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The first ticket won’t be sold to general audiences for another few weeks, but I feel pretty safe in saying that Warner Bros.’ Joker is already looking like a huge success. Todd Phillips’ standalone origin story, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Batman’s greatest foe, is winning accolades and critical acclaim on the festival circuit, all while its opening weekend outlook at the box office continues to rise. The attained and predicted successes of Joker are significant and could be a big deal for future DC movies. In that future, movies like Joker might not be quite so rare.
Joker premiered at the Venice Film Festival on the last day of August where, in a sign of extreme confidence, it screened in competition. The early reviews were largely positive, with the prevailing sentiment being that Joaquin Phoenix was predictably incredible in the role as the Clown Prince of Crime. Gushing tweets, a timed standing ovation and even reviews are things that tend toward the hyperbolic, but then something truly shocking happened.
Todd Phillips’ movie won the Golden Lion, the Venice Film Festival’s top prize and an honor previously awarded to Best Picture contenders like Roma, The Shape of Water and Brokeback Mountain. That prestigious achievement immediately catapulted Joker into the early awards conversation.
Joker has since screened at the Toronto International Film Festival and it must be said that as more critics have seen it, a stark division of opinion has emerged. Some critics have called Joker a masterpiece and others have deemed it garbage, resulting in a fresh, but not overwhelmingly so, 77% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 78 reviews. Full disclosure, I have yet to see the film but it is clear that it will be very controversial, dividing opinions and inspiring plenty of think pieces and hot takes.
Despite its nature, Joker is already looking like a critical success. The Golden Lion is physical proof of that and while the awards race has barely begun, Joaquin Phoenix seems like a shoe-in for a Best Actor nomination and from our current vantage, Joker looks poised to do at least as well as Logan, if not Black Panther as far as comic book movies that received Oscar attention go. While there is a long road ahead, Joker is so far a real success as far as acclaim is concerned.
With a few notable exceptions, critical success has largely eluded DC films in the modern post-The Dark Knight Rises era, which is why this movie could be a big deal for the future of DC films. Financial success has been less hard to come by. Despite being an R-rated, standalone film that is less of an action movie than a character study, Joker looks like it too will bring in the bucks at the box office.
With a big opening weekend ahead and prestigious awards in its pocket (alongside knives and lint?) Joker looks to be an all-around success. So what does that mean for future DC movies?
The lesson WB and DC can take from Joker, is that they don’t need to be shackled to making only one type of film and that their films can be unique and varied and don’t have to fit within a cinematic universe. Maybe we'll see more mid-budgeted films that take chances from WB and DC as a result of Joker. The success of Todd Phillips' film proves DC can do both, making movies like Joker and continuing with more traditional superhero movies like Aquaman and Wonder Woman.
Warner Bros. has long paid lip service to the fact that DC movies are filmmaker driven. Snyder Cut advocates may take issue with that, but whether you love it or hate it, Joker is testament to that philosophy.
Consider Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man. When Marvel Studios shifted focus towards a shared cinematic universe, Edgar Wright’s vision was no longer compatible. DC now has made two movies with two different Jokers in less than five years. Applying that flexible model to the MCU, you could theoretically have two different Ant-Man movies, with one fitting neatly within the MCU and another where Edgar Wright just got to do his thing. But that's not the Marvel model.
Oppositely, Warner Bros. allowed Todd Phillips to make a bold movie that he wanted to make, and whether or not you like the movie, seeing more filmmakers being allowed to take big swings with their unique visions is ultimately a good thing, especially for the comic book movie genre, a genre which is currently driving the industry. Stuff like Joker also helps differentiate DC from Marvel -- although Marvel has started branching out in its own way, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Eternals, Moon Knight and WandaVision, Phase 4 and beyond looking weird and fun as hell.
If a filmmaker comes to Warner Bros. with a great idea for a comic book movie, thanks to Joker it might not be ruled out just because it doesn’t fit neatly within the narrow confines of a cinematic universe or adhere to a specific tone.
If Joker was a critical disappointment like Suicide Squad or if it seemed headed for Dark Phoenix-esque failure at the box office, Warner Bros. and DC would be getting drubbed for the decision to greenlight a movie that wasn’t asked for and wasn’t part of some larger plan. It would be just the latest chapter on DC’s rocky road following Man of Steel.
Following the success of Aquaman, we’ve heard that WB isn’t as focused on DC having a shared cinematic universe anymore. The advantages of this are many fold, but it’s one thing to have movies that are only tangentially connected like Aquaman and Shazam! and another to have something like Joker that is completely divorced from the rest of the DC movies. The combination of that diminished focus on shared universes and the success of Joker could embolden DC to try more movies like this in the future.
Joker’s success validates DC’s gamble to make a standalone film and not strictly adhering to a cinematic universe. That means that Joker doesn’t have to be the flight of fancy or aberration that it first appeared. Rather than being a dalliance with something different, Joker could stand as a test case, an experiment, the result of which could chart a more diverse future for DC movies.
Warner Bros. shouldn’t learn the wrong lessons here from Joker’s success. It doesn’t mean that brutally dark, R-rated movies are where the studio needs to always focus its efforts, nor should every popular hero and villain get an origin story film. Joker is one of the most popular comic book villains, but there is no guarantee a one-off novel approach would work for another character. This type of film obviously isn't replicable at scale and we wouldn’t want three Joker-type movies a year.
The point is that Warner Bros. and DC took a creative risk with Joker. A modestly budgeted risk, but a risk all the same. That risk appears to be paying off in a way that even the most optimistic of predictions couldn’t have foreseen. The lessons of Joker may embolden and inspire DC to take similar risks moving forward.
In the past, DC seemed to be just throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck with its various announced and reported (and subsequently abandoned) projects. In the future, we may see DC doing a lot of different things, including more standalone, one-off movies, not in a desperate attempt to play catch up with Marvel, but because it wants to be daring and different. If that happens, it’ll have a certain clown to thank.
Joker opens in theaters on October 4. Check out our 2019 Release Schedule to keep track of all the big movies coming this fall.