Todd Phillips’s Joker has just become the first R-rated movie ever to gross $1 billion globally. It’s worth pausing to consider this film as a watershed event in Hollywood moviemaking.
Joker wasn’t even released in China, which won’t allow theatrical distribution for this sort of edgy R-rated offering. That makes its box-office performance that much more astonishing. After I saw it, I envisioned audiences saying, “Whoa, this isn’t what we’re looking for in a comic-book movie,” as they did with the big-screen version of Watchmen, and bailing on it, with an attendant steep week-to-week drop-off in receipts. The exact opposite happened; word of mouth made Joker a must-see event film. Predictions that the movie would inspire a real-life mass-murder not only didn’t come true but something like the opposite happened. Millennials (bless them!) reacted to the extremely disturbing staircase sequence with a larkish sense of mischief and began Instagramming themselves, some in full costume, prancing down the now-famous “Joker stairs” in the Bronx.
Because of the movie’s undisguised debt to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Ross Douthat derided Joker as “plagiarism” when he first reviewed it (though he adjusted that opinion in a later consideration). I see what he means, but I’d call it a synthesis of two forms that spawned an exciting third form. I consider Joker the biggest breakthrough in comic-book movies since Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins in 2005 because it turned out exactly as Phillips envisioned it: “a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic-book film.” Joker doesn’t have any breezy, witty banter or mordant tough-guy one-liners. It has no splashy special effects or rousing battle scenes. Nobody in it is a superhero or even a supervillain; Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is just a lonely creep and, later, a thug. Warner Brothers (bless them too) has a long history of giving enormous freedom to directors to whom it feels loyal, and after Phillips made the studio a bajillion dollars with his Hangover trilogy, it apparently told Phillips he could do whatever he wanted with Joker, provided he keep the budget down (to an estimated $60 million). Phillips was actually liberated by this constriction; he didn’t have to stage any silly superhero battles. He couldn’t afford them. He could stick to the character, the setting, the human drama of a man falling to shreds.
All of this made the film way more compelling than other comic-book offerings. The bar for “dark” just got raised considerably. I think the other top directors are looking at this film and saying, “Wait a minute, now we’re allowed to completely abandon comic-book formulae in comic-book movies?” If Joker had flopped, that talk wouldn’t have gotten very far. But now that it appears to be, in terms of raw box office, the most successful comic-book movie ever made, with a gross more than 16 times its production budget, it has opened up a lot of new creative possibilities for blockbusters. The success of Joker is spectacularly welcome news for those who wish Hollywood studios would take more chances.