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‘Joker’ Has the Most Oscar Nominations of Any Superhero Movie Ever. What a Bummer.

Is this a good thing?

A lot of the attention of the 2020 Oscar nomination announcement went to the films and filmmakers who weren’t nominated: Adam SandlerThe Farewell, Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Lopez.  The sheer number of snubs meant that outrage rightly colored the bulk of the initial reactions to the nominations.

Somewhat lost was the fact that Joker led the pack with 11 nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup and Hairstyling, Original Score, Sound Editing, and Sound Mixing. It displaced The Dark Knight, which received eight nominations in 2009, as the superhero movie with the most Oscar nominations. This is a bummer for a few different reasons.

Heath Ledger, of course, portrayed the Joker in the Dark Knight trilogy, and he won an Oscar for his work in The Dark Knight about a year after he died unexpectedly of a drug overdose. Ledger was just 28 when he passed away, so any reminder of the life he didn’t get to live and the work he didn’t get to do is inherently sorrowful. He’s the closest thing his generation has to a James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, the celebrations of his work inherently depressed by thoughts of what could have been.

It’s also hard not to feel depressed about Hollywood’s fixation on sequels, reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings. Both Joker and The Dark Knight were anchored by demented takes on the same character, but where The Dark Knight felt fresh, coming as it did into a world of flashier, funnier Batman films, Joker is a bit stale. After Ledger (and Jared Leto) played the part with manic, frightening energy seeing Joaquin Phoenix play the part with manic, frightening energy wasn’t exactly the novel direction we associate with Oscar-worthy movies.

None of this is to disparage the efforts of Phoenix or any of the other people who worked on Joker; it’s simply to wonder if their efforts could have gone into a more original, more exciting project, the kind of movie the Oscars have ostensibly existed to venerate.

Joker‘s nominations feel less like the Academy recognizing a unique, creative film that falls outside its normal comfort zone and more like it’s moving into celebrating films that trade artistic daring for commercial success. These two forces aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but the fact that Joker foregrounds a fairly unoriginal take on a character who keeps showing up on screen means it’s not the movie to bridge the gap.

At the time, it felt like The Dark Knight was that film so that it only took eleven years for another superhero film to collect more nominations is a troubling sign for both its legacy and the future legitimacy of the awards. And what’s not sad about that?