With Edgy ‘Joker,’ Warner Bros. Punches Back at Marvel’s Might

(Bloomberg) -- With the new “Joker” movie opening this weekend, Warner Bros. is making its DC Comics franchise decidedly un-Disney.

The R-rated film is bloody and violent — enough to spark protests from some quarters — and makes it clear that Warner Bros. is no longer just copying Walt Disney Co.’s successful Marvel unit, which built a body of 23 superhero films by tying its biggest comic-book characters together. Instead, the film division of AT&T Inc. has decided to focus on a series of discrete movies , letting the story and director set the course.

“It’s a smart strategy for them,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Box Office Pro, which tracks the industry. Warner Bros. is focused on “doing stand-alone films, with big investments into what filmmakers want to do, rather than what the studio wants to do.”

Superhero movies have become a crucial revenue source for Hollywood. Successful films have become predictable draws at the box office, appealing to broad swaths of the population. But in recent years Disney’s Marvel characters have dominated the genre, making rivals look like also-rans.

With Edgy ‘Joker,’ Warner Bros. Punches Back at Marvel’s Might

Last year, Warner Bros. enlisted Walter Hamada, a longtime executive with studio’s New Line label, to take the reins of DC films and breathe life into a movie franchise that has struggled to keep up with Marvel. He brought a resume that includes horror hits like “The Conjuring” and the 2017 remake of “It.”  The projects on hand included “Joker,” which had been under discussion for two years. In July 2018, the studio gave the go-ahead.

The result is director Todd Phillips’s fresher, edgier look at one of the comic-book industry’s greatest villains, and a price tag of just $55 million, or about quarter of the typical superhero-film budget. In an introduction to “Joker” at its Los Angeles premiere on Saturday, Phillips said he pitched the idea three years ago as a character study of the DC villain.

With Edgy ‘Joker,’ Warner Bros. Punches Back at Marvel’s Might

Joaquin Phoenix stars in the title role of “Joker,” the origin of Gotham City’s best-known psychopath and his alter ego Arthur Fleck. Fleck is struggling with mental illness in a city in crisis, with support systems for vulnerable individuals failing.

There is no definitive history for the Joker. But Phillips leaned on one comic-book storyline and developed a character living at home with his mother, working by day as a clown but dreaming of becoming a standup comic.

Fleck is beaten up by stockbrokers and youths, and with parallels to Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” descends into a delusion-fueled killing spree. His homicidal revenge gains a following in a city rising up against the rich.

The violence — and parallels to today’s mass shooters — have led to criticism, including from families of individuals killed or wounded in an attack at an Aurora, Colorado, theater in 2012. In that incident, a man opened fire during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” another Warner Bros. comic-book film. The families wrote to the studio expressing concern about what the film might inspire.

“It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero,” Warner Bros. responded in a statement. The company said it has a long history of donating to victims of violence, and noted that its parent AT&T has in recent weeks called on policymakers to address the “epidemic” of gun violence.

Warner Bros. also barred the usual red-carpet interviews for the stars, according to Variety.

“Joker” is forecast to do well, with projected sales of about $101 million in its weekend debut in North America, according to Box Office Pro. That would put the film in the top five among DC Comics adaptations, surpassing “Justice League,” which opened to $93 million, and set a record for October. It would also add to recent successes for Warner Bros.’ DC business, including “Shazam” and “Aquaman,” which went on to collect $1.15 billion in worldwide ticket sales this year.

The studio is forecasting an opening of about $80 million.

For now, “Joker” looks like an outlier in terms of its themes and R rating. Phillips has said the story is unconnected to the other movies in Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe, and told Variety that Phoenix won’t appear in a new Batman movie set for 2021.

The studio has more traditional DC fare headed to screens in the next year or two. Margot Robbie reprises Harley Quinn in “Birds of Prey” next year, when Patti Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” sequel will also be unleashed.

With Edgy ‘Joker,’ Warner Bros. Punches Back at Marvel’s Might

For 2021 and beyond, “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson has been cast as the new “Batman,” and James Gunn, who made “Guardians of the Galaxy” a hit for Marvel, is rebooting “Suicide Squad.” A new “Aquaman” is also expected.

But with its seeming real-world themes, “Joker” has already won over critics and garnered awards. The film collected the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, while Phoenix received an honorary prize at the Toronto festival, rare recognition for a comic-book movie. More than three-fourths of critics recommend the picture, according to Rotten Tomatoes.

The recent success of more-mature takes on comic-book characters, such as “Logan” and “Deadpool,” has opened the doors to such edgier fare, according to Jeff Bock, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations. He describes “Joker” as a “crossover between a comic-book film and a Scorsese film.”

“The audience has grown up and is eager for content that is beyond PG-13,” Bock said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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