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Symbiotes and smiles
A storytelling comparison of 'Joker' and 'Venom'
November 19, 2019
Recently, the comic book movie has started to be recognized as an actual art form in cinema. Marvel in particular really set the stage with the dense, interconnected story line of the MCU and the rated-R western family drama Logan (2017). These challenges to the form of traditional film and comic storytelling have not only brought the genre of comic book movie to a broader audience, but, in the case of Logan, have been able to ground the movies much more in reality.
A new trend has begun to show in comic book movies, that of removing the hero from the story altogether and creating a movie focusing solely on the villain. The two most recent iterations of this story, the two highest grossing October openings of all time, are DC’s Joker (2019) and Sony and Marvel’s Venom (2018). While the two films do share some commonalities (the title characters of famous villains being the most obvious), there are times where the two contrast very sharply, both story wise and artistically, which may be part of the reason why one of the films is scaling the critical staircase of success, while the other swung short of perfection.
Without any real spoilers for either movie, this is why, from a storytelling standpoint, Joker is miles above Venom.
Starting off, Joker is just a much darker movie. While Venom still tried to include the somewhat lighter tone of superhero movies nowadays (the fact that it was rated PG-13 being a large cause of this), Joker is serious and moody, with the humor it does have being deranged and twisted. It knows it doesn’t have the audience of younger viewers, and therefore doesn’t have the need to cater to them as much.
One of the major issues with Venom was the poor job the script did of blending moods, genres and directions to take the story. At times it tried to be a horror movie, at times it tried to be a buddy comedy, and at times it was just a superhero movie. Joker clearly sticks with one mood, one of showing the darkness of society and how it can do harm to the people in it.
The tones the movies provide do seem to go hand in hand with the plausibility of the stories they present. Venom is a much more science fiction type story, with the cause of Eddie Brock’s (Tom Hardy) powers being an alien that has crashed onto Earth. The story of Joker feels much more grounded in reality, with Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) transformation into the Joker not being a vat of chemicals like in Batman (1989), but rather just the way the world around him reacts to and interacts with him.
Joker’s writer and director Todd Phillips was able to create a world for the Joker to originate in, a world already fairly realistic due to the absence of powers in Batman, and brings it even closer to the real world by removing Batman altogether. The film doesn’t feel like a Batman movie or even a comic book movie (the DC logo doesn’t even appear in the opening credits). Instead, it radiates the energy of Taxi Driver (1976) and other gangster movies of that era.
While Venom did indeed leave out Spider-Man, the film still feels like a big budget, special effects heavy Marvel movie. There is a clear hero and a clear villain with similar powers who end up squaring off with each other, and the movie closes with the ever-popular post-credit scene.
On the other hand, Joker has no post-credit scene. This leaves the movie feeling more like a regular movie, where no sequels are implied or even intended. The ending of the film is slightly ambiguous, but that’s less in the vain of Hollywood and more in the vain of the character of the Joker. While other iterations have given Joker an ambiguous backstory, this film leaves Joker with an ambiguous future, with no real clue as to what will happen to him after the screen goes to black.
This leads into the most important distinction between the two movies, the way they focus on characters. Joker is a fundamentally character driven story. That is the point of the movie. Following Arthur Fleck on his path to becoming the Joker isn’t a physical journey, it’s a mental one. There isn’t any end goal for the Joker that the movie wants to present to you. Instead, it recognizes that the audience knows what will happen to Fleck, and instead wants them to watch and see what the final straw that sends him over the edge is.
While the environment surrounding Fleck does shape who he becomes, there is nothing that Fleck does to definitively change the world to make it the way he wants. He becomes the face of a rebellion, but the final results of the uprising on Gotham are never shown. The movie ends with Arthur completing his transformation into the Joker, feeling he has a purpose, and that sense of pride showing on his face.
There is also no clear hero and villain in the story. While Venom tries to paint Eddie and Venom as heroes in the absence of Spider-Man, the Joker is not the good guy in his movie. Murray Franklin (Robert DeNiro) and Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullon) are not the bad guys. It is much more of a real world dynamic, one where people would have to take sides.
Venom is just simply not a character driven movie. There is not enough backstory for the Venom symbiote to make the audience feel for that part of Eddie Brock, and the constant shifts in tone make it confusing at times to understand when to feel bad for Brock and the situation he is in before his transformation.
The film hardly focuses on Brock’s dynamic with Venom. The fact that Brock has lost everything before his transformation makes the confusion surrounding Brock’s personality swings felt by the people he used to be close with feel more like a continuation of how they used to feel about Eddie and less out of concern for how he is acting now.
Venom doesn’t alter Eddie’s life at all, or rather, the character dynamic of Venom doesn’t affect Eddie. While the transformation into Joker made Arthur Fleck seem like a different person, Venom’s physical presence is what brings Eddie closer to plot points and characters, instead of the reason being how it affects Eddie mentally. Venom from a storytelling perspective tries much more to just get from plot point to plot point and how those affect the characters, while Joker lets its characters be the things that drive the story.
Joker currently sits at #13 on IMDb’s list of Top Ranked Movies by fans, with an 8.9/10. Venom has a 6.8/10 and a much lower critic rating. The way that Joker showcases character development and Venom doesn’t shows that the way to really tell a compelling, comic book based story without the hero is to focus on the way the villain can be a villain without a popular hero standing against them.