How 'Joker' Finally Got Audiences to Take The DC Extended Universe Seriously

2019 represented a new peak for the comic book genre at the box office. Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame broke fiscal record after record; overturning Avatar as the highest-grossing film of all time, and no fewer than five titles in the genre broke past the billion-dollar mark at the worldwide box office. But perhaps none of those five titles is more notable than the DC Studios’ Joker.

In what must finally be seen as a wholly positive year for the previously troubled DC Extended Universe, with Aquaman being the studio’s first film to creep past $1 billion worldwide early this year, it was the dark and gritty origin tale of Batman’s most notorious nemesis that dominated cinema’s attention economy at the tail end of the year.

Made with a comparatively paltry production budget of just $55-70 million, director Todd Phillip’s first foray into the comic book genre became the first R-rated film to gross over $1 billion worldwide. In many ways, Joker represents the first mega-hit in the comic book genre to be made with an entirely indie spirit, not only in its aesthetic and its character study focus but also with a majority of its production handled by BRON Creative – a Canadian production company best known previously for producing award season darlings such as Fences and Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Using our new movie and tv audience analysis tool, LimeLight, we can drill down into the social media conversation surrounding the year’s most surprising box office success story to establish the key aspects of Joker that audiences and the media responded to, as well as how those reactions differ from its more traditional genre stablemates.

No Such Thing as Bad Publicity?

Normally, the most controversial aspects of the comic book genre are confined to fan-driven debates over suit design and which actor will be filling said suit. Not so in the case of Joker. As the film entered the final stage of its pre-release cycle with the final trailer released at the end of August, murmurs began in the film media of the film’s potential glorification of a highly-dysfunctional central character and began to fret over the effect this could have on vulnerable audience members. There was also a perceived insensitivity to the tragic mass-shooting which occurred at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Colorado during 2012 and fears the copy-cat incidents could be inspired by the film’s bleak tone and content.

By charting media outlets social media conversation during this period, we can see that Controversial Topics became a key attribute in media commentary during the two months leading to the film’s release.

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Indeed, on Joker’s release at the start of October, the only attributes garnering the same or higher attention with media sources was Joaquin Phoenix’s widely celebrated central performance and the film’s director Todd Philips, who himself was engaging in some attention-baiting interviews regarding his disdain for “woke” culture.

While Joker is largely seen as a film that divided opinion between audiences at large and film media, as demonstrated by the film’s Rotten Tomatoes aggregates of an audience score of 88% positive compared to a far less enthusiastic critic score of just 69%, it seems both sides of the divide were mostly unified in their focus on its attributes – at least once the film had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival.

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The notable difference from the audience perspective during the pre-release cycle was an overwhelming focus on Promotional Material and Nostalgia, driven by the the film’s early 80’s setting. After the film’s debut in Venice, both audience and media homogenised their attention on to attributes such as Actor’s Performance, Controversial Topics, Director, Script/Dialogue, Awards, and slightly bizarrely for such a dark film, Sense of Humour – though this was likely due to Arthur Fleck’s unusual condition of PBA which makes laugh involuntarily and inappropriately in response to the many stressful moments he encounters during the film’s runtime.

In fact, it would appear that the media were largely non-plussed with Joker until the narrative of controversy kicked in, whereas audiences focused on more traditional aspects of the comic genre, like Nostalgia. It was only as the release of Joker beckoned that it became a significantly different beast in the eyes of both audiences and the media compared to more traditional comic book fare.

Avenging the DCEU

As previously mentioned, the prospects of the DC Extended Universe going into 2019 looked as bleak as Arthur Fleck’s life in Gotham City. The likes of Suicide Squad and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice had both been scorned by critics, and while audiences seemed more inclined to give those titles a chance, both mega-budgeted projects failed to reach the box office heights of equivalent Marvel Studios’ efforts. Even the more warmly-received Wonder Woman had failed to break the $1 billion mark worldwide. But the most prominent evidence for the DCEU’s struggles was 2017’s Justice League – WB’s supposed answer to Marvel’s box office behemoths: The Avengers.

After a troubled production, Justice League limped into cinemas with the legacy of an overall underwhelming franchise weighing it down to earn just $657 million worldwide. To put that figure into the context of its primary competition, this year’s Avengers: Endgame reached a staggering $2.8 billion worldwide. And by using LimeLight, we can see that audiences largely perceive both titles in a similar manner.

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It would seem that going head-to-head with Marvel’s flagship titles was not a financially fruitful strategy for Warner Brothers. One of the major attributes in audience attention for both titles is Script/Dialogue, with comic book audiences clearly valuing the story-telling of the genre, and by looking at the conversation sentiment of both titles, we can see another clear victory for Avengers: Endgame.

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However, with Joker the audience sentiment towards this attribute gains a much better parity with Avengers: Endgame.

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Furthermore, while the Joker’s box office gross also does not equal Avengers: Endgame pound-for-pound, its extraordinary ROI creates a viable counterpoint for the DCEU and there are some startling differences in the audience perception between the two titles.

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One of the most notable differences between the two titles is how little audiences focused on the promotional campaign for Joker compared to Endgame. This heavily suggests that Joker enjoyed a far more organic path to box office success, with talk of awards and controversy clearly turning audiences’ heads instead of the vast marketing campaigns normally associated with cinema’s currently dominant genre.

Ultimately, it now seems the original intention of the DCEU to be a like-for-like competitor to the Marvel Cinematic Universe cannot be saved, but the more financially risk-averse and mature likes of Joker can avenge it. With rumours abound of Todd Philips already being given the green light for not only a Joker sequel but also development of a whole portfolio of DC character origin stories, it would appear that this is WB’s strategy moving forward.

It remains to be seen if the DCEU can bottle the lightning of controversy, debate and award-worthy acting that drove Joker to unexpected heights at the box office, but with the comic book audience maturing after nearly two decades of the genre keeping cinema afloat, it could be that the DCEU finds itself better positioned to cater to that end of the audience than its so far insurmountable rival of the MCU.

If you're interested in learning more about LimeLight and our TV & Movie Audience Intelligence solutions here at EntSight then visit our website to find out more or drop us a message.

David Murphy

David Murphy

EntSight Researcher