By Kyle Hickey
After an Oscar win and over a billion dollars grossed worldwide, it's safe to say Joker is without a doubt the most successful DC outing since 2009's, The Dark Knight. Joaquin Phoenix's take on the Clown Prince of Crime was met with both audience and academy approval and had only a fraction of the budget its fellow DC Extended Universe movies had. After this sort of financial and commercial success, combined with the tepid opening numbers for DC’s latest film, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, Warner Brothers most certainly has to be reconsidering how they'll approach their next slate of superhero movies – and the next step seems obvious - moving towards character driven singular stories as opposed to the large sprawling universe that Marvel Studios has mastered.
Warner Bros. have proven that they don't mind signing off on massive budgets for their superhero franchises in the hopes of finding the same return on investment that Disney has seen with their Marvel properties. DC’s upcoming slate of movies include Wonder Woman 1984, The Batman and The Suicide Squad, all big budget epics that are certainly straining the WB’s bank account. But it’s likely that smaller, more character driven films will provide a much greater return on investment for DC films. After all, we saw our ol pal Mista J on the big screen in David Ayer's Suicide Squad in 2016, a film that had a budget of $175 million dollars and yet grossed around 33% less worldwide than Todd Phillips’s, Joker, which cost a measly $55 million.
Birds of Prey only costing Warner Bros. $100 million to make seems to be a step in the right direction, but with Joker at almost half that budget they would be silly not to explore more opportunities to tell grittier tales that don't rely on massive explosions and green screens. DC films can do the things Marvel can't do and tell darker stories that aren't served to sell toys or Happy Meals to the masses. And the place DC could harvest these stories is right under their own dark sector of their comic book universe, DC Black Label.
DC Black Label is a comic line with a continuity all its own, not taking place in the same universe the current Rebirth titles are, giving it the freedom to take bold risks and rewrite the mythos of some characters. These sort of grounded and singular storylines should be the avenue DC takes next with their future projects. For example, if we’re rebooting Batman again already with Matt Reeves, why not reboot Joker and Harley along the lines of Kami Garcia's current run, Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity which re-imagines Harley Quinn as a forensic psychologist and criminal profiler who is employed by the GCPD to help find the serial killer known as, you guessed it, The Joker. The story gives Harley a more realistic interpretation (as opposed to falling in a vat of goo with Jared Leto) and could have a cool Mind Hunters vibe, but with more of a horror-style genre.
With Joker being a major hit starring a villain it's possible DC could repeat that success with their other famous big bad, Lex Luthor, preferably in a movie based on writer Brian Azzarello's take on Lex in the self titled comic series; Luthor. Audiences were pretty indifferent with Jesse Eisenberg's portrayal of the character in Batman v Superman, so this could be an opportunity to recast and show more depth to one of DC's greatest villains (and politicians) and dive into why he has such a fear of the alien known as Superman. Nerds everywhere have been clamouring at the prospect of Denzel Washington starring as Lex ever since rumours swirled on the internet in 2013 of his possible involvement with the aforementioned BvS, so perhaps this could be the project that finally puts Washington at the head of LexCorp.
And if DC’s feeling really bold they could take a different page from Marvel’s success and start putting the spotlight on lesser known heroes and stories in varying genres. After the success of Locke & Key on Netflix, DC Films could look to their Hill House branch of Black Label and give Joe Hill (son of Stephen King - who knows a thing or two about universes) his own crack at a debut motion picture. For example, Hill's series Basketful of Heads centers on main character June Branch who hunts for her boyfriend’s captors while wielding an axe that has the power to keep the heads of its victims alive and would make for a great revenge/action movie with a touch of Evil Dead style humour. A strong female lead has proven to work for DC in the past with Wonder Woman making $820 million worldwide in 2017, so Basketful of Heads may be another opportunity to give a budding actress their own franchise.
It's evident the DCEU is not going as planned for WB, but after Ezra Miller's version of Barry Allen was featured in the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths cross-over event, it seems DC films is open to various universes all taking place independently. With this being the case, and Matt Reeves’s The Batman coming out some time in the vague future, let's hope DC stops looking to Marvel for cues and starts looking at their own plethora of singular stories to draw upon that won't break the bank.