It appears the Clown Prince of Crime got the last laugh at the box office. After a high-profile, if tumultuous, rollout over several months that saw Joker accused of everything from being “too dangerous for these times” to considered one of the best movies of the year at the Venice Film Festival, the R-rated drama has grossed $1 billion at the global box office.
With the film already having grossed more than $998 million as it goes into its seventh weekend, it is now guaranteed to pass the milestone, making it the first R-rated movie in history to join the elusive billion-dollar club.
It is also the first Warner Bros film to reach a 10-figure gross since its comic-book movie blockbuster Aquaman in December 2018, and is only the second non-Disney film to cross the $1 billion mark this year, the other being Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man: Far From Home…which was produced by Marvel Studios, a subsidiary of Disney.
This is an astonishing turn of events considering Joker’s tone and pedigree. While it is relatively normal to see superhero-related films earn $1 billion at the global box office these days – three of the other six movies to cross the milestone in 2019 are from Marvel Studios – none are as downbeat or intentionally adult-oriented as Todd Phillips’ movie.
A movie that Phillips says he sold to star Joaquin Phoenix as a pretense to make “a real film” in comic-book drag, Joker emulates the type of nihilistic cinema that was big business in the 1970s… but has all but been abandoned by the Hollywood studio system in the 21st century.
Directly referencing specific Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver and The King Of Comedy, the film is a languid character study of an isolated loner giving into delusion and murderous rage. Such themes are typically relegated to independent filmmaking, which is struggling more every year to find theatrical distribution – a reality that Scorsese himself has become vocally concerned about in recent weeks.
Joker’s success suggests that there is room for boundary-pushing filmmaking that can give audiences pause for thought, even if it clearly still needs to be associated with a familiar intellectual property. Phillips’ gamble of taking the most well-known comic-book villain, as well as one of the most popular movie villains of recent memory, and using him as a canvas for a cynical character study that emulated past greats brought that exact kind of filmmaking to a larger global audience. The question is: will its box-office triumph inspire others to do the same?