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What DC Comics needs to learn from Joker’s success

The film is a model for the future of DC’s films and a throwback to the company’s best years

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Photo: Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros.

Todd Phillips’ supervillain origin story Joker is well on its way to a probable billion-dollar gross at the global box office, which would make it the second-most successful DC Comics film of the post-Christopher Nolan era. (It’s currently projected to finish behind only Aquaman, which amassed a global gross of nearly $1.15 billion.) Less than a month into its release, Joker has already passed the global take of both Suicide Squad and Justice League, two DC movies that actually featured Batman.

On top of that, Joker is rated R, which is a glaring commercial strike against comic-book adaptations because the rating limits access for the teenage segment of the audience. That’s a barrier the other DC films haven’t had to overcome. And yet, Joker returned to the number one slot at the American box office in its fourth weekend of release.

So what accounts for this massive success? What did DC get right this time that it couldn’t capture with most of its other recent films? The simplest answer is that the company finally went back to the strongest aspects of its corporate identity. Phillips has been eager to portray Joker as innovative and groundbreaking for a DC movie, but it actually marks a return to the kind of stories DC used to excel at publishing — and the kind of freedom it allowed creators to have in crafting those stories.

DC’s core characters have always demanded radically different approaches to storytelling than Marvel’s. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko created the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s, they defined their stable of characters through more realistic human traits and relatable psychological premises than their DC counterparts had. Spider-Man dealt with life as a high-schooler, the Fantastic Four were a family and bickered like one, the X-Men defended their civil rights, Daredevil had a physical disability, and so on. That’s in direct contrast to DC, whose core characters were mostly either aliens (Superman, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, the Green Lantern Corps, the Legion of Super-Heroes), billionaires (Batman, Green Arrow), or derived from mythology (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam). 

That comparative relatability has undoubtedly made it easier for Marvel to translate its characters into massively successful movie properties. But ironically, the imperfections grafted onto Marvel’s characters at conception made them so perfect as fictional properties that they’re difficult to change. That hasn’t mattered as much in the movies — which have only scratched the surface of the Marvel mythos — as it has in the comics, which are forced to endlessly cycle plotlines to stay in roughly the same place. Meanwhile, the lack of relatable flaws among DC’s core characters has necessitated constant reinvention and experimentation to maintain reader interest.

And that’s actually a good thing. To compete with Marvel for market share, DC has had to create better stories, take more risks, and embrace actual change. It’s difficult to make Superman and Wonder Woman more inherently interesting than Spider-Man and Iron Man. But Superman and Wonder Woman can be written by better writers or adapted into movies by better filmmakers. At its best, DC has been the company that offers more exciting creative opportunities because that’s the key to unlocking everything it can do that Marvel can’t. 

Photo: DC Comics

DC’s film struggles

Over the last 50 years, DC’s editorial directors have understood this intermittently. Joker is welcome proof that the studio side of the company might finally understand it right now. Phillips’ film represents the first time in the post-Avengers cinematic landscape that DC finally stopped trying to beat Marvel at Marvel’s game, using Marvel’s rules.

Regardless of what you might personally think of Justice League or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — and there’s a loud cult on Twitter that swears Batman v Superman is the great misunderstood masterpiece of our time — it’s empirical truth that these films failed. They were obvious attempts to carbon-copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe business model, they were critically reviled, and they fell well short of financial expectations. Justice League (adapted from DC’s marquee superhero franchise) made less money in its entire domestic theatrical run than Black Panther (adapted from a second- or third-tier Marvel hero) made in just its domestic opening weekend.

Stan Lee always used to call Marvel’s strategy “the illusion of change”

It’s not that DC’s characters are fundamentally badly conceived; they’re just harder to translate to the screen. This is why we’ve gotten two movies about Ant-Man (a Marvel character who has never been able to maintain an ongoing comic series for more than a few years) before a single movie about The Flash who has been one of DC’s flagship characters for more than six decades. And it means Marvel has had — and will likely continue to have — an easier time of attracting new fans and keeping old ones, purely on the conceptual strength of its top-tier characters.

