Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has become a phenomenon. No one really expected it to catch on like it has, not even top Warner Bros. executives. In fact, they weren’t expecting much from it, at first; certainly, not its box office haul and any violence critics feared it would incite.
Warner Chairman Toby Emmerich sat down with The Hollywood Reporter in a big roundtable discussion with other studio bigwigs. He was very candid when it came to his initial impression of Joker before production began, how big it became, and the backlash.
Talking about what made Joker different from Marvel or Disney films, particularly theatrical competitor Maleficent and the upcoming Cruella with Emma Watson, Emmerich reiterated the idea originated with director Todd Phillips. He added WB had no idea the movie would do so well:
“The impetus behind making Joker really came from Todd [Phillips]. But one of the advantages of being Warner Bros. and having DC is that we don’t feel that all the movies have to be — not that Disney’s films are — but we don’t feel our films have to be of the same tone or in a connected universe. We thought making an R-rated supervillain origin story was a cool idea. We didn’t see [the success] coming at this level when we greenlit the film.”
At the time, Joker “was a cool idea” and an appropriate move. It fit the mold of what Emmerich and Warner go for nowadays – director-driven stories with manageable budgets, a mantra for the DC/WB’s non-Marvel way of doing things.
With a hit on their hands, the approach is likely to continue unabated and may lead to more standalone origin stories for Batman villains. Two-Face and Penguin are on the shortlist, we hear.
Despite all that, plus a Golden Lion and a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, Joker was hit with controversy. Critics feared the movie would inspire mass shootings and set off “incel culture.” Police across the country took no chances at screenings on premiere night and went undercover to stand guard at theaters in major cities.
A man in the Washington area even had his stash of firearms taken away over ominous social media posts making reference to Joker.
Sensitivities were high. Everyone was reminded of the Aurora tragedy in 2012 that claimed the lives of moviegoers watching The Dark Knight Rises. The narrative many bought into was culprit James Holmes allegedly called himself the Joker before opening fire, which isn’t true.
Emmerich stated he and Warner were “supersensitive” about Aurora but realized it had no connection to their movie or the character. They had to judge Joker on its artistic merits and they “didn’t think it would inspire violence.”
“There were a lot of misunderstandings around the history of the tragic shooting in Aurora, [Colorado, in 2012,] which happened at a Batman film. And we were certainly supersensitive to it [and the tragedy for the victims and their loved ones]. But that film and that shooting had no connection in any way to the Joker character.
So we had to judge our film on its own merits. A lot of the social media comments around the film were by people who hadn’t seen the film and didn’t know what it was. We looked at the film really closely and did feel that it was a great film. That it was a piece of art. And we didn’t think it would inspire violence. We took it to Venice, where it won the Golden Lion. And we felt comfortable releasing the film.”
At the same point in the discussion, Universal Pictures’ The Hunt being shelved over its conflation with mass shootings in the headlines was brought up as a case for comparison.
Joker took a hit in the press but earned a substantial audience score of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. Passing $800 million, it is now the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time and the biggest October opening ever.
WB is prepping the film for the Oscar season on the back of Todd Phillips’ direction and Joaquin Phoenix’s scene-stealing performance. After the 2020 Academy Awards, it will surface on HBO Max, leading the pack for 40 years worth of DC movies.
It's not all about the heroes, either. Todd Phillips' @JokerMovie is shattering box office records, becoming the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time. Don’t miss Joker in theaters and it will be available to stream by HBO on HBO Max in 2020.
— HBO Max (@hbomax) October 29, 2019
HBO Max goes online in May. Joker is still in the middle of a white-hot run at theaters everywhere.