Amid hype and controversy, ‘Joker’ is expected to be a box-office hero for Warner Bros. and DC

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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 Thursday night 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.”


Wild card

“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.


LAPD said it would increase “visibility” of law enforcement during the movie’s opening weekend. “The Los Angeles Police Department is aware of public concerns and the historical significance associated with the premiere of ‘Joker,’ ” the department said in a statement. “While there are no credible threats in the Los Angeles area, the department will maintain high visibility around theaters when it opens.”

In order to maintain security, most theaters have longstanding policies restricting the types of costumes that patrons can wear. AMC Theatres bans face paint, masks and toy weapons, for example. Landmark Theatres, on the other hand, will not allow costumed guests. Alamo Drafthouse, famous for screenings catering to fans in dress-up, acknowledged questions about safety in a statement. However, the exhibitor said that it would allow cosplaying by moviegoers, while cautioning that “guests in costume are always subject to search at the discretion of theater staff at any time, and may be asked to leave for any reason.”

Last laugh?

If “Joker” succeeds, it will be the latest win for Warner Bros.’s key DC franchise, which has had winners such as “Wonder Woman,” but has not been as consistent as rival Disney’s Marvel superhero series. Warner Bros. has begun to rightsize the comic book movie strategy with successes such as last year’s “Aquaman,” which grossed $1.15 billion, and its New Line division’s “Shazam,” which collected $364 million following its April release.

Rather than try to follow Marvel’s strategy of creating a vast, interconnected universe of superhero characters and storylines, Warner Bros. has lately shifted its focus to creating more “standalone” movies with their own cinematic tones. “Joker” was conceived as existing separately from the other films in Warner’s DC universe.

“Joker” was always going to be a risk, not least because Phoenix’s portrayal would inevitably invite comparisons to the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the character in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”

But movies such as 20th Century Fox’s “Logan,” starring Hugh Jackman as an aged Wolverine, proved that a bleak, R-rated take on a comic book character can succeed at cinemas. “Logan” (2017) opened with $88.4 million in domestic ticket sales and ended up with $619 million in global box office revenue.


Times Staff Writer Josh Rottenberg contributed to this report.