In the fall of 2017, writer-director Todd Phillips delivered his script for Joker to top executives at Warner Bros, triggering a round of what two sources close to the project (who spoke to Vulture on background and condition of anonymity) describe as “lively conversations.” Although the gritty Batman spinoff had received broad support at the highest studio echelons during its time in development — former president of worldwide marketing Sue Kroll and former studio chairman Kevin Tsujihara, as well as their respective successors Blair Rich and Toby Emmerich, were among the project’s numerous C-suite champions — the executives huddled repeatedly to debate an essential aspect of the movie: Does it need to be about the Joker?
Warner Bros. had already been planning to mount a different standalone Joker movie plotted around Jared Leto’s iteration of the clown crime kingpin who’s showcased in Suicide Squad. So maybe, some of the executives reasoned, Phillips’s origin story could set up a character who audiences would understand is based on the Joker, but who isn’t literally the Joker. Couldn’t he be some kind of peripheral figure instead? The idea divided the studio chieftains, but everyone agreed transposing the actual Joker from his more familiar context as the Dark Knight’s most infamous antagonist and placing him on his own within a mash-up of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy was a risky move. Then there was the question of how it would resonate with DC Extended Universe fans, accustomed to straight-down-the-pike comics adaptations like Aquaman and Wonder Woman.
In the end, of course, the Joker did not dance down the stairs and out of his own namesake motion picture. Over the weekend — Joker’s fourth in theaters — the $55 million, Joaquin Phoenix-starring criminal character study claimed the No. 1 spot at the box office for the second time, taking in $18.9 million domestically to become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. With its cumulative worldwide haul of $849 million, Joker handily toppled the record of $785 million previously set by the comedy-thriller Deadpool 2. And now, with the passing of fears that Joker would inspire an incel uprising or in-theater active-shooter gun violence — and amid a swarm of awards buzz for Phoenix’s deliberately bonkers performance — the superhero-adjacent drama appears poised to break $900 million at the global box office.
Joker’s splashy arrival in the movie marketplace as something more akin to a singular cultural event than another superhero spinoff can be attributed to a combination of factors beyond Phillips’s absolute unwillingness to make anything but a Joker movie. In the fall of 2018, with principal photography on Joker still in progress, Rich (who replaced Kroll last January) settled on a very specific promotional strategy. The film (which was co-financed by Village Roadshow and the Canadian production company Bron Studios) would be released in the fall movie corridor, a time of year typically associated with serious adult fare, not popcorn comic-book movies. And in an early bid to distinguish it within the superhero genre, Warner’s marketing and distribution executives strategized to premiere Joker at a prestigious European film festival.
It helped that a spot on the upcoming summer-release calendar had opened up, allowing Warner Bros.’ previously scheduled fall DC Universe movie, Wonder Woman: 1984, to move from a November roll-out to a potentially more lucrative June 2020 theatrical release. Joker was accepted at both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals. Instead of walking away from its titular character, Warner Bros. was walking away from the typical comic-book movie playbook.
But according to various people close to the project, the fuse that lit fan excitement for Joker can be carbon dated to Sept. 21, 2018, more than a year before it would premiere to an eight-minute standing ovation in Italy. That day on his Instagram account, Phillips posted camera test footage of Phoenix in character — first as the sad-sack aspiring comedian Arthur Flack, then later in smeary Joker makeup and full clown regalia — backdropped by the Guess Who’s 1969 single “Laughing.” It prompted a collective gasp across the internet. The 30-second clip made clear that Phoenix’s gaunt interpretation of the character was tonally separate and distinct from previous Joker movie performances by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto (who reportedly lobbied the studio to prevent the director from filming Joker and fired his agents when the project moved forward).
Subsequent trailers for the film emphasized its edgy cool — placing Joker on a dramatic continuum much closer to ’70s crime dramas like Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon than, say, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. And further signaling Joker’s seriousness of artistic intent, Warner’s marketers opted not to release any product tie-ins or Happy Meal–style toy promotional agreements that normally supply additional revenue streams for comic-book adaptations.
Finally, in the weeks leading up to Joker’s Oct. 4 release, the conversation surrounding the film became increasingly alarmist. At a time when mass shootings have become frighteningly constant, some critics questioned the effect of releasing a major studio film focused on a disaffected loner who is liberated by hate and emerges as an icon only after arming himself. But just as discussion of Joker’s potential to inspire Aurora, Colorado–style domestic terrorism threatened to overtake its buzz, the studio began limiting Phillips’s and Phoenix’s exposure to the press. Warner Bros. took the unusual step of canceling all red-carpet interviews with reporters at the movie’s New York and Los Angeles premieres. From there, sources say, the film relied on the already-captured attention of fans still aching for the IP to set box-office records.
So now that Joker has split the atom for R-rated, superhero-inspired crime drama, should moviegoers expect to see the multiplex glutted with similarly lugubrious, comic-book related, mid-budget movies? Not necessarily so, says one of our sources, who points out that after Deadpool 2 set the previous R-rated box-office record, precisely zero other ultraviolent, hyperprofane comic-book-adapted thrillers were green-lighted by Hollywood studios. Although a Joker sequel is not entirely out of the question. “You don’t see people hankering for a solo movie about the Penguin,” Erik Davis, managing editor of Fandango, points out. “But Joker is just a character who has always piqued people’s interest. He has been portrayed in the comics over the years in so many different ways, with so many different backstories, and so there are all these different avenues that they can go down when it comes to exploring this character.”