‘Joker’ Director: Batman Isn’t the Real Reason the Movie Is Such a Major Hit

Warner Bros. didn’t believe Joker could be a billion-dollar hit. And now, following the film’s release, the studio is laughing all the way to the bank. Then again, who would have believed a mid-budget, R-rated supervillain origin story about mental illness and classism would reach such heights? Apparently, the director of The Hangover trilogy.

In all seriousness, not even Todd Phillips likely predicted Joker would make the impact it has. Sure, comic book movies are all the rage right now. But Joker goes out of its way to dissociate itself from the genre. Phillips’ film even casts aside any connections to other DC Comics releases in its script. So please don’t tell Phillips his movie owes its success to a certain Dark Knight.

Todd Phillips on the red carpet
Todd Phillips on the red carpet | Leon Bennett/WireImage

‘Joker’ has had an incredible run

Upon its October 2019 release, Joker hasn’t only earned more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office. It’s also bested a ton of comic book films on its way to that milestone, including Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Given its status as a viscerally violent R-rated film, this financial success is even more impressive.

Yet, Joker has also been riding a wave of critical praise, particularly for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. The film has been heavily tipped as a major Oscar contender, a campaign only bolstered further by its monstrous box office. Black Panther recently became the first comic book movie nominated for Best Picture. So suddenly Joker doesn’t feel like such a wild card.

Is ‘Joker’ a hit because of Batman?

Of course, the Joker is best known as Batman’s arch-nemesis. Many comic books and films have explored the relationship between the Clown Prince of Crime and the Caped Crusader. Yet, Phillips recently told Deadline he doesn’t think the Joker’s Bat-history is the reason the film has connected with audiences.

I think it was more than that. I mean, I think there are themes in the movie that really resonated with people. None of us thought an R-rated movie could do over $1 billion across the world. But I think the themes in it really resonated. The thing Scott Silver and I set out to do when we wrote the movie together was to make something meaningful in that comic book space, but also something really that addressed what was going on in 2016, when we started writing. It’s pretty obvious what was happening in our country in 2017 while we were writing it, and we really wanted to use Joker to make a movie about the loss of compassion and the lack of decorum in the world.

Phillips does have a solid point about how the themes of Joker set it apart. But the film would absolutely not have been such a hit if it wasn’t based on an established character. Audiences everywhere know the Joker almost exclusively because of Batman. Sure, the tone of Phillips’ film and Phoenix’s performance kept them interested in how this Joker would be different. Let’s not rewrite the character’s history though.

Todd Phillips offers a sequel update

Phillips’ film doesn’t entirely shy away from the Batman mythos either. After all, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is a key figure in the movie’s plot, and its ending directly ties into a classic element of the comics. Granted, the original ending of Joker more directly rejected the film’s potential for a continuing story.

Yet, as Phillips freely admitted to Deadline, Joker 2 is now very much a possibility.

When a movie does $1 billion and cost $60 million to make, of course it comes up. But Joaquin and I haven’t really decided on it. We’re open. I mean, I’d love to work with him on anything, quite frankly. So who knows? But it would have to have a real thematic resonance the way this one did, ultimately being about childhood trauma and the lack of love, and the loss of empathy. All those things are really what made this movie work for us, so we’d have to have something that had an equal thematic resonance.

The director previously debunked reports Joker 2 was officially in the works. But we can’t imagine a world where the film doesn’t give way to a sequel. Exactly what angle Phillips, Phoenix, and company find for it remains to be seen. However, we’re looking forward to seeing if Joker 2 will choose to embrace its comic book roots more than its predecessor or continue to operate in a world without Batman.