Who remembers the original Batman movie from 1989? The one starring Michael Keaton as the caped crusader and Jack Nicholson as the mischievous, villainous Joker. Batman has well and truly come a long way since those days and is especially popular thanks to the Dark Knight Trilogy. The trilogy has gotten better and better with each film, with the third in the series, The Dark Knight Rises, being the highest grossing film of the three.
Now Joker, is the talk of the global community and is already wowing audiences. In its opening weekend, it smashed box office records out of the park by being the biggest October opening of all time and took in $96 million. In its second weekend, the film raked in $55 million and, overseas, has attracted $123 million in revenue. Will it do better than The Dark Knight Rises? Just take a look at those box offices figures again.
How did they both become so successful?
One of the keys to the success of The Dark Knight Rises (and of the other movies in the trilogy) has been the powerful performances of the supporting actors who play the villains. Tom Hardy as Bane, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and, in The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger as the Joker have done such a stellar job as Batman’s arch-rivals that they’ve upstaged Christian Bale himself, who plays the hero. When they walk onto the screen, viewers can feel they’re presence.
What it means is that — albeit, unofficially — each film in the trilogy has been just as much about the villains as they’ve been about the hero. Heath Ledger gave a sublime performance in The Dark Knight, rendering the character as dark, maniacal and twisted, which, essentially, he [the character] is. His intention is to spread confusion and chaos. That much is clear. What is unclear is the story of how the Joker came about. In the course of the film, the character provides several reasons for his story. Was it all because of the facial scarring? Did an abusive father cause it? Was it the third reason that he didn’t get to explain fully because of his demise? Was it all three even?
In this sense, Joker is different than The Dark Knight Rises. The film focuses on the villain, and there’s no confusion around the origin story, which makes the approach different to the second part of the trilogy. Arthur Fleck is a mentally troubled comedian who Gotham City and society have mistreated, and he’s reached the point where he can take no more, which is when he becomes the Joker. Audiences receive some closure that they may not necessarily have gotten from the trilogy as far as the Joker is concerned.
In terms of the hero, however, The Dark Knight Rises does treat fans to a little bit of closure. Ultimately, it’s about Bruce Wayne facing the consequences for past deeds (and almost paying them). This final installment was always going to be about closure and about Batman’s story coming to an end but Bruce Wayne’s going on. Fans can explore the possibilities through the comics from this point onwards, if they wish to, but if they’re just following the movies, they can walk away content.
Perhaps, then, it makes sense to focus attention elsewhere. Health Ledger delivered a spectacular performance as the Joker, one good enough for him to win a posthumous Oscar, which lays down a serious gauntlet for Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. “Is he up to the task?” — it’s the question many fans will be asking themselves and will have been curious to find out. Ledger’s Joker was pure evil and fans loved it, with some seeing him as the only Joker there could ever possibly be and not even wanting to contemplate Phoenix’s performance.
When Phoenix took on the part, he wanted to apply his own take, bring extra depth to the role, and achieves this. It’s resulted in an extraordinary performance in which audiences see a human side to the Joker. They can see the world through Fleck’s eyes and maybe even empathize with the character. After understanding what he’s been through, could they perhaps even forgive him for becoming the Joker? After all, they go to see him be the Joker, rather than be Arthur Fleck, and to see him cause all the chaos.
Whether Phoenix delivers a better performance than Ledger could be the detail that makes Joker an even bigger success than The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a big task, yes, but is it impossible? Anything is impossible in Hollywood and let’s not forget, Ledger had the unenviable task of playing the character after the veteran actor, Jack Nicholson, and did a stellar job of it. Nicholson himself received several award nominations for his performance but was never fortunate enough to pick up any.
When merchandising calls
One way to estimate whether a movie has been successful or not has been is the level of merchandising. On the back of a successful film, often, you’ll see companies bring out different products — toys, mugs, T-shirts, games and more — and fans flock to them.
Online gaming is one industry that makes the most of Hollywood to release movie-themed games. There are already some Batman-themed games, such as The Dark Knight game itself and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, on the slots sites. Will fans see a Joker-themed game? There’s no real reason why they might not, if its box office records are anything to go by (which they are).
Both The Dark Knight Rises and, even in the early stages, Joker have been successful, with bad guys of which audiences have been just as fond as they have been of the good guys. The Joker has always been a popular character, and always will be, and everyone who has played him sets the standard for anyone who plays him later. Could the film become more popular than The Dark Knight Rises? Box office figures are suggesting it could and Joaquin Phoenix has put in a strong performance. Maybe he, like his character, can be the one to have the last laugh.