Film brings expectations and concerns

After weeks of hype and controversy, Warner Bros.’ newest DC Comics movie, “Joker,” finally puts its cards on the box-office table this weekend.

Writer-director Todd Phillips’ R-rated supervillain origin story, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the deranged clown of Gotham, is expected to gross about $80 million in domestic ticket sales tonight through Sunday, according to people who’ve seen pre-release audience surveys. That would be a powerful debut for the psychological thriller, and another win for Warner Bros.’s evolving DC film strategy. The film’s budget is estimated to be in the low $60-million range, reflecting the minimal use of special effects.

A big launch for “Joker,” co-produced and co-financed by Village Roadshow, would be a welcome result for the AT&T Inc.-owned studio, which has had a rocky year at the multiplex. Though the Burbank studio has enjoyed profitable hits, including 2019’s other killer clown movie, “It Chapter Two,” it has also fielded some of the year’s biggest flops, including “The Goldfinch,” “The Sun Is Also a Star” and “The Kitchen.”

“Joker” may feature one of the most recognizable faces in comic book lore, but the new film is anything but a typical superhero movie.

The film, which looks to echo antihero classics such as Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” debuted to rapturous reviews from some critics, who heaped praise on Phoenix’s portrayal of the failed stand-up comedian-turned criminal mastermind Arthur Fleck. The movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival a month ago, where it won the top honor, the Golden Lion, and was later screened at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Before the film was unveiled in Venice, director Phillips, known for the “Hangover” comedy franchise, acknowledged the complicated challenge of making Batman’s greatest foe the center of the story.

“He’s sort of an antihero in the beginning, but he does become a villain, and for different people I’ve shown it to, it happens at different times,” Phillips said. “That’s what I think is really cool about it: When do you stop feeling for him? ... It’s an interesting thing.”

But the film has sparked concern over its depiction of the title character’s descent into violence after being mocked by society, with some people raising questions about whether viewers might be inspired to commit attacks. In a September letter to Warner Bros., family members of victims of the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater expressed worries about the film and called on the studio to donate to gun-victim organizations and advocate for gun reform. A dozen people were killed during the shooting at a screening of Christopher Nolan’s DC film “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Warner Bros. responded with a statement highlighting its history of donating to victims and its support for bipartisan legislation to address gun violence, but also stressed that “neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind.” At the movie’s Los Angeles premiere last weekend, Warner Bros. prohibited journalists from doing red carpet interviews with the cast and the filmmakers. “A lot has been said about ‘Joker,’ and we just feel it’s time for people to see the film,” a Warner Bros. spokesperson said.

Tribune Wire

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