Beyond ‘Joker,’ Is DC Films’ Focus on R-Rated Movies a Good Decision?

2019 presented a real crossroads for comic book movies. As Avengers: Endgame became the all-time biggest film, the backlash within the industry has continued to grow. Some have considered the potentially harmful long-term effects of Marvel Studios’ approach to cinema.

Yet, as Disney and Marvel reached a new peak, so too has the competition. And in the end, DC Films may be the ones to really change the game. Let’s look into how Joker could play into what comes next for comic book movies.

A billboard display for 'Joker'
A billboard display for ‘Joker’ | Mario Tama/Getty Images

‘Joker’ has changed things forever

In October, Warner Bros.’ DC Films released Joker, a gritty, mid-budgeted character piece starring Joaquin Phoenix as a stripped-down version of the iconic Batman villain. The film courted controversy with concerns it glorifies its main character and, in fact, might inspire real-life violence. Although these worries were ultimately unfounded, the resulting press certainly helped bolster Joker‘s box office prospects.

With a worldwide gross of more than $1 billion, Joker has already earned more than The Dark Knight. In fact, director Todd Phillips’ film is on its way to becoming the most successful film ever made based on DC Comics. Not bad for a film Warner Bros. was initially so hesitant to commit to upfront.

The studio is even campaigning heavily for Joker to receive some Oscar nominations, which it likely will. Phoenix is considered a near-lock for a Best Actor nod. And the film’s distinctive look and haunting score might break through as well.

DC Films is planning its next move

Naturally, Joker‘s undeniable impact is making waves behind the scenes. The DC Extended Universe — DC’s shared universe response to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — has been mixed at best. While films like Wonder Woman and Aquaman exceeded expectations, other DCEU entries have failed to please fans or studio executives.

So it stands to reason Warner Bros. is looking for a new template to apply to its DC Comics characters. A recent Variety article revealed this may involve adding harder-edged DC projects a la Joker to the studio’s slate. For instance, the report claims both 2020’s Birds of Prey and 2021’s The Suicide Squad will be rated R.

Phillips also revealed he pitched a series of R-rated DC origin stories, which might now happen. If Warner Bros agrees to greenlight Phillips’ idea, the studio would be more likely to get him and Phoenix back onboard for a proposed Joker sequel. But not every DC Films release will go dark, of course. The next few years will bring Wonder Woman 1984, The Batman, and Dwayne Johnsons’ Black Adam, all of which will likely remain PG-13.

Will this approach work long-term?

The question now becomes whether Warner Bros. can duplicate the success of Joker with other DC characters. While not all comic book characters warrant such an intense approach, some — like the Joker — certainly might benefit from it. At the very least, the studio’s willingness to go there opens up a wider range of possibilities for audiences.

If the comic book movie genre hopes to endure, it needs to grow with the times. The Avengers films might be suitable for family audiences, but that doesn’t mean all superhero fare has to be “Disney-fied” for younger viewers. After all, even Marvel Studios itself is likely to try adding R-rated material into the mix, starting with Deadpool 3.

Warner Bros. could undercut its current hot streak if it learns the wrong lesson from Joker. The reason the film resonated with audiences is because it presents an unfiltered version of an inherently dark, disturbing character. Just casually adding profanity and bloody violence to a beloved character isn’t going to cut it.