5 Ways to Prep: Joker
By George Rose
October 4, 2019
“Madness is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.” That’s what Joker said in The Dark Knight and those words couldn’t be truer. Sure, maybe murderous intent takes more than a gentle nudge but all you need is a tiny gust of wind to drive someone crazy. This past weekend was my little brothers wedding and, naturally, it started a fight between me and my fiancé. When is our wedding? What’s the date? Why are we considering eloping? Don’t you want all the stress and wasted money that comes with a wedding? These are just a few of the questions we were berated with as we hoped to just drink and have fun. But no, it caused nothing but problems and it’s not just me. One of my engaged friends went to a wedding a few weeks ago and faced the same thing, which also almost derailed her own engagement. Weddings are insane and cause insanity among the attendees.
It’s not just weddings though. My fiancé isn’t into movies and Marvel heroes like I am. He prefers World War II history shows and documentaries on murderers. I didn’t know people really watched shows like that but they do. Since I am the most amazing fiancé ever, I try to take on those interests as my own to show my devotion. Well, let me tell you what I’ve learned: anyone can be driven crazy and it’s usually love that is the driving force, and money but people love money so it’s really just back to love. You can’t hate without first loving, and you can’t show restraint once you’ve crossed the bridge into Hatesville. Luckily, my fiancé and I fight all the time. I say that’s lucky because it never really surprises me when it happens and we get over the problems quickly. For those that aren’t used to problems, I can see how finally having to deal with one could shock the system enough to make you go bananas.
In these depressing shows I’ve been forced to watch, I’ve learned that any time you see a victim with multiple stab wounds it means it was a crime of passion and the criminal behind the act is most likely someone who knew the victim. There aren’t random crazy people like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees viciously killing people for no reason. That’s Hollywood glorifying murders which, again, are most likely caused by someone close to the deceased. I almost wish more murderers were just children of the devil that serve no real purpose but that’s not the case. Love is the driving force behind most good decisions and it’s also the thing that makes us want to pick up a knife and carve a big, sloppy smile onto your annoying, loud-mouthed face.
The thing about the Joker is that in the comic lore he hasn’t really had a backstory. We just accepted that he’s crazy and wants to prove a point to Batman that anyone can be driven to that level of madness. We’ve always understood that point but only now are we being given a movie that explores how the Joker became the clown prince of crime. What we need to accept though is that this is just one version of the story. There are many takes on the Joker throughout film and TV, and since the new Joker movie is a stand-alone that doesn’t connect to any other DC story to date that means this is just one of the many possible explanations for his behavior. If our own life experiences have any insight into why Joker is crazy or those crime drama TV shows have taught me anything, it’s that there’s a chance there is a love interest involved that either provided the push or the gravity needed to knock the sense out of him.
Fortunately for fans, the one thing we needed not to go crazy over this film concept is good reviews and that’s what we seem to have at the moment. With just under 80% positive feedback, we have something to get excited about. Word on the street is this may be Joaquin Phoenix’s chance at an Oscar but it’s too soon to tell. Is Hollywood really handing Joker another golden statue after Heath Ledger won the award shortly after his death, having gone a little crazy just by filming that role in The Dark Knight? Do we really want to glorify and reward a character that made one fan go ballistic and shoot up a sneak-preview screening of The Dark Knight Rises? Will Joaquin go Joker-level crazy if the movie doesn’t earn lots of money or recognition for his performance? Or did Jared Leto’s Joker leave such a bad taste in people’s mouth after Suicide Squad that all prior drama has been forgotten and now we’re ready to celebrate even the slightest quality that comes our way?
There are so many questions and so few answers that it won’t surprise me if I myself am a little bonkers by the end of this article, but if the wedding last weekend didn’t push me over the edge I doubt this will either. I may be off-center and a little kooky at times, but I’m not crazy. What I really am is just the lucky guy that gets to write about the 5 Ways to Prep for Joker, and it’s by counting the blessings that I’m (hopefully) able to maintain my composure. So sit back and slap on that clown makeup because we’re about to dive deep into how to best prepare for Joker’s descent into insanity.
1) THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)
There have been many Jokers across many mediums. He’s been in both live-action and animation on both television and movies, not to mention countless video games. At least within film there has been one standout gold (statue) standard and that bar was set by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. While the original film version (played by Jack Nicholson in 1989’s Batman, 72% positive) is iconic in its own right, it is also too campy for awards consideration and more closely resembles the original 1966 live-action TV show. While Nicholson’s take didn’t win any big awards, I’m pretty sure he made like $60 million for the role when he took 10% of toy sales profits instead of a traditional salary soooooo he’s doing just fine. I bet you don’t see clauses like that in contracts anymore, either.
