Joaquin Phoenix's Joker is proof that looking beyond the DCEU may be a great idea for Warner Bros

Vinay Viswanath

Oct 09, 2019 09:18:53 IST

I was worried about this film. An origin movie about the Joker? Was that what anyone wanted or needed right now? Besides, the last time we saw the clown prince of crime, he looked…and laughed, like this…. That, right there, is a franchise killing performance as far as I’m concerned.

(Avert your eyes children!)

As the first DC film being produced since Warner Bros started looking for the exits on the apparently doomed zeppelin that is the DC Shared Cinematic Universe, there was a lot of pressure to deliver an unequivocal hit. And deciding to lead with an origin story about a villain was definitely a risky proposition.

If the dismal box office performance of the Star Wars spinoff film Solo (which is currently the only Star Wars film to ever actually lose money) has taught studios any kind of lesson at all, it’s that audiences were perfectly content to leave the backstories of some beloved characters unexplored and were apparently unwilling to pay for the dubious privilege of finding out more.

However, it appears that DC and Warner Brothers didn’t get that message, or they chose to ignore it, and for that reason, I am both genuinely surprised and delighted to say that it’s a risk that paid off. If you haven’t seen it already, do make time for it, because Todd Philips’ Joker is excellent. I don’t know if it’s eight-minute-standing-ovation excellent, but it’s really, really good nonetheless.

 Joaquin Phoenixs Joker is proof that looking beyond the DCEU may be a great idea for Warner Bros

Take a bow, you murderous scamp! | Warner Brothers

Stepping on a few toes

Of course, despite the positive reception, the film itself isn’t without controversy. I’m not talking about the online discourse from people who were outraged about the potential message being sent out by a film they hadn’t seen yet. No, I’m talking about the fact that Joker plays fast and loose with established canon for both himself and his future nemesis — a move that has upset some corners of the DC fandom.

After watching the movie, I wouldn’t say it’s a bad move outright, particularly since this film is a standalone story that isn’t required to feed into any future plans. Did I need to see (a far less sympathetic) Thomas and Martha Wayne die yet again? No. This ill-fated couple has already been gunned down for our viewing pleasure enough times and in enough ways to satisfy me forevermore.

It was, however, interesting to see some possible justification provided for why one of the world’s wealthiest families would decide to take a shortcut through a dingy alley (or a side street in a ghetto depending on who’s telling the story), alone, at night, in one of America’s sketchiest cities… it’s a minor detail, but one that's always bothered me.

I honestly can’t imagine how they expected this to play out any other way. | Warner Brothers / Fox Broadcasting

I honestly can’t imagine how they expected this to play out any other way. | Warner Brothers / Fox Broadcasting

Before I get side-tracked into discussing the film at length, let’s get back to what it means for future DC projects.

It’s a Pretty Bold Plan

While the early results of this new direction are certainly promising, it’s not yet clear if — or how — the other upcoming DC films like Margot Robbie-starrer Birds of Prey and the Robert Pattinson-led standalone Batman film will benefit from lessons learned through Joker’s success. One aspect that I do hope they hold on to is the mature age rating, at least for the upcoming standalone films. Even as an avowed MCU fan, I can’t pretend that they don’t suffer at least a little from the Disney-mandated family friendliness and an A/R-rated Batman feature film is something I would be very interested in seeing.

After sinking several years and several films’ worth of effort into building up a DC Shared Cinematic Universe, choosing to move away from it certainly took some gutsy decision making. That said, there are several films currently in production that appear to be based in the existing DCEU continuity, like Wonder Woman 1984, Aquaman 2 and the currently missing-in-action Flash standalone film. Executives have so far been tight-lipped when it comes to confirming whether they still plan to maintain a shared universe for some of the existing properties, with some hesitating to call the upcoming films direct sequels.

From the look of it, the most likely outcome is that we will have several DC film franchises running parallel to each other with the possibility of an occasional crossover, but without a complex web of actions and consequences that ripple outward and require major Justice League-style team-ups to resolve.

With this pivot away from focusing on an MCU-type shared universe where characters and plot events exist and occur throughout all the films, DC’s film offerings should have a far greater degree of creative freedom and could result in attracting talented directors who (understandably) tend to chafe under the control of studio executives.

Posters for Todd Phillips' Joker. Images via Twitter/@jokermovie

Posters for Todd Phillips' Joker. Images via Twitter/@jokermovie

Now, before I get too carried away with my praise for this move, let’s be perfectly honest for a second. Warner Brothers didn’t back away from their cinematic universe plans to fulfil some grand new creative vision for their DC properties, but out of necessity. Despite most of the DCEU films so far being critically panned, with few exceptions, it’s important to remember that all of them were, without exception, extremely profitable.

Ordinarily that alone would mean that we would definitely be seeing more of them, at least until those box-office numbers started to go sideways. But with two of their heaviest hitters, Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, seemingly uninterested in reprising their roles as Batman and Superman respectively, the studio has been forced to rethink their strategy and come up with a plan that is less dependent on individual stars being willing to sign multi-film deals in a contract that spans several years.

Or…maybe all they’re after is a clean start

What we need to keep in mind is to never say never in showbiz. Spiderman’s brief and highly publicised banishment from the MCU is proof enough of that. New contracts can always be signed and stars can always return to a project or be re-cast. After all this, it’s entirely possible that Warner Brothers could just decide to reboot their cinematic universe and attempt to do it right this time. While unconventional, it wouldn’t be too far out of left field for the studio. James Gunn is already on board to take a second stab at making a Suicide Squad film, even though the metaphorical corpse of the 2016 original is barely cold.

When it comes to the competition, Marvel is also at a point where they are starting a new phase without many of their existing heavy hitters in tow either, so DC wouldn’t find it quite as hard to play catch-up if they did decide to double down for round two. However, it looks like the decision from Warner Brothers, at least for now, is that when it comes to taking on Marvel for dominance in the genre of hyper-connected multi-year, multi-film superhero epics, the winning move is to not play.

Also read — The Joker: The insanity and pessimism of Batman's nemesis, the most enduring villain in comics

It’s a good start, to be sure; however, it’s not clear what Warner intends for the future of these properties, and looking at their upcoming production slate and mixed messages from executives, it seems that even they may not be quite sure what direction they want to go in the future. But whatever they decide, it is nice to have this timely reminder that a comic book film can be enjoyable and engaging even when it isn’t linked to 20 other films and doesn’t have the fate of the entire world (at the very least) hanging in the balance.

It’s certainly a refreshing change of pace if nothing else.

Updated Date: Oct 11, 2019 10:14:03 IST