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Now I’m Always Smiling: ‘Joker’ Is the Highest-Grossing R-Rated Film Ever

Todd Phillips’s experiment is already more successful than Warner Bros. could ever have imagined

Ringer illustration

The dance of freedom. The death bells. The rising of the Joker box office.

Not content with being a surprising awards-circuit darling, the Todd Phillips–directed and Joaquin Phoenix–starring Joker stand-alone film has—don’t do it; just don’t fucking do it; please don’t do it—laughed all the way to the bank with an enormous box office haul. As of this weekend, when Joker narrowly edged past Maleficent: Mistress of Evil to once again top the domestic box office, the film has garnered nearly $850 million worldwide. That’s not just an absurd amount of money: It also makes Joker the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time—and counting—surpassing Deadpool. (The Passion of the Christ is still the R-rated king domestically, however, with $370 million to Joker’s $277 million.)

Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds conceded the crown on Friday with a congratulatory tweet—there’s a censored F-word to boot, so edgy!—accompanied by a photo of Phoenix dancing on the now-infamous Joker stairs. (The IRL location of these stairs in the Bronx has since become a tourist trap for thirsty Instragrammers.) I’m not sure whether this series of events proves we live in the darkest timeline, but we certainly live in a society.

Regardless of where you stand on the Great Joker Debate of 2019—whether you think it to be a profound, “maestoso” character study or a waste of time with familiar and empty provocations that’s basically Martin Scorsese Copyright Infringement—this amounts to a huge win for Warner Bros., which took a calculated risk by even bringing this film to the big screen. The studio’s previous iteration of the Joker, courtesy of the little-seen Jared Leto in 2016’s Suicide Squad, was an abject failure. And more recently, the DC Extended Universe found success straying from the dreary Zack Snyder–imposed ethos of earlier entries for lighter, crowd-pleasing (and lucrative) efforts in Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam!. (Also, it helped that all these films weren’t concerned with larger cinematic universe-building, only content to set up their own sequels.)

While Joker was very much its own thing, it portended to be a film with arthouse sensibilities and R-rated material considerably darker than what audiences had seen in Deadpool’s fourth-wall-breaking antics. The most financially successful superhero films tend to appeal to the widest possible audience—Joker, meanwhile, seemed catered to the (supposedly) smaller crowd that wanted to see superhero movies taken very seriously. Well, the appetite for such a project is apparently pretty big—it’s fair to assume being the highest-grossing R-rated movie surpassed whatever expectations the studio had for the film.

But, while Warners will still make a killing off of Joker, it will be forced to share the profits. As the The Wall Street Journal reported, the studio didn’t expect the movie to generate returns similar to Aquaman or Wonder Woman, and because of that, enlisted financial partners—BRON Studio and Village Roadshow Pictures—to help with part of the film’s $55 million production budget. (Ergo, those companies got a nice piece of the huge box office pie.)

With the benefit of hindsight, Warners would’ve obviously loved to have kept more of that money for itself. Plus, with Joker intended to be a stand-alone movie, a sequel isn’t expected. (Though with how much money it made, the studio would sign off on it in a heartbeat, were Phillips and Phoenix so willing.) Instead, on the heels of a record-setting box office, Joker may yield a new wave of DCEU films that take more “risks” compared with superhero entries from the likes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Phillips himself said he hoped Warners would consider making “DC Black,” a set of “independent-minded” films inspired by DC Comics. While the studio’s executives weren’t exactly keen on the idea when Phillips pitched it, Joker’s box office performance could set a precedent. In other words, if you see a black-and-white Killer Croc movie directed by Robert Eggers in five years that’s getting serious awards-season buzz, you’ll know this is where it all began.

As I’ve previously theorized, the success of Joker could revive midbudget dramas—but only if they’re tied to big-name IP and/or comic book characters. That still feels like a death knell for a type of movie that’s practically become extinct, but this is what it’s like for the industry nowadays in the age of superheroes. But whether or not “DC Black” and more superhero films with auteurist pretensions come to fruition is tomorrow’s news. In the meantime, Warners can flex over one of the biggest box office wins of the year—and a film that might have some legitimate Oscars play, particularly for Phoenix, in 2020. And while I’m not all that wild about Joker or its dope of a director, I think we can all agree that the film’s greatest legacy might be killing all hopes of Jared Leto getting his own stand-alone DCEU movie, which would’ve been the biggest joke of all.