Heath Ledger, on the other hand, had a much darker and more realistic take on the character. He was so troubled by the experience of diving into the Jokers brain that he died of an accidental drug overdose, which was somehow also connected to Mary-Kate Olsen and we’ve all heard the story (or a version of it) by now. Cut to 94% positive reviews, over $1 billion in worldwide earnings and a posthumous Supporting Actor Oscar win and we now have an unbeatable bar set for all future tales on the legendary killer clown. Rather than put him on ice, he would soon get a reboot with Jared Leto’s heroine-chic tattoo junkie contributing to 2016’s Suicide Squad dumpster fire (27% positive).
So we have a low, middle and high end version of the character across three Batman franchises in Hollywood’s history. Since the new Joker is sitting around 77% positive, one might think the original Batman would make the best comp. Given the more realistic take on the story and early talk of Oscar potential for Juaquin Phoenix, I’d say the closer comparison would be The Dark Knight. While Joker isn’t likely to have as much action as a Batman movie, it will still be packed with thrills and gritty acting. And, hey, if Joaquin really does end up winning an Oscar for his performance, it will surely go down as a bigger achievement than Ledger’s. After all, Best Actor trumps Supporting Actor any day of the week, even if we are competing against a dead guy. Sheesh, that’s rough… or maybe that’s just the Joker in me starting to take over.
2) DEADPOOL (2016)
It’s interesting that there’s finally a film about the backstory of Joker after decades of ignoring it and, yet, the story of how the film came to pass is a relatively new one. Superheroes movies have dominated theaters for decades but only in the last few years has the R-rates sub-genre of the usually family friendly flicks come into their own as a new dominating force. If it wasn’t for Ryan Reynolds releasing his own test footage online of a potential Deadpool movie and fans loving what they saw, 20th Century Fox may not have gambled a meager (by superhero standards) $58 million budget on making the movie. Heck, if Disney had purchased Fox just a few years earlier we definitely wouldn’t have the R-rated Deadpool we now all know and love. It would be a tame PG-13 Deadpool without Reynold, since he is connected to the character through Fox’s X-Men spin-off Wolverine franchise.
Well, the planets aligned because lightning struck to the tune of a $132 million debut and $363 million domestic earnings, making it the biggest film under the X-Men banner and the #1 R-rated opening weekend of all time. That record still holds up today a few years later and, while many have tried to replicate it, no other film has come close to Deadpool’s massive level of success, especially considering the relatively tiny budget it had. That’s not to say there haven’t been other success stories, as we’ll see in just a few moments. Still, there is potential in the R-rated comic book sub-genre and Deadpool proves that fans love a slightly crazy anti-hero at center stage. Will Joker be DC’s version of mega R-rated success? Is crazy really the new cool? And what will Marvel have to say if DC scores a SECOND Oscar win for acting before Marvel even gets their first nomination? I’m not sure but hopefully we get a Deadpool 3 in the future so Reynolds can break that fourth wall again to tell us what he thinks of the matter.
3) LOGAN (2017)
Now this is where I would say that one success inspires another, usually in the form of knock-off wannabe poser, but that’s not the case. Before any other studio could try to steal and replicate the R-rated success of Deadpool, Fox doubled down and decided to make two of them. It can take two to three years for a studio to make a movie, so any real copy cat wouldn’t have been able to get released until at least 2018 after Deadpool debuted in 2016. Fox went funny with Deadpool and went super serious with Logan, which is a nice bit of balance and a smart way to see what works early on. After the horrendous, lighthearted X-Men Origins: Wolverine (37% positive) and the bearable, more restrained The Wolverine (71% positive), Logan (93% positive) ended on the high note needed to properly say farewell to this beloved character.
And with this critical champion came all sorts of rewards. After wasting a $150 million budget on Origins and earning $373 million worldwide, many thought the X-Men spin-off was dead in the water, despite an impressive $180 million stateside. Fox didn’t quit but learned its lesson, and classed things up while dropping the budget to see if quality was better than quantity of supporting heroic characters (Gambit and Blob being true low points of Origins). After spending “only” $120 million on the budget and doubling the critical goodwill, Wolverine jumped up to $415 million worldwide (despite a lower $133 million stateside). Now that Fox was in profitable territory, there was no question if another entry was coming.
The real shock was in lowering the budget once again to $97 million but I guess that makes sense since they were gambling on doing the R-rating. Well, it worked. With an $88 million debut, $226 million in domestic earnings and $619 million worldwide, Logan became Wolverine’s biggest hit yet and another reason to give R-rated heroes a chance. However with Disney now owning Fox, the likelihood we see more R-rated features is slim. It’s too bad since it’s a formula that seems to be working, with only DC being brave enough now to capitalize on this already dying sub-genre.
