"Joker" arrives in theaters this weekend following weeks of polarizing festival reviews and a pre-release backlash that included fears the film may inspire violence. But despite all that, box office analysts expect Todd Phillips' Scorsese-inspired supervillain origin story to set a new opening weekend record for October.
The current record for the month was set last year by another comic book movie, Sony's "Venom," which earned an $80.2 million launch. That figure is the low end of independent tracker projections for Warner Bros./Village Roadshow/DC's "Joker," which currently range from $80-95 million. An opening in the middle of that range would put the movie alongside "Logan," another R-rated superhero drama which opened to $88 million in March 2017.
Warner Bros. is projecting that "Joker" will fall just short of "Venom" with $75-80 million from 4,300+ screens, but even if the film fell well short and opened in the $60 million range -- which sources tell TheWrap the studio was projecting before tracking started -- that would still ensure that "Joker" would come out as a box office success.
While the superpower nature of comic book movies typically require blockbuster budgets well north of $150 million, "Joker" was designed to be a "King of Comedy"-esque tragedy that allowed WB to approach it as a mid-budget drama. With a reported budget of just $55 million and guaranteed interest from moviegoers even before the media storm of the past month, "Joker" has stood alongside "Us" as one of the 2019 films most likely to give its studio an exceptional return on investment.
"Joker" debuted to rave reviews at the Venice Film Festival and even received the festival's highest honor. But several critics since then have expressed concern that the film is overly sympathetic to incels, an online subculture of men angry about a lack of sexual success linked to at least four mass shootings since 2014. And though the LAPD says it has seen "no credible threats" related to the film, last week reports surfaced of memos sent by the U.S. Army to soldiers warning that Texas sheriffs and the FBI had identified potential shooting threats made by self-described incels.
According to the memos, these threats were inspired the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in which 12 people were killed during a showing of "The Dark Knight Rises." While no national theater chains have announced plans for increased security this weekend, the theater where the Aurora shooting took place announced that it would not screen "Joker" this weekend, and dine-in chain Alamo Drafthouse told Entertainment Weekly it will be hiring "additional security personnel" at its 40 locations.
But if such fears have scared off any moviegoers, it hasn't shown in tracking. Estimates for "Joker" began three weeks ago at $75 million-plus and have not dropped below that since then. "'Joker' has become one of the must-see films of the fall, even for the sort of people who usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming to see a comic book movie," comScore's Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. "If nothing else, Joaquin Phoenix's performance is giving this film a lot of awards buzz, and that's going to attract some older audiences who have enjoyed his past work."
And in terms of awareness of the film, Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock believes this is a case of there being no such thing as bad press. "I don't think this is going to convince a lot of people who were already committed to seeing it this weekend to stay home," Bock said. "In fact, it might even increase interest among teens and younger male audiences because it adds to this perception of 'danger' surrounding the film."
So "Joker" is sure to be a hit, but how big of a hit will it be? Could it reach the level of "Logan," which grossed $226 million domestic and $619 million worldwide? That will depend on whether the popular response to the film falls on the side of the Venice Film Festival attendees who gave the film a standing ovation and the Golden Lion or with the minority of critics who have panned the film as senselessly violent.
While critics have been generally positive with a 78% Rotten Tomatoes score, many of the negative reviews have been scathing. Uproxx, for example, called it "a mishmash of Hot Button Social Issues without anything interesting to say at all," and Us Weekly's review concluded that " this predictable brand of cold-hearted cynicism is not worth your time."
The success of films like "Logan" show that comic book movie audiences are open to darker interpretations of DC and Marvel characters, but "Logan" had at its core a message of hope and redemption that "Joker" does not. Interest in the character, the actor who plays him, and the heated social media debates sparked since its festival premiere have helped audience interest in "Joker" peak, but if the post-release discussion becomes similar to that of "Batman v Superman," which soured many with its bleak, almost nihilistic tone, the possibility of a $500 million-plus global theatrical run may be cut short.
"We're going to see a big drop-off just because the opening weekend will be so strong," Bock noted, "But the good news for 'Joker' is that it isn't going to face much competition this month outside of possibly 'Zombieland: Double Tap.' We won't know until Sunday whether it will have the word of mouth to keep the pre-release buzz going."
"Joker" stars Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who has become one of Gotham City's lost souls. After the daily emotional beatings of his life become too much to bear, Arthur snaps and becomes the violent Joker, triggering social unrest through the entire city. Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz and Frances Conroy also star in the film, which Todd Phillips directed and co-wrote with Scott Silver. Phillips produced the film with Bradley Cooper and Emma Tillinger Koskoff.