‘Joker’ Box Office: Why Its Biggest Artistic Weakness Is Also Its Key Commercial Strength

Forbes Finance 1 month ago
'Joker'
'Joker'

Warner Bros. and DC Films’ Joker earned another $13.9 million yesterday, a record for a Tuesday gross in October and a huge jump of 43% from its $9.702 million Monday gross. That brings its five-day total to $119.804 million domestic. Presuming the film has maintained the 38.7/61.3 domestic/overseas split that it had on Sunday, then it has earned around $310 million worldwide. At this rate, give or take fluctuations, the film should have around $135 million by Thursday and (if that split holds) around $348 million worldwide heading into its second weekend. It’ll open in France, Germany and Israel today and tomorrow. That’s it for the overseas market, unless it scores an eventual playdate in China.

Considering how tame the movie is, that wouldn’t shock me. Yes, Joker is an R-rated movie through-and-through. But the idea that it’s this carnage fest, filled with incendiary imagery or dangerous content, is delusional at best and disingenuous at worst. I’d love to see that version. The film follows a long tradition of non-action movies being proclaimed to be ultraviolent or uncommonly grotesque just for having essentially any violence at all. Think, offhand, Pulp Fiction, Payback, Nurse Beatty, Hannibal and Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, films which had moments of R-rated content but caused not a little pearl-clutching from the entertainment press and/or media establishment. As Lisa Simpson would say, Joker is rebellious in a conformist sort of way.

Everyone pounced on Todd Phillips for defending his film’s violence by citing John Wick, but he’s right. Without getting into better/worse (you know how much I adore the Keanu Reeves actioners), I felt a lot sorrier for the copious security guards and body guards and work-a-day personnel laid to waste either by Wick or enemies of Wick in those three films than I did for the handful of victims of Joker’s initial rampage. The violence in Joker is calculated to only be so offensive, namely in that A) it’s no more graphic than any R-rated action movie and B) most of the victims are the kind of “kinda-sorta deserved it” folks who you’d expect to “get it.”

'Joker'
JOKER

Spoilers obviously, but the onscreen deaths in Joker are three young Wall Street goons who bully our anti-hero on the subway, at least one or two of which are clearly shot in self-defense, Arthur’s abusive and duplicitous mother (bloodlessly smothered with a pillow), a treacherous/bullying co-worker (who meets his end in the film’s one moment of truly gruesome violence), a random protester accidentally (and bloodlessly) shot by police on a subway during a chase and a major character who is (graphically) shot dead at the end of a major sequence. Moreover, it’s subtly implied that Arthur (Joaquin Phoenix) has killed a therapist (the one quasi-innocent victim) in the film’s “Maybe some of it wasn’t real” epilogue.

We see Bruce Wayne’s parents getting shot dead too, in a scene no more graphic than the pilot of Gotham, but that only means it must be Tuesday. None of the violence or grotesque content found in Todd Phillips’ R-rated Joker is any more grisly or shocking than anything we see in the five season of Fox’s “aired during primetime” Gotham. That ridiculously violent show featured all manner of innocent people (including its share of women and children) getting wantonly slaughtered in all manner of over-the-top comic book carnage. Like Joker, Gotham also tended to fill the screen with sympathetic characters of color. Most of those folks died horrible deaths, since the survival rate for non-leads was about 10%.

Yes, context matters, but in that sense too, Joker plays it commercially safe. None of the onscreen casualties are aggressively innocent people. No, in real-world morality, none of them deserved to die. But in movie-world, they are the same kind of characters, save for maybe his final implied victim, who you aren’t supposed to mourn when they (for example) fall into the sea, become engulfed in flames or drown in lava in stereotypical disaster movie. They are “safe” victims, either outright villainous or “rude,” chosen for the same reason why Michael Myers didn’t kill that crying baby in Blumhouse’s Halloween sequel. If anything, Joker’s biggest problem, and the source of its “danger,” is that it isn’t transgressive enough.

'Joker'
'Joker'

Arthur’s anger is not directed at women (including a single mother living next door, played by Zazie Beetz, on whom he develops a crush) or minorities. The few people that treat him with empathy and respect (including Bryan Tyree Henry as a frazzled but sympathetic Arkham employee) happen to be men and women of color. As I noted in my official review, Joker is (to be fair) as blind in terms of race and gender relations as any other recent superhero blockbuster or YA fantasy franchise flick, which in turn leaves out the key variable (hostility toward women and/or minorities) most likely to turn a guy like Arthur Fleck, in the real world, into a violent criminal.

Arthur is not cruel or vindictive, handsome when he puts in the effort and has no hints of racism or sexism. The violence, both in onscreen gore and choice of victims, closer in content to Hannibal (“He only kills the rude.”) than Rob Zombie’s Halloween (where Michael goes out of his way to butcher everyone, no matter how innocent). Even Hustlers (or Species back in the day) bothered to have at least one victim who arguably didn’t deserve it. This is both a commercial consideration and an acknowledgment of current social mores. To the extent that Joker is “dangerous,” it is in (accidentally?) fashioning Arthur into the kind of “nice guy” who arguably resembles how certain demographics see themselves.

You can feel the calculation at work to make sure that the film can’t be declared to be sexist, racist or otherwise inflammatory in our current “depiction = endorsement” clickbait media era (not that it stopped us from grasping at straws). Offering a Joker who only kills the rude and isn’t bigoted makes him more of an idealistic protagonist for those who might seem themselves reflected. That said, in a world where racists and anti-Semites took American History X as an endorsement just because Edward Norton’s doomed reformed former neo-Nazi protagonist was taken seriously and looked cinematically cool doing his bad deeds, it may be for the best that Joker didn’t present a more authentically motivated mass murderer.

'Joker'
'Joker'

Moreover, bringing this back to commercial considerations, I would argue that one of the reasons that Joker may leg out is that folks will spread that word that it’s not anywhere near as extreme as it’s been presented since its debut in Venice in late August, and that those on the fence about its content can “handle it” if they have seen their share of R-rated movies. Moreover, if Logan, which features a horrific sequence where an innocent family is slaughtered by a bad guy, can play in China, then there’s nothing in Joker (even the anti-establishment theme focuses on individual wealth at the expense of society in a China-friendly fashion) that would shock China’s film censorship organizations.

That arguable commercial calculation is no different from the choice to make It (the first one) into a glorified, “safe for kids” R-rated Amblin adventure or the choice to make Star Wars: The Force Awakens into a loose rehash of A New Hope. I whined, but they earned $700 million and $2 billion respectively. I’m not about to penalize Joker too much for making commercial concessions that render its story less authentic and/or less uncomfortable, considering the result is a $60 million drama that might top $400 million by Friday. Warts and all, Joker is a ridiculously well-acted visually gorgeous comic book origin story. It’s still a solid three-star entertainment that demands a big screen experience.

Joker is also a commercial product, made by an experienced commercial filmmaker with the intent of making money for a major studio and enhancing an established brand.  You can see the ways in which it tries to not cross the line in terms of not having its Joker, for example, burn down an orphanage or spout incel catchphrases as he goes from meek-n-mild to Gotham’s biggest villain. It also has just enough R-rated violence to make (some) folks think it’s edgy but no truly beyond-the-pale content that might threaten word-of-mouth (or make it a recruitment tool for the worst of the worst). In that sense, one of its biggest artistic flaws is also its greatest commercial strength.


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