Even with Adolf Hitler as an imaginary playmate in “Jojo Rabbit,” there was no more divisive movie at the Toronto International Film Festival than “Joker.” Depending on who you ask, Todd Phillips made an homage to “Taxi Driver,” created a character study inside the Trojan horse of a superhero movie, set a dangerous precedent, or achieved a stroke of genius. No matter where you land, however, one thing is clear: Warner Bros. has a genuine, multi-category Oscar contender, including Best Picture.
“Joker” represents the rarest of animals: A Hollywood blockbuster (set for October 4, it will be huge) that also generates cinephile arguments. These were fascinating: Was it just a DC comic book movie? Should the $55-million cautionary tale be an awards contender? Could “Joker” have unintended consequences in the real world for copycat violence? If so, should that be considered when judging it?
Inevitably, the day after the TIFF “Joker” premiere, those questions and more led to turnaway crowds at the biggest screening room in the Scotiabank multiplex. It was packed an hour ahead of showtime, with every possible stripe of press and industry attendee — from Netflix and Fox Searchlight staffers checking out their potential Oscar rival to ardent film lovers wondering how a DC comic book movie could win the Golden Lion from a jury led by “Zama” feminist auteur Lucretia Martel.
Oddly, the British critics lead the charge on this brilliant and dark ’70s-style, Scorsese-inspired movie. “Hangover” director Phillips creates a cinematic original, even if it’s an “adapted” origin myth for DC’s Joker that fits perfectly into Christopher Nolan’s noir Batman Gotham universe. And Joaquin Phoenix deserves an Oscar run for his humane portrait of browbeaten, mentally ill Arthur Fleck, who wants desperately to grab attention as a standup comedian.
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“Joker” is not just another comic-book movie. Like James Mangold’s Wolverine finale “Logan” or this year’s “Ford v. Ferrari,” top-notch studio craftspeople figured out how to fashion great-looking, resonant, and smart cinema for adults. The first R-rated movie from the Batman universe nails the chaotic zeitgeist. Look for plenty of Oscar love through all the crafts.
Ultimately, much will depend on whether the Academy buys the idea that an arthouse patina can coexist with comic-book IP. It’s a serious contender for the TIFF audience award, which often (but not always) predicts the eventual Best Picture winner. (Last year, it was “Green Book.”) It would be an appropriate year for the post-modern Joker to claim the mantle; TIFF just announced that it canceled this year’s awards ceremony in favor of announcing the winner Sunday via social media.