Stan Lee always used to call Marvel’s strategy “the illusion of change.” That was the corner such great characters forced Marvel into. They couldn’t withstand permanent change without hemorrhaging readers. Since Lee, Kirby, and Ditko, created the Marvel Universe in the 1960s, there have been precious few subsequent changes to those characters that weren’t reversed within a few years. Peter Parker graduated high school, Beast gained blue fur, Gwen Stacy died, and Invisible Girl had a second child and changed her name to Invisible Woman. As far as true, lasting, post-’60s changes to Lee / Kirby / Ditko characters go, that’s damn near it. 

DC took bigger creative risks and offered bigger creative rewards

Once upon a time, DC learned it could take another route. It took the staff a while to figure it out, but when they did, DC became the company that took the bigger creative risks and offered the bigger creative rewards. For two glorious decades, from roughly the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, DC was the company that embraced actual change and evolution in its superhero universe, while also providing a platform for the world’s best creators to make truly auteurist comics for an increasingly adult readership.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
Photo: Vertigo Comics

How DC found its identity

The new identity DC forged in the mid-1980s can almost be traced to an exact moment. In October 1983, two landmark DC comics — The New Teen Titans #39 and The Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 — were released in consecutive weeks, and together, they created the blueprint for most of what DC would do over the next 20 years. 

In the Titans issue, Dick Grayson quit being Robin (his identity for more than 40 years) and Wally West quit being Kid Flash (his alias for nearly 25 years). Those changes were permanent. In the 35 years since that issue was released, there have been new Robins and Kid Flashes, but Dick Grayson and Wally West never went back to those roles. Soon after, Grayson adopted the new identity of Nightwing, and West became The Flash after his predecessor and mentor (Barry Allen) died. For arguably the first time in modern comics, this issue established that DC would let its characters evolve. Grayson and West outgrew their old roles, which was a basic acknowledgment of the passage of fictional time, which is something Marvel was never totally willing to embrace. 

In the Swamp Thing issue — the legendary story “The Anatomy Lesson” — new writer Alan Moore unveiled comics’ all-time greatest retcon and changed everything about Swamp Thing’s origin. The issue is incalculably important to the history of comics, beginning with the fact that it was Moore’s coming-out party in American comics. He was the first British comics writer to launch a viable career in America, and with titles like V For Vendetta, From Hell, The Killing Joke, and Watchmen, he became the most critically acclaimed comics writer ever.

Over the next decade, dozens of other British writers and artists became stars in the American comics industry, mostly at DC. Just as importantly, Moore’s adult-themed Swamp Thing stories prompted DC to pull the Comics Code approval label from the series just 10 issues later. By the end of 1986, Swamp Thing became one of the first DC or Marvel comics to officially carry a “For Mature Readers” label on the cover, and in 1993, it became one of the flagship titles for DC’s groundbreaking mature readers imprint, Vertigo. If comics have a Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moment, “The Anatomy Lesson” is it.

Photo: DC Comics

These two issues launched a new era at DC, and the company quickly embraced initiatives like finding new talent overseas, producing comics meant strictly for adults, giving real creative control for top writers to follow their muses, and making permanent changes to major characters. In just the next five years, DC rebooted its entire superhero universe and killed its flagship hero of the Silver Age, The Flash. It launched the careers of other immensely lauded British talents like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.

And it also allowed top creators John Byrne, Frank Miller, and George Perez to reinterpret the origins of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The Justice League was reimagined as a slapstick comedy title, Green Arrow became a dark mature readers title where the hero never even used his codename, and Animal Man went on a metaphysical journey that culminates in him literally discovering he’s a comic character. And DC published the three comic series that are often heralded as the greatest of all time: Watchmen, Sandman, and The Dark Knight Returns.

This all started by accident. DC leadership had no idea the 1980s Teen Titans relaunch or Moore’s Swamp Thing tenure would be such game-changers. But the company’s capitalization on these new opportunities was anything but accidental. Only two months after those issues were released, DC began branding its comics with the slogan “The new DC. There’s no stopping us now.” It was both a bold statement about the future and a tacit admission that the company had been standing in its own way.

Those strategies from the ‘80s continued into the ‘90s and the first half of the 2000s with even more daring moves. Vertigo launched. DC acquired Jim Lee’s edgy Wildstorm imprint. DC experimented with several niche, auteur-driven series, including Gotham Central, Hitman, Spectre, and Starman, and it allowed them all to end as their creators wished. Event series like Kingdom Come and The New Frontier experimented with sprawling reimaginings of the DC Universe.

