The DC Extended Universe has undergone something of a critical and commercial renaissance in the last couple of years, with the doom and gloom of the Zack Snyder era replaced by the more light-hearted and vibrant likes of Aquaman and Shazam! This has also coincided with some major changes behind the scenes at DC and Warner Bros., including the appointment of former New Line executive Walter Hamada as President of DC Films in January 2018.
Todd Phillips’ Joker became the studio’s latest comic book-based hit this year, becoming both the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history and the most profitable entry the genre had ever seen in the process. That’s an incredible turnaround for a project that Warner Bros. were initially reluctant to make, although they’ll be kicking themselves now that they have to share the profits with their rivals after declining to finance it entirely themselves.
In a recent interview, Phillips went into the details of the struggles that he faced in trying to get the movie made, and how Hamada simply didn’t get what the filmmaker wanted to do with the project, especially as it deviated from a proven and successful formula.
“When the regime changed on the Warner side, the regime also changed on the DC side. They put a guy in charge at DC, Walter Hamada, who had been running a small horror label at New Line. So he didn’t have muscle to stop it, and I’m not saying he would have, but he didn’t get it. And because on paper, it’s crazy. He just stepped into this new job, and ‘We just made Shazam! and Wonder Woman. We’re doing okay, do we really want to mess with the formula?’. And so I really understood his point.”
The man behind the Hangover trilogy had envisioned Joker in his head, and with Joaquin Phoenix on board and a budget that was little more than a drop in the ocean compared to other projects in the comic book realm, the studio ultimately decided to take a chance, and with over a billion dollars at the box office their faith has been rewarded, as Phillips explained that his perseverance paid off.
“I had enough weight behind me at that point, not overrule it, because they could have easily said no, but we just kept our foot on the gas, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease as you say. We just made a thing of it for a long time. Truth be told, the budget was so small, and I say so small in relation to other comic book films, not small. We ultimately made the movie for $60m, but at Warner Bros. or at DC, that’s like an independent film to them. So we kept it so under the radar and so small that in some way, it felt like…not a can’t-lose, but like, ‘okay what could we really lose on this if it’s a disaster and nobody wants to see it, if it’s boring?’. So they let us go and do it.”
With Joker now firmly established as a smash-hit, and currently in the midst of a huge awards season push that has seen it land nominations at the Critics’ Choice Awards and Golden Globes as it becomes increasingly likely that Oscar nods are in the movie’s immediate future, maybe Walter Hamada has finally wrapped his head around how an R-rated, violent origin story like Joker could turn out to be so successful.