4) VENOM (2018)
With Marvel and DC being the two main powerhouse comic brands making superheroes movies, we’re really only left with DC taking risks with R-rated features. Disney now owns Fox, which means all X-Men and Wolverine related content will be restricted to PG-13. Even Deadpool may see a fall from R-rated grace under the Disney umbrella. There was a chance the Spider-Verse was going to spin-off with a R-rated Venom under Sony’s leadership, but their connection to Disney’s MCU seems to have prevented that. Throughout filming Venom fans assumed it would be R-rated but the final product came out PG-13, leading many to assume Sony was playing it safe in case Disney one day allowed Venom into the MCU like Spider-Man. While the switch may have turned off some of the diehard fan base, it was still a worldwide hit with a sequel already well underway.
So we have Deadpool that led the rated-R charge and is much more comedic than Joker, which makes me think that $132 million debut and $363 million total are unreachable benchmarks for Joker. Maybe, MAYBE those numbers were possible if the reviews for Joker came in above 90%, but it’s proving more decisive with each new review and is now below 80%. Then we have Logan, a better comp in that it is actually rated-R and is a more serious take on the genre. An $88 million debut and $226 million total are attainable goals for Joker but only if audiences like it more than the critics. Then we have Venom, which may be PG-13 but at least it’s about a villain and was at least released in October like Joker. Venom has much worse reviews (29% positive), so if Joker doesn’t fare well with fans than it may see a similar (but still very successful) $80 million debut and $214 million total.
When Joker was fresh out of the Toronto Film Festival and won the award for Best Film after an 8 minute standing ovation, a $100 million debut and $250 total were perfectly reasonable, and would have had Joker crawling closer to Deadpool territory. Most analysts are now coming back down to earth and foresee an $80-90 million debut and $200-250 million total. Logan and Venom make that look like common ground for movies of this type so there’s no reason to expect it can’t land in these profitable zones. I can’t help but wonder, though, if maybe we’re still overshooting the moon here. When Joker won Best Picture at TIFF, I was all in on opening weekend. With reviews now below 80%, I’m seriously considering waiting to see how fans react before I waste my time seeing it in theaters. I can’t be alone in this mindset and it has me thinking there may be a better comp with more reserved and realistic expectations for the kind of bank Joker can steal from our wallets.
5) HALLOWEEN (2018)
October release? Check. Classic film villain that has been rebooted several times already? Check. Mindless killer with no good reason to be slaughtering victims? Check. Creepy white face hiding the devil underneath? Check. R-rated film for adults that potentially limits true breakout potential? Check. A similar sub-80% positive review score for a movie that initially marketed critical acclaim? Check. I’m starting to wonder if Joker really is “a comic book movie for people that don’t like comic book movies,” then maybe we shouldn’t be comparing it to other films under the DC/Marvel banners. Maybe we need something a little more psychotic, someone a little more crazy and something that’s been rebooted to death. Maybe we need a little Michael Myers.
After landing on 79% positive reviews, Halloween was able to reboot yet again with a $76 million debut and a $159 million total. Yes, these are huge numbers for a horror film and the best the Halloween series has ever seen, but isn’t it odd that Michael Myers debuted to only $5-10 million less than Logan and Venom but eventually earned over $50 million less than both of those movies? Early excitement can quickly fade after opening weekend if the fans don’t like what they saw or the novelty of the new feature makes it a one-week wonder. Maybe $80 million is a realistic R-rated opening for Joker with three films in this article proving that number is possible, but the end result could really be anywhere from $160 to $230 million.
Unfortunately, any awards attention Joaquin Phoenix receives will be too late to help boost Jokers numbers, as the movie will be long gone from theaters before the proper awards season even begins. So while every review still praises Phoenix’s performance, it’s the movie itself that needs to please audiences and only time will tell how the general public feels about it. Reviews are “good enough” but, in today’s day and age, “good enough” just isn’t good enough. The assumption of a possible $100 million debut is way out of question in my eyes; anything from a $80-90 million debut and $200+ million total makes it one of the rare non-Disney success stories for the year; and anything less than a $80 million debut means we should probably expect yet ANOTHER sub-$200 million feature that failed to do its part in saving Hollywood.
Granted, a meager $55 million budget means there’s almost no way Joker doesn’t end up profitable and it certainly won’t stop future R-rated attempts at blockbuster cinema, but we may have another case of “early excitement and expectations were unfortunately over exaggerated, leaving us with a disappointing taste in our mouths regardless of profitable success.” It's a common theme in 2019 and I don’t expect that trend to end until at least November’s Frozen 2. In any case, it’s thrilling we have a blockbuster of any size on our hands and I am always excited by the release of a comic book feature. It’s a story that’s certainly worth watching over the next few weeks, although neither good or bad results are likely to affect me. I may like movies about superheroes and supervillains, but it’s Marvel that I love. It’s going to take a lot more than the great success or failure of a DC movie to drive me crazy.