Several outside-the-box experiments like 52, Wednesday Comics, Solo, and Batman: Black and White became huge critical (and sometimes commercial) hits. DC launched out-of-continuity epics like Batman: The Long Halloween and All-Star Superman, and it made several dramatic, intended-as-permanent changes, like Aquaman losing a hand and the deaths of original Green Lantern Hal Jordan, replacement Robin Jason Todd, and former Green Arrow Oliver Queen.

One thing that unites nearly all the great DC comics from this era isn’t just that Marvel didn’t publish them, but that Marvel couldn’t have published them. They were all too far outside the Marvel business model. Marvel refused to publish mature reader comics until the 2000s. The company generally didn’t allow writers to bring their series to natural conclusions. It wanted to continue titles as long as they could possibly sell. Marvel refused to kill its Silver Age characters, and on the few occasions where it did (Jean Grey in the early 1980s, Tony Stark and Reed Richards in the mid-1990s), they were brought back fairly quickly, by editorial mandate. 

Photo: DC Comics

Identity Crisis, Redux

DC could have stayed partially outside of that Marvel business model and kept pushing a creator-first agenda in perpetuity, but sadly, it changed course about 15 years ago. After Identity Crisis and Green Lantern: Rebirth became massive hits in 2004, star writer Geoff Johns and publisher Dan DiDio shifted DC to a more event-driven publishing model. All the dead characters were resurrected in huge storylines that provided momentary sales boosts, but that reneged on DC’s fundamental identity from the previous 20 years.

These constant huge events necessitated an editorial heavy-handedness that stifled the auteurism DC had made its signature. Several star writers left the company entirely. Wildstorm and Vertigo were both neutered and then shut down, with Vertigo creator and executive editor, Karen Berger, eventually defecting to Dark Horse Comics after more than 30 years with DC. As she put it herself, “Corporate thinking & creative risk-taking don’t mix.”

In 2011, faced with limited prospects for the future, DC pulled a Hail Mary and restarted its entire comic line in a massively publicized event labeled The New 52, but after a brief sales bump, the diminishing returns continued. Now, instead of being the company that embraced the vision and courage needed to foster creations like Watchmen, Sandman, and The Dark Knight Returns, DC has mostly been reduced to peddling constant sequels, spinoffs, and reboots of those same series in place of original creative ventures.

What DC has been doing wrong with both its comics and movies over the last decade is the same thing: instead of fostering a business model based on what it can do that Marvel can’t, DC has just been re-creating the Marvel playbook. But without offering the levels of creative freedom, opportunity, and risk that Marvel can’t match, all that’s left is to try to beat Marvel based purely on the fundamental appeal of the characters. For DC, that’s an unwinnable battle.

Batman v Superman

How DC Can Make Better Movies

In a June 2018 interview on Variety’s “Playback” podcast, director Brad Bird said this about his film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol:

The Mission Impossible series embraced the differences between filmmakers. It wasn’t about us all subscribing to a house style. The Brian De Palma one was different than the John Woo one, which was different than the J.J. [Abrams] one, which is different from mine. The refreshing thing about that was, they came to me and said, ‘Is there anything you’ve wanted to do in a spy movie?’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, there’s a whole bunch of things I want to do in a spy movie!’ And they just said, ‘Well, have at it.’

Everything Bird said there represents exactly what DC can and should be doing with its films, precisely because it’s something Marvel can’t do. The Marvel movies subscribe to a house style and mandate house content. Every film has a plot largely generated by committee and designed to fit the overall plan for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Any directorial or authorial style can only exist within that imposed structure. (Though, to be fair, filmmakers like Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler were still able to have their cake and eat it, too.)

DC can become the company that gives great directors the ‘Mission Impossible’ offer

This is undoubtedly going to start having a tangible effect on how many A-list filmmakers will be willing to work with Marvel, and DC should seize that opportunity for a market correction. It can become the company that gives great directors the Mission Impossible offer: “Is there anything you’ve wanted to do in a comic book movie? Well, have at it.”

That’s a large part of what worked so well with Joker. According to co-writer / director Todd Phillips, “I’m not about the competition with Marvel, and I’ve not been in the comic-book world. When we conceived of this idea, it was a different approach. I don’t know the sort of effect it will have with other filmmakers.” Joker star Joaquin Phoenix similarly says he was drawn to the project because “we were going to approach it in our own way. I didn’t refer to any past iterations of the character. It just felt like it was our creation.”

