For better and for worse, Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix’s controversial Joker is dominating the pop culture conversation, providing Warner Bros. and DC Films with a unique kind of blockbuster. The ultra violent, dark and R-rated reimagining of Batman’s most iconic villain is hardly a commercial endeavor despite the shiny tie-in to a well-known IP. As has been said numerous times, the project shares much more in common with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, two beloved but infamous box office under-performers, than it does with, say, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight or Hugh Jackman’s Logan—gritty yet immensely successful blockbusters. And yet, Joker has managed to not only cut through the clutter of the crowded entertainment marketplace, but pierce it with a rare frenzy that has positioned the movie for supreme success.
As of this writing, Joker holds a 75% grade on Rotten Tomatoes, good enough for a fresh rating but hardly the type of universally rave reviews awarded to fellow superhero behemoths such as Avengers: Endgame (94%). Despite the critical divide, the film is tracking for a domestic debut north of $82 million when it bows in theaters next month. The previous all-time October record is held by Venom ($80 million). Assuming it performs similarly to that off-center Tom Hardy vehicle, the $55 million film is likely looking at a domestic total around $200 million-plus. WB may very well have its biggest hit of the year with a film that some have called a masterpiece and others have labeled as dangerous. Against the back drop of our violent and fractured current social climate, everyone is forming a sharp opinion. It’s a case study in the unusual.
But, ill-advised or not, Joker is resonating with audiences across the spectrum, a rare accomplishment in an era of weekend Netflix binges and opening box office emphasis. Capturing the zeitgeist is easy, but building and then maintaining momentum is nearly impossible these days. Avatar played in theaters for a whopping eight months a decade ago; Endgame was barely given five. Netflix’s Stranger Things 3 was a hot topic of conversation…until the next addictive binge option came along soon after. Jordan Peele’s Us has sadly been lost in the awards conversation after debuting all the way back in March. Joker is aiming for a middle-ground between the sustained interest of previous film periods and the immediate gratification of today.
According to Atom Tickets, Joker is Fall’s second-most anticipated release among millennials behind only Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the concluding chapter to America’s most beloved film franchise 40 years in the making. Based on Atom’s survey of moviegoers, Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck/The Joker is the second most-anticipated leading man performance behind only Dwayne Johnson in Jumanji: The Next Level. According to Box Office Pro, “online chatter is embracing the hype, and our metrics now point to this clearly being the ‘water cooler’ type of movie that inspires interest from a variety of demographics.” The site’s financial forecast pegs a $100 million opener as “increasingly favorable.”
That grassroots interest extends to the prestigious and attention-grabbing awards race, where Joker claimed the Venice Film Festival’s coveted Golden Lion award and was met with a warm reception at the Toronto Film Festival. As of right now, Phoenix is the definitive Best Actor front-runner for the 2020 Academy Awards while even the movie’s critics have acknowledged its impressive below-the-line production efforts. Oscar nominations are assuredly forthcoming, raising the movie’s profile among cinephiles and casual movie-goers alike.
Joker is both a worrisome actualization of dark revenge fantasies run amok and a fascinating character study of the effects that a broken society can yield on individuals. In that sense, its polarizing nature is only increasing the decibel level of the conversation surrounding it. Its detractors feed its supporters and vice versa in a cinematic ouroboros. If nothing else, Warner Bros. has unleashed the most talked about Oscars blockbuster in ages.