’t get a Best Director nod, nor did Michael B. Jordan get a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
Why did Joker get so much more recognition than Black Panther? You can probably chalk some of it up to the Academy’s intrinsic, evergreen problems. As evidenced by 2020’s acting nominations, which feature more Scarlett Johanssons than they do non-white actors or actresses, the Academy has a race issue. Joker, a serious movie about a sad white man, is much more the Oscars' speed than Afrofuturism.
Not to discount the Oscars' perennial race issues, but there's probably an even bigger signifier in that last sentence explaining why Joker got nearly twice the nominations that Black Panther did: "Serious." The Academy loves to nominate movies that are serious — according to their own standards, which tend to skew towards dramas, period pieces, and, well, white people.
It's for this reason that comedies, horror movies, or other genre fare are almost never nominated for Best Picture; the Oscars are an inherently flawed attempt to signify what's important. Joker, despite being about a clown who famously fights a man dressed up like a bat in comic book, fits these standards because it's a "serious" movie about society that apes the visual style of other, better movies like The King of Comedy. Black Panther, despite interrogating the legacy of African colonialism and black oppression, has costumes and fight scenes, so it's less serious.
This is all pretty standard for the Oscars, but Joker's elevation also speaks to a problem that superhero comic books themselves had grappled with on and off for decades: in order for many comics to achieve mainstream recognition and critical acclaim, they need to be serious.
Arbitrarily, they're "graphic novels" instead of comic books. Often, they're dark and edgy. This isn't always a bad thing, as with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The problem comes when seriousness is mistaken for quality and prestige. In the Academy's continuing efforts to bring superhero movies into the fold, they're doing exactly that with Joker.
This isn't to say that a fun superhero movie that doesn't try too hard should skate its way into the Best Picture ring. Avengers: Endgame was a fun movie, but if we're being honest with ourselves, it's not one of the best movies of the year. Neither is Joker, though, and that's the issue. Because Joker postures itself to be serious, the film is getting an undeserved advantage over Endgame, which, frankly, was much better than Joker.
A superhero movie doesn't need to be serious to be a Best Picture contender. It just needs to be good, and despite all misconceptions, those two things aren't the same.