This is the sort of business model DC movies should be operating in: giving talented people the opportunity to follow their creative muse while playing with some of the most recognizable IP in the world. DC needs to put it out there that it’ll grant top filmmakers the chance to make their vision. 

And sure, some of the resulting movies will be bad, but bad movies are easy to survive when they’re isolated failures, rather than failures meant to provide the foundation of an interconnected cinematic universe. That’s why Justice League is actually a bigger failure than, for example, Fox’s calamitous 2015 Fantastic Four reboot. Fantastic Four made far less money, but it also wasn’t designed to launch an entire company’s five-year plan. 

DC has some other balls in the air that can hopefully follow the new path it’s carved out with Joker, such as a Blackhawk movie being developed by Steven Spielberg, an Ava DuVernay New Gods movie, and a Matt Reeves Batman movie starring Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, and Paul Dano. None of these films are in production yet, and the first two haven’t even made any casting announcements, so they may not happen. But just the fact that these are the filmmakers DC is partnering with is a suggestion that Joker might not be an isolated success. 

Photo by Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros.

DC films’ past and future

This strategy of letting great filmmakers bring unique visions to the screen isn’t new for DC. It used to excel at it. With the Dark Knight trilogy, the company gave Christopher Nolan the freedom to make the films he wanted to make, untethered to a larger universe. And the films were such massive critical and commercial successes that the Oscars even changed the size of the Best Picture field to try to accommodate them. 

That should have been all the necessary proof that DC should be trading in creative freedom as a primary commodity, but unfortunately, the company’s leadership learned the wrong lesson from The Dark Knight’s success. It looked at the box office numbers and the accolades and concluded audiences clearly wanted dark and gritty films. And it looked at the success of the Phase One Marvel movies and concluded that audiences clearly wanted an interconnected universe. So DC turned to Zack Snyder to somehow try to combine the style of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with the ambitious scope and sprawl of the MCU. But Snyder instead created a dour series of films that mostly failed on both fronts. 

the success of ‘Joker’ comes at a crossroads moment for Marvel

The reality is, the Dark Knight films weren’t beloved because they were grim; they were beloved because they were made by one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers working at the top of his game. And even though Todd Phillips isn’t in the league of Christopher Nolan, Joker remains proof that talented people with a distinctive vision and the freedom to carry it out — and an interest in exploring the more human side of DC’s character stable, rather than the alien / billionaire / mythic side — remains a far better recipe for success than attempting to blatantly re-create what worked with other comic book films. 

Joker’s creative and commercial success is also happening at a crossroads moment for Marvel. Avengers: Endgame was a massive global juggernaut, but it marked the end (for now, at least) of an MCU that was defined and propped up by Iron Man and Captain America. Phase Four still looks extremely promising for Marvel, but it seems to be lacking an Avengers-style unifier that would demand that audiences see every installment. And with the MCU about to stretch its legs into the streaming realm of Disney+, it may start testing the limits of how much content casual fans will be willing to keep up with before they just check out entirely.

Marvel and DC have been waging this battle as comics publishers for decades now, and the continued loss of readership gets more alarming every year. Eventually, the backlog of continuity in their comics gets too daunting for new or casual readers. For the MCU, that rubicon could still be a decade or more away, but it also might be closer than we think. By the end of 2021, the cumulative runtime of all MCU movies and Disney+ series will hit well over 100 hours. Eventually, that number will be too high. DC movies can avoid this problem entirely by continuing to make self-contained films like Joker

And then there’s quality control. Though Marvel honcho Kevin Feige has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt after more than a decade of great choices, Marvel can’t keep making the right decisions forever. Again, bad movies are harder to survive when they’re designed to prop up several others. In other words, the current climate, where Marvel dominates the box office three times a year, won’t last forever. As Lucasfilm (another Disney company) found out with Solo: A Star Wars Story, life comes at you fast. 

That’s why DC shouldn’t panic at the prospects of competing with Avengers movies for the next several decades. Instead, the company needs to refocus on what it’s historically been great at. The evidence is clear: most of the best comics and the best films from DC’s decorated history share an obvious commonality. DC found some extremely talented people, gave them the keys, and let them create what they wanted to create. That’s a strategy that never goes out of style.