Joker's box office success proves Marvel isn't the only way when it comes to comic book films. From the time it was announced, it was clear Todd Phillips' Joker was going to be a change-of-pace for the genre. Drawing heavily from Martin Scorsese classics like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy (among other notable influences), the film is much more of a psychological character study than a spectacle-driven tentpole. It also made headlines for being completely separate from any shared universe, operating independently of the already established DCEU (which had a Joker, played by Jared Leto in Suicide Squad).
A couple of years ago, Joker was met with a healthy dose of skepticism, but WB's gamble to trust Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix paid off in spades. Opening in theaters this past weekend, Joker broke multiple box office records and earned $96.2 million domestically in its first three days. It achieved that despite facing intense backlash (which included increased security at screenings) and being an R-rated character drama. What that performance demonstrated was that there's more than one way to bring comic book characters to the big screen, and audiences can be receptive of approaches that go against the grain.
From its humble beginnings in Phase 1, the MCU grew into the most dominant Hollywood property, bringing in $22.5 billion worldwide from 23 films (and showing no signs of slowing down). In a copycat business, other studios were quick to develop their own shared universes, but none of them were able to replicate Marvel's level of success. One of the more infamous examples is the aforementioned DCEU, which was rushed to catch up to Marvel and sunk when Justice League failed critically and commercially. That course of events forced WB to re-evaluate things, and there's now more of an emphasis on standalone movies than crossovers. WB was willing to take a swing on something like Joker because they finally realized they can't beat Marvel, so they should try something Marvel could never do. And that's not a criticism of Marvel, it's just the reality of the situation. The MCU (probably) isn't going to have an R-rated installment.
Joker is a very different beast, even when compared to other non-MCU comic book films like Venom and even Logan. The former was made in such a way future MCU crossovers could be possible (and it featured a sequel-teasing stinger); the latter, while still being an R-rated Western, tied into a larger franchise. There are stretches where it's easy to forget Joker is based on DC characters, and with a few tweaks, the story it tells could work without any references to the larger mythos. This is probably what made the project so appealing to Joaquin Phoenix, who famously turned down Doctor Strange in the MCU. It has no aspirations of launching a series (though Phoenix is open to returning) and merely uses its comic book elements as dressing for its chilling narrative. In some respects, Joker is unlike anything viewers have seen in the comic book genre. The fact that it was this financially successful (outgrossing Justice League's opening weekend) speaks volumes. It shows there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach.
This year, Avengers: Endgame became the highest-grossing film of all-time; there's no denying moviegoers love the MCU and things should stay that way for a long time. But Joker breaking records demonstrates audiences can have varied taste in their comic book cinema. They'll go for the four-quadrant blockbuster and the dark, disturbing character study. Joker should be liberating for studios (especially WB) because it opens new opportunities to explore. The onus will be on studios learning the "right" lessons from Joker's box office. The film wasn't necessarily successful because it was gritty and realistic, but because it told an interesting story that was the product of a filmmaker's vision. DC has a whole roster of characters directors would love to get there hands on, and it'll be fascinating to see if Joker was just a one-off or the start of something new. It could be fun to see other "Eleseworlds" type spins on this material.
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