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Box Office: What Success For ‘Joker,’ ‘Wonder Woman’ And ‘Aquaman’ Means For DC Films

Joker earned another $2 million (-26%) this weekend to bring its domestic total to $330.6 million. That puts it, sans inflation (but absent 3-D bumps), above the $330.3 million domestic total of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. An R-rated, 2-D psychological drama with no action and little onscreen violence just passed the unadjusted cume of the first live-action on-screen team-up between the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel (featuring the live-action debut of Wonder Woman). In many ways Joker is everything everyone said that DC Films SHOULDN’T be doing with their movies, namely being violent, dark, cynical, adult-skewing and lacking in conventional humor and aspirational qualities.

And yet, it will soon pass Aquaman ($335 million), along with (among superhero hits) Guardians of the Galaxy ($333 million), Spider-Man: Homecoming ($334 million) and Spider-Man 3 ($336 million) to become the second-biggest DC Films flick in domestic grosses behind Wonder Woman ($412.5 million). Its $1.048 billion global cume puts it just behind Aquaman ($1.148 billion) worldwide. Anyone can cook. In a skewed way, looking at the top grossers for DC Films (not counting the unrelated Chris Nolan Dark Knight sequels, which earned $533 million domestic and $1.004 billion in 2008 and $448 million/$1.081 billion in 2012) for domestic and worldwide earnings shows a refreshing contrast. In North America, the two biggest (unadjusted) domestic earners for DC Films are Joker and Wonder Woman ($412.5 million in 2017). Patty Jenkins’ superhero origin story was aspirationally inclusive, as the first female-driven comic book superhero biggie in a generation, with a female director and a top-tier budget to boot. It was the first female-led comic book flick to get rave reviews and become an unmitigated mega-smash. The Gal Gadot/Chris Pine adventure represented essentially everything the pundits said DC Films should be doing in the aftermath of Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. On the other hand, Joker is, all due respect, none of those things.

Todd Phillips’ Joker was a comparatively cheap ($62.5 million) character study with bare-bones content beyond gorgeous cinematography, an impressive lead performance from Joaquin Phoenix and just enough transgressive onscreen content to make it seem rebellious. That’s not a criticism; it’s very much “just a movie,” representing the kind of slow-burn character studies/passion plays that used to be more common in the pre-blockbuster era. That made its pre-release wave of online panic, in terms of the film inspiring offscreen violence, all the sadder. It is the second-biggest DC Films flick in raw worldwide grosses, without a dime from China no less, behind James Wan’s Aquaman. James Wan’s Aquaman has been called many things. I’ve often called it “Oops, All Berries: The Movie” while an online acquaintance referred to it as “Costco: The Movie.” It is a big budget (around $165 million), underwater action fantasy that indulges in so much fantastical excess that it probably made Gore Verbinski a little jealous. In terms of story, it’s as conventional of a comic book origin fable as you can get, and Jason Momoa’s “I want to do what’s right, but I’m afraid I’m unworthy” arc is essentially a polished version of Ryan Reynolds’ Green Lantern arc. It’s a bonkers bananas adventure movie that typifies comic book excess.

What does this all mean? Well, that there’s no right or wrong way to make a DC Films flick, as long as it’s not being meddled with by panic studio executives and/or in reaction to the last DC Comics movie. We’ve got a franchise where the two most significant successes in North America are an aspirational female-led World War I adventure story and a grimdark 1980’s character study. And, in terms of worldwide grosses, the two biggest earners are that aforementioned grimdark passion play and a big-budget underwater explosion of gloriously unapologetic fantasy excess. It means that every project is different and that, for DC Films going forward, “anyone can cook.”