'Joker' is the culmination of an envelope-pushing trend. It could be Hollywood's future.

Analysis: "Joker" takes recent industry trends to an apparent extreme, testing the limits of commercial storytelling.
Image: R-Rated Superhero Movies
"Joker" is the pinnacle of recent Hollywood trends, including grim R-rated takes on comic book characters.Adrian Lam / NBC News

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By Daniel Arkin

"Joker," a lurid drama about the Batman villain opening nationwide Thursday night, has inspired tense cultural hand-wringing like few Hollywood blockbusters of the modern era. In recent months, the film was hailed both as a singular achievement in filmmaking and a threat to the public, the subject of fierce preemptive condemnations and spirited defenses.

But for all the ways "Joker" stands apart from your average comic book adaptation, the movie also marks the convergence of some recent industry trends and cultural forces, testing the limits of commercial storytelling and smashing traditional ideas about the superhero genre.

If the movie scores at the box office this weekend or crashes the Oscars next year, Hollywood's major studios could very well use it as a blueprint for the future. Here's a look at three key trends that shaped "Joker" and paved the way to this potential turning point.

The 'gritty reboot' of an old standby

It's no secret that Hollywood, relying increasingly on familiar franchises and big-name brands for box-office riches, has long been gripped by reboot fever, from Disney's spate of live-action remakes of animated classics ("The Lion King," "Aladdin") and Universal's resurrection of the "Jurassic Park" franchise to Sony's three cycles of Spider-Man flicks. (Universal Pictures is a unit of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.)

But in a bid to freshen stale formulas and draw adult-skewing audiences, major studios have also embraced darker takes on established material: hard-edged visuals, mature themes, realistic violence.

The "gritty reboot" approach has become a guiding principle and a press release cliché for the stewards of Hollywood's top franchises, even emerging as a Twitter meme, YouTube parody channel, and trope of TV fandom.

The financial success of recent reboots — Daniel Craig's psychologically tortured incarnation of 007 in the James Bond films, the apocalyptic redo of "Godzilla" in 2014, the latest trilogy of somber "Planet of the Apes" thrillers — helped blaze the trail to "Joker," starring Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled stand-up comedian who descends into madness and brutal violence on the margins of Gotham City.

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"When you get up to the 20th or 25th installment in a long-running franchise, you have to start playing around, especially with a character that's been around for 80 years," said Gabriel Rossman, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who specializes in mass media. ("Joker," for the record, is the 11th live-action feature film based on characters in the Batman universe released in the last 30 years.)

Todd Phillips, the director and co-writer of "Joker," has been clear about his intent to make a grim, decidedly kid-unfriendly character study in the vein of Martin Scorsese classics such as "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy," using a supervillain tied to a mass-market franchise as a cinematic Trojan horse.

"It really came from this idea: What if you just did a comic-book movie differently?" Phillips recently told The Los Angeles Times. "We all grew up on these character studies, and they're few and far between nowadays. So it was like, 'Let's do a deep dive on one of these guys in a real way.' No one is going to fly in it. No buildings are going to collapse. It's just going to be on the ground, so to speak."

The R-rated comic-book flick

Disney has dominated the decade with its sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a 23-installment global juggernaut beloved by children and parents alike. The lucrative franchise, for all its frantic sci-fi mayhem, has never strayed from the safe confines of the PG-13 rating. If the series became too edgy, parents of younger viewers would be turned away and ancillary revenues — sales of action figures, plush dolls — would likely suffer.

But amid the meteoric rise of relatively clean-cut Marvel entries, other studios have experimented with another way of doing business: R-rated offshoots of superhero franchises that simultaneously expand storytelling possibilities and limit the number of under-17 viewers allowed into the multiplex.

"PG-13 is the rating that traditionally gets you the biggest bang for your buck. But with the R-rating, you get many benefits in terms of creative vision, the ability to push the envelope, going beyond watered-down stories," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, an analytics company. "You can tell, from the first teaser trailer to the present, that 'Joker' is wearing its R-rating on its sleeve."

20th Century Fox racked up more than $1.5 billion worldwide with a pair of R-rated movies about Deadpool, a foul-mouthed, raunchy antihero in the shared X-Men universe. The same studio earned almost $620 million worldwide with "Logan," a 2017 standalone neo-noir Western about the X-Men hero Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) that featured spasms of bloody violence.

Warner Bros., the distributor of "Joker," made a similar gamble with "Suicide Squad," a 2016 comic book film about a band of dangerous supervillains, such as Will Smith's Deadshot and Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn. "Suicide Squad" was rated PG-13, but it veered toward R-rated territory with its sinister tone and Hot Topic-style imagery. No matter how "Joker" fares with audiences, the Squad will stick around: Robbie stars in an R-rated standalone film, "Birds of Prey," due in February, followed by a "Suicide Squad" sequel in 2021.

The rise of the Joker, for better or ill

"The Dark Knight" was a cultural earthquake when it hit theaters in 2008. It earned glowing reviews, rapturous fan response, and upwards of $1 billion at the global box office, more than half of that haul in the United States. The film, released the same year as the first "Iron Man," heralded the emergence of superhero movies as mainstream, respectable cinematic events: ambitious artistic achievements that could vie for critical respect and awards.

In the decade since the release of "The Dark Knight," another enduring legacy has taken shape. The movie helped turn the Joker — played in the Christopher Nolan version by Heath Ledger, who died just six months before the premiere — into an icon of the early 21st century. The Joker is at once fodder for creepy GIFs, a symbol of social anarchy, and a political meme whose meaning is in the eye of the beholder.

Ledger's Joker has been likened to internet trolls and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Photoshop-made images of President Barack Obama in Joker makeup became one of the emblems of the Tea Party movement. Obama, for his part, famously compared the Joker to Islamic State terrorists. President Donald Trump and some of his supporters have been derided as insurgents who, like the Joker, "just want to watch the world burn."

"The Joker is an amazingly adaptable character, a face you can project anything on to," said Travis Langley, the author of the book "The Joker Psychology" and a professor at Henderson State University. "He is this agent of chaos, an analogue for real-world terrorism ... including those driving people to make bad decisions because of fear."

The loaded sociopolitical context around the character, far more complex than anything that shadowed Jack Nicholson's campy performance in Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989), helps account for some of the worries that Phillips' new movie could inspire real-world chaos, particularly among the online community of misogynists known as incels, or involuntary celibates.

"Joker," in that sense, is not just the culmination of Hollywood trends. It might very well be the logical conclusion of all the social upheaval and political tumult happening off-screen, in our frequently gritty and R-rated reality. We could see a lot more where it came from.