‘Joker’: The DCEU Founds its Formula to Rival the MCU

Joker is the wild card that could shape the future of DC Comics movies.

With the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008, Hollywood found its new go-to template. In the subsequent few years, every studio scrambled to develop its own shared universe. In particular, DC Comics — Marvel’s longtime rival — took note of how the MCU created a limitless playground for Marvel’s superhero characters.

Collectively known as the DC Extended Universe, the company’s efforts to ape Marvel’s approach have fallen short of most fans’ hopes. But in 2019, Warner Bros. and DC Films stumbled across a new approach to comic book material. Here’s how Joker could dramatically alter DC’s plans for the future.

Joaquin Phoenix at the Academy Awards
Joaquin Phoenix at the Academy Awards | Academy Awards

‘Joker’ was a game-changer for comic book movies

Despite having a comedy director Todd Phillips (The Hangover) at the helm, Joker is about as bleak a comic book movie as audiences have seen. The film — which stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck — has a lot on its mind. Phillips and Phoenix also took a more experimental, character-based approach on set. And this process created Joker‘s most chilling moments.

Moreover, Joker isn’t afraid to eschew the traditionally kid-friendly tone of most mainstream comic book movies. While the Disney-owned MCU is designed to bring in throngs of families, Phillips’ movie is unapologetic in its depiction of mental illness, violence, and trauma. In many ways, it’s a hopeless movie, one that wallows in its own absence of levity.

And while some critics found the self-seriousness of Joker off-putting or its messaging hollow, audiences have really responded to it. During its theatrical run, the film earned more than $1 billion worldwide. Phoenix finally won his first Academy Award for the role too, becoming the second actor to deliver an Oscar-winning performance as the Joker.

DC Films will absolutely take cues from its $1 billion success

Thanks to Joker‘s phenomenal success, fans can be sure the bean counters over at Warner Bros. are taking note.

At the very least, the film’s billion-dollar turnout means the studio will be less hesitant to move forward with an R-rated comic book movie. Sure, there have been many examples of R-rated films inspired by comics. But only since Deadpool in 2016 have they been raking in hundreds of millions at the box office. Joker might finally lift the stigma against an R rating.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Warner Bros. should green-light an R-rated Wonder Woman movie. Not every comic book movie needs such freedom to be true to its central character. The Joker’s whole deal is madness. And it’s hard to truly capture the severity of that if you’re concerned with maintaining a PG-13 rating, many fans argue.

Hopefully, this will be the lesson DC learns from Joker. The film didn’t become a box office smash because it was R-rated. It did so because it presented a raw inherent truth about the character without any concern for hitting every single demographic. Love it or hate it, this element makes Joker the kind of fearless movie capable of shaking up the superhero genre.

Those future plans will most likely include ‘Joker 2’

Other than giving filmmakers like Cathy Yan (Birds of Prey) and perhaps Matt Reeves (The Batman) more leeway, we’re not sure how Joker‘s influence will be felt. The upcoming DCEU slate features sequels to Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam. But those are all well-suited to a PG-13 rating. The same goes for 2022’s The Flash.

Prior to Joker, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad already seemed to be angling for an R rating. And that is only more likely now, again due to the nature of the characters. And there has been some talk about developing similarly dark origin stories centered on other DC supervillains, most notably Lex Luthor. Such was Phillips’ original pitch to Warner Bros.

But the most obvious and immediate legacy for Joker will be to keep the profit train chugging along. While Phillips and Phoenix remain reticent about a sequel, the potential for another $1 billion hit is a tremendous motivator. So fans can count on Joker 2 happening at some point. The question is how it will build on Arthur’s story in a satisfying way.