First it won the Golden Lion at Venice. Then it polarized critics further in Toronto. Now Warner Bros./DC’s “Joker” is getting ready for its big debut in theaters with hopes that Batman and Joaquin Phoenix fans alike will turn out in theaters despite the bleak, nihilistic tone of Todd Phillips’ tragedy.
Since its Venice premiere, “Joker” has rocketed to the top of the awards conversation; particularly for Phoenix, whom prognosticators now say could get his fourth Oscar nomination for his performance as the miserable soul that transforms into the murderous Joker. That awards buzz has helped push the first round of box office tracking to a projected opening of at least $75 million. One independent tracker projecting an opening of $90 million, which would pass “Venom” as the biggest October opening ever.
With a reported budget of $55 million — a pittance compared to the $150-300 million budgets of most comic book movies — “Joker” is set up for a huge return on investment for WB. In fact, even if “Joker” fell short of these projections and opened to, say, $65 million, it will still have had a higher opening weekend than the PG-rated, $100 million budget “Shazam!” or WB’s $175 million summer tentpole “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.”
The big question, however, is whether the movie’s unapologetically violent nature will turn off audiences beyond the hardcore DC movie crowd. Festival attendees gave “Joker” a standing ovation and critics have been positive with a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 78%. But many of the critics who didn’t like “Joker” were scathing in their reviews, with one critic calling it a “predictable brand of cold-hearted cynicism.”
The last DC film to get this dark, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” was received negatively by both critics and audiences as too grim for a film about DC’s most famous superheroes. Warner Bros. and DC subsequently changed their tonal approach to make lighter, more hopeful films like “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and “Shazam!,” and reception has rebounded in response.
Of course, the Joker isn’t a superhero. He is a proud agent of chaos, and an origin story about him would be expected to be much darker. For those who have already been sold on the film by its trailer and festival reviews, that should be enough. But it would be a big achievement for “Joker” to match the performance of the last R-Rated superhero drama “Logan,” which opened to $88 million in spring 2017 and went on to $226.2 million domestic and $619 million worldwide.
“Logan” had the novelty of being Hugh Jackman’s final film as Wolverine, and the film’s sad but moving ending won over audiences from all demographics. The ending of “Joker” is said to be much more shocking and might alienate some audiences, weakening its word of mouth. “Joker” will have a strong opening and expand the possibilities of what studios can do with comic book movies on a cheaper budget. But we won’t know just how well the film will leg out until the first batch of stunned audiences walk out of the theater on October 4.
“Joker” stars Joaquin Phoenix, Zazie Beetz, Robert De Niro, Frances Conroy, and Bill Cullen. Todd Phillips directed the film from a script he co-wrote with Scott Silver. Phillips also produced the film with Bradley Cooper and Emma Tillinger Koskoff.