Is One Great Genre Film Worth the Price of a Dozen Bad Ones?

The trailer for Todd Phillips’ Joker dropped last week, and it’s already elicited some wildly different responses. Many early reactions have focused on what looks to be the fourth definitive cinematic portrayal of the super villain by three-time Academy Award-nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix (behind Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger’s earlier defining portrayals). Some have noted that Phillips’ film may turn out to be yet another nihilistic genre deconstruction nobody needs, and the crybullies on Twitter have predictably had a few things to say about the film’s handling of the subject matter, but, honestly, who cares what Twitter thinks.

Why the world and characters of Batman lend themselves more to bar-setting in the realm of cinematic adaptations is probably worth its own conversation, but what’s interesting to me about reactions to Joker … is the fact that there’s anything about it worth talking about in the first place.

The world of Batman has already given us two of the best modern examples of comic book adaptations to ever grace the big screen, so it’s not like the potential isn’t there for these kinds of films. But given the current state of DC comic adaptations and the highly entertaining but mostly formulaic MCU (and blockbusters in general), Joker’s existence seems … unlikely. I mean, while the rest of Hollywood is largely playing it safe with their genre tent poles, DC Films has every reason in the world (billions of them, really) to fall into step and just try to copy Marvel’s formula and ride the wave for as long as it’ll last.

And it’s not like they’d be the first to try it.

Even Universal tried to get in on the action with 2017’s abysmal failure The Mummy. And with Hollywood’s predilection for following trends (Deep Impact/Armageddon, The Prestige/The Illusionist, Volcano/Dante’s Peak, Red Planet/Mission to Mars), and the fact that Marvel’s model has practically given them a license to print money, it would be a no-brainer on the part of DC to simply follow the path their rival has laid out for them. No one would blame them for it, and probably many of us would welcome it.

Whatever DC has done instead of that has netted questionable results, both for DC and the fans. Some might even say, outside of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, DC’s output has been an across-the-board failure (though, I would argue Zach Snyder’s Watchmen counts among DC’s successes). Still, whatever your thoughts on David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (especially Jared Leto’s portryal of the Joker and that bizarre character design) or  Snyder’s tonally uneven and oddly-edited Batman v Superman, DC’s creative decisions, strange though they may seem, have at least been interesting (even if only in the way that a meth head’s decisions are interesting) and have at least resulted in some of the most visually striking and ballsy superhero adaptations ever put to film.

We’re two months out from Joker’s early October release date and the film already has the stink of Oscar buzz about it, with several critics calling Phoenix’s portrayal of the title character “Oscar-worthy”.

How often does that happen with blockbuster genre pictures?

Now, Oscar buzz is no guarantee of quality. Even an Oscar win doesn’t guarantee that (looking at you Crash). But Joker’s impressive trailer and the buzz it generated got me thinking about the state of blockbuster genre films today, and it led me to make a declaration while discussing the subject with SAW’s resident film hipster, Sailor Monsoon: I’d rather spend my hard-earned money on a string of risky duds on the off-chance of getting something truly unique and interesting like The Matrix than waste my money on an endless tide of movies that have little more to offer me than the promise of comfortable numbness.

Ant-Man, Ready Player One, Pacific Rim, Thor, and Solo: A Star Wars Story are all inoffensive films. None of them are bad in the I completely wasted my time with this bullshit sense of the word. But these movies all have at least one other thing in common: Every single one of them is utterly forgettable. And to me, in an era where genre supposedly rules the summer cinema and every superhero you can think of is getting his or her own movie, that most of these movies are completely unmemorable is a tragedy. It’s a waste.

For my money, the world needs more Guardians of the Galaxys and Mad Max: Fury Roads and District 9s and Logans, and the only way to get those gems is to follow a path that takes you through the wreckage of the Cloud Atlases and Mutes and Prometheuses and Rogue Ones.

Joker may not live up to the hype. It may end up being just an above-average DC movie with a try-hard performance from Joaquin Phoenix. But it’s already got people talking. And, to me, that’s better than the alternative, because the worst sin a movie can commit in my book, is to be entirely unremarkable.

So I put the question to you: Are you content with blockbuster movies that take no risks and have predictable but happy endings? Are you OK with movies that follow formulaic plotlines, don’t get too edgy with the humor, or too heady with the themes? Or would you risk sitting through a handful of movies that take risks and ultimately fail to deliver for the chance at seeing a Star Wars or a Blade Runner 2049?

I look forward to arguing with you in the comments section. See you there.

Author: Billy Dhalgren

“A man writes because he is tormented, because he doubts.” -Andrei Tarkovsky