Disclaimer: This article was first posted on September 17, 2018.
You don’t need me to tell you that Warner Bros. has had better luck with their DC projects in the past. Sure, when all said and done, only one of their films proved to be a loss for them (the ill-fated Justice League), but when it comes to overall morale, it continues to get smacked around.
The studio seems to have more leaks in it than a sinking ship, and virtually every piece of news that comes out doesn’t seem to inspire a lot of confidence. Most recently, we got news that Henry Cavill could be leaving the DC Extended Universe, and after years of Ben Affleck slowly making his way to the exit, it seems like the last straw in a universe that can’t seem to find its footing.
And yet, among all this, we have one other incredibly unique project: Todd Phillips’ Joker movie. Phillips himself recently revealed a first new image of star Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime (pre-clown), and while I’m not over-the-moon excited about the image (or the leaked video of him), Joker still manages to be, in my opinion, the single most exciting DC project since The Dark Knight.
But before I can delve into the why behind that, I think it’s important to take a trip down memory lane with Warner Bros.
Warner Bros. In The 2000s
In the years leading up to the current era of superhero films, Warner Bros. had a reputation of a studio that allowed directors to flex their creative muscles. Of course, at the end of the day, movies need to make money, but it truly says something that filmmakers like Ben Affleck set up shop at the studio and didn’t want to leave — at least not until recently.
It was at Warner Bros. that Affleck directed The Town and Argo, two films that helped revive his reputation in the business. It was at Warner Bros. where the studio actually allowed each Harry Potter director to give their own unique twist on the films (and boy, does that show in the finished products), resulting in films that hardly resemble each other as directors changed up. Just take a look at the first two from Chris Columbus compared to the third one from Alfonso Cuarón — they’re night and day. And compare that third film to the last four, and it’s clear the studio allowed each filmmaker to leave their fingerprints on their respective projects. It’s also the studio that let one Christopher Nolan go nuts on his Dark Knight Trilogy films, which gave us a unique take on the character that hadn’t yet been realized in live-action form.
Hell, they even indulged Zack Snyder for many years, and even allowed him to go hard-R in a long, 2.5-hour, meditative take on the superhero property, Watchmen.
But that strategy didn’t last.
The DC Extended Universe
Man of Steel seems to be a movie where the studio let Snyder give a subversive take on the character, for better or worse, but their new approach started to show with Batman v Superman, where they cut 30 minutes in an effort to keep the runtime down. From there, it seemed clear to that their films would no longer be director-first fares, but films made by a committee in hopes of squeezing as much profit as possible.
Cases-in-point: Suicide Squad was re-cut and Justice League received a very public facelift and overhaul.
In 2017, they made their approach all too clear when they shifted away from mid-budget movies altogether. THR even reported then that they were aiming to reduce budget on tentpoles and “exert tighter controls,” leading them to report that they would be avoiding directors who would want final cut.
The implications seemed clear: We need to make money, and we need filmmakers to be team players to help us get there.
Despite getting solid movie trailers for films like Aquaman and Shazam! I, like many fans, can’t help but feel like these movies started to feel more and more similar. Despite featuring incredibly different characters, I can’t shake the feeling that they were having their personalities stripped away in favor of making it accessible.
But Joker is where that kinda changes for me.
The Clown Prince Rises
Now, don’t get me wrong. When people think of Joker directorTodd Phillips, auteur isn’t really the first thing to come to mind. This is the guy who brought us films like Old School and Due Date, but he’s also the guy who gave us solid gems as The Hangover and War Dogs. He’s an underrated filmmaker with the potential for greatness. But it’s not even about Todd Phillips specifically that has me so jazzed. What has me excited for the future is that reality as this film shows that Warner Bros. may be willing to take a step back in the direction of being a director-friendly studio.
They are reducing the budget to a standard mid-budget sized film, thereby reducing the risk involved, meaning they’ll likely give Phillips more leeway with the style and script for the film. This means that, since the first time since Batman v Superman, they may be giving a filmmaker the flexibility to push the boundaries of what we thought a character could be, for better or worse.
Now, let’s circle back to the image. It didn’t excite me because I thought it looked particularly cool. It excited me because I feel like this was a take on the character wasn’t perfectly manicured and curated by a studio exec. Had it been something more high-risk, I’d imagine he’d have to be wearing the iconic makeup, right? It’s unique, it’s risky, and it’s an aesthetic that really seems to be the result of a passionate voice of a filmmaker.
We’ve seen Warner Bros. shift from a director-focused studio to one that is well-known for seizing control of their filmmakers. With the exception of Wonder Woman, that seems to be par for the course in the DCEU. With Joker, I hope to see them reclaim their identity as flexible collaborators, ones who aren’t just willing to give us movies that most people will be okay with, but films with powerful voices that have the potential to become fan-favorites.
I’m not saying this is destined to be a classic. It could very well be a garbage film. But it seems to be a welcome change in the philosophy from Warner Bros. that perhaps studio execs don’t always know what’s best. It worked well in the past for them, and in a world where taking the Marvel Studios approach clearly isn’t working, it’s a strategy worth revisiting.
But what do you think about this? Do you agree that Joker marks a first step in a new direction? Let us know down below!