It’s official, Joker is a hit, setting a new October opening weekend record with a $96 million opening weekend. This is more than Justice League ($93.8 million). Joker is a hit, Justice League is a flop, and the difference lies mostly in their budgets and a little bit in their ratings. R-rated movies are never expected to perform as well as more audience-friendly PG-13 movies, though we have seen a number of R-rated blockbusters recently (the Deadpool and It franchises). But mostly the difference is about budget. Justice League cost an admitted $300 million (though it probably cost more than that by an additional nine figures), and Joker is estimated between $50-70 million. When you spend less, you don’t have to earn as much to be a success. I don’t care for how Joker turned out, but I do like this budgetary model and would like to see more superhero movies try it. Does Ant-Man 3 really need to cost $150 million? Or could you do it for, say, $80 million? Would putting restraints on these movies lead to tighter, more inventive narratives?
There really wasn’t a question of Joker being successful. He is one of the most well-known comic book figures in the world, with a built-in audience ready and waiting, which shows in the box office. Internationally, Joker opened with $140 million, giving it a total opening weekend of $234 million. Joker is already making money, once again thanks to that relatively modest budget. I really don’t see a downside to this model for comic book movies, especially the ones that don’t have to be special effects extravaganzas, or a cross-over that has to pay half a dozen or more top-tier talent to show up. Do a stripped-down Catwoman next, or a lo-fi Ant-Man (that’s Marvel’s least successful franchise, which is why I am picking on him), or what is the budget for Black Widow? It’s just a spy thriller. I bet it has a nine-figure budget, though, and I bet it ends up looking like every other superhero movie. Necessity is the mother of invention, deprive the filmmakers even a little bit and watch them solve problems with fresh, creative solutions. (Another reason to get excited for Birds of Prey? A sub-$100 million budget. Let’s see how that affects the aesthetic and storytelling.) We’re heading into the THIRD DECADE of superhero movies dominating the cinematic landscape, it is past time to start individualizing these movies. Joker, whether you like it or not, at least has a unique look and feel to other superhero movies.
But just because the Joker comes with an established fanbase, it does not mean Joaquin Phoenix was slacking off this weekend. He dropped in on several screenings around Los Angeles to thank audiences for turning up for his movie. This is a classic superhero movie opening weekend move, for anyone trying to argue this isn’t a superhero movie. Warner Bros very much used that marketing playbook for Joker’s release, and it paid off in a very typical superhero movie opening weekend. But it’s also more evidence that Phoenix is willing to do the work to get the headlines and, maybe, hopefully, an Oscar nomination off this movie. He has traditionally not been a campaigner, but he is willingly shilling for Joker and only being sort of hostile while doing it. Right now he’s doing the work required by a studio for a tent pole release. In a couple months, he will presumably be doing the work required by a studio trying to get an Oscar nomination, especially since it will be on a somewhat friendly Phoenix to make up for Todd Phillips’ much more combative press. 2019 really is the weirdest year, when we’re relying on Joaquin Phoenix to be the friendly face of a major studio movie. But so far that strategy has paid off.