The current blockbuster climate is obsessed with interconnected universes. It all started with Marvel Studios, which launched Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America as individual movies that all took place in the same universe, so that each film was both separate and a sort of sequel/prequel to all the other Marvel Studios films. This culminated in The Avengers, which scored the largest box office opening of all time (at that time) and featured all of these disparate heroes together in one movie. Wash, rinse, repeat—Marvel has enjoyed wild success after wild success ever since, and now all the other studios are looking to this model as the new way forward. Instead of worrying about franchise fatigue, you make a bunch of different franchises that are all part of the same overarching franchise.
We’ve seen numerous copycats over the years, with other studios trying (and mostly failing) to catch up. Most notable is Warner Bros., which owns the DC Comics properties and, after looking at Marvel’s success, tried to shortcut its way to its own Avengers. Instead of following 2013’s Man of Steel with another Superman movie or a new Flash movie that introduced new characters or deepened established ones, that film’s “sequel” was Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which brought three major heroes—Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman—together in one movie. It was jolting to say the least, and would be akin to Marvel making Captain America: Civil War right after the first Iron Man.
Warner Bros. followed Batman v Superman with Suicide Squad, a seemingly more disconnected film from this DC Extended Universe, but one which suffered from some major post-production tinkering and involves a pretty awkwardly placed Batman cameo. Again, by pushing “fast forward” on this DCEU and trying to rush to the same kind of success that Marvel enjoyed with The Avengers but in half the time, Warner Bros. was basically serving a half-cooked meal—audiences didn’t know what the DCEU was yet, let alone if they wanted to eat it.
But things are looking up for Warner Bros. and the DCEU. They enjoyed their first unqualified success with this summer’s Wonder Woman, which not only received critical acclaim but also is an unstoppable force at the box office, and Joss Whedon is overseeing some extensive reshoots on Justice League that will reportedly course-correct that film a bit from its BvS-inspired tone to something more in line with Wonder Woman. And now, as recently revealed, Warner Bros. is developing a brand new branch of DC Comics adaptations—one that will finally set it apart from the rest of the superhero movies and universes out there.
The studio is reportedly developing a Joker origin story movie with filmmaker Todd Phillips (War Dogs, The Hangover trilogy) co-writing and directing and Martin Scorsese in talks to be involved in some level of a producing capacity. The kicker here is that this Joker origin story will not be part of the DCEU. Instead, it’s part of an unannounced arm at Warner Bros. that intends to develop one-off comics adaptations that don’t have to worry about continuity with the DCEU. This Joker movie, for instance, is being conceived as an 80s-set hard boiled crime thriller, in the vein of Taxi Driver.
And this is going to be the key to making Warner Bros. stand out in the superhero-saturated landscape. The studio clearly has had a tough time settling on a tone for its DCEU, but also prides itself on giving its filmmakers room to make these movies their own. All the Marvel Studios films have an established aesthetic that directors have to stick to, but the DCEU seems to be giving directors like David Ayer and Patty Jenkins the freedom to play around with what a DC superhero movie has to look like. But as we saw with Suicide Squad, even if your film is visually different from what came before, the story still has to make sense within the “cinematic universe” rules and there needs to be some sort of connection to the DCEU overall (hence the Ben Affleck cameo). Wonder Woman is an outlier because it was a period piece and thus preceded the DCEU that we know so far, but it was bookended by scenes of Diana Prince reading a note from Affleck’s Bruce Wayne.
But by creating comic book adaptations that don’t have to conform either visually or story-wise, Warner Bros. can put their money where their mouth is—directors can have total freedom to do whatever they want within the confines of their one-off movies. Whatever you think about the concept of a Joker origin story movie, it’s exciting to think that Phillips can basically rewrite the entire history of this character in this film, cast an entirely new actor, and include as many or as few other comics characters as he wants in this movie. He doesn’t have to worry about how this will affect future films or whether it makes sense within the established timeline—he has a blank canvas.