That’s the question that was likely on the lips of every Warner Bros. and DC exec, not to mention star Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips, as they prepared for the October release of Joker, their gritty, grounded 1970s-set origin story for the iconic Batman comics villain. And that’