No Joke: Joker Sets New Records and Revitalizes the DC Extended Universe

Warner Bros.’ Joker has rewritten the record books for R-rated releases, opening to $96.2 million in October, a record for the fourth quarter and the fourth-highest debut overall. Even more impressive are the legs it has displayed. In late October, it surpassed previous record-holder Deadpool to become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time, going by worldwide grosses.

The film was a social media favorite leading up to its release, which was somewhat surprising given its dark subject matter and the fact that for the first time in five theatrical appearances the character was given a solo movie without any other heroes or villains present. It charted in the weekly top 5 of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram numerous times in the months leading up to its release, using not only its trailers but its film festival buzz and word of mouth to drive interest, a unique marketing approach for a major comic book adaptation. Warner knew they were onto something with the critical praise it received. A clever marketing push was justified when Joker earned the title of highest-grossing R-rated film worldwide. (Domestically, that record still belongs to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, with Joker sitting at the number seven spot.)

Deadpool was the first property to demonstrate that an R rating for a comic book adaptation didn’t pose a box office liability; on the contrary, it used the rating to its advantage, presenting aspects of its main character that might not have been otherwise depicted within a PG-13 rating. Deadpool and its sequel occupied the top two spots in the all-time R-rated film category before Joker’s ascendence. In addition, Jokeris not a high-octane, comedy-infused action film like those in the Deadpool franchise, but rather an exceptionally dark, cerebral, disturbing take on a familiar character that we have never seen before. Unlike Deadpool, Joker has few redeeming or endearing qualities; he’s the kind of main protagonist usually reserved for limited-release art house films. That is what made the movie’s huge success even more surprising and improbable. 

Last year, the Sony-released Marvel adaptation of Venom also showcased a popular comic villain (though it was rated PG-13) and openedon the exact same Friday, setting the October opening weekend record that Jokerrecently broke, with $80.3 million. Despite being panned by critics (it has a 29% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), the film was a huge success both domestically and internationally, raking in $213.5 million and $856 million, respectively. Joker simply managed to be a better film all-round and then built on what Venom achieved in the same slot—a genius releasing move by Warner, especially considering it was using Marvel’s model to advance its own property, not something DC films have managed successfully in recent years.

While Joker is a stand-alone title, one has to bear in mind the mixed bag the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has offered in recent times to fully understand its significance. Against the huge and continuing success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Warner Bros. has struggled to build a competing universe from the DC Comics properties it owns. Suicide Squad is particularly relevant, since Warner no doubt hoped it would successfully reintroduce the Joker as a character within the DCEU following Heath Ledger’s tragic, character-defining performance in The Dark Knight eight years earlier. The results were mixed, with critics panning the film, and especially Jared Leto’s take on the Joker, which all but quashed their initial plans of having a spin-off Joker franchise within the DCEU.

There have indeed been bright spots in the DCEU, namely Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam!, but when Justice League, positioned as the studio’s answer to Avengers, severely underperformed (it reportedly lost the studio up to $60 million), it was clear that a different direction needed to be taken. The decision was made to focus more on stand-alone, cost-effective films, which is where the studio had seen success in prior recent adaptations.

Now that the stage is set, we arrive at Joker,which had a lot of possible strikes against it going into release. Jack Nicholson’s and Heath Ledger’s portrayals of the Joker were genre-defining movie bad guys, transcending the comic book persona. Theirs were big shoes to fill indeed. When Leto’s interpretation of the character—understandably hyped, since he is a talented, Oscar-winning actor—landed with a whimper, many thought Joaquin Phoenix didn’t have a chance to craft something exceptional and comparable to what had come before. But the accolades, award-season buzz, and the likely spawning of an entirely new series of comic book adaptations have quieted any doubters.

There is no parallel for Joker in the world of Marvel adaptations, and Warner apparently has realized that their advantage lies not in mimicking the MCU but in making cost-effective, boutique stand-alone adaptations uniquely suited to the strengths of the individual characters. This is their road map to success, which could ultimately see them reemerge as a viable challenger to Disney for box office superiority as the MCU looks to enter a new and uncertain phase and Star Wars wraps up its storied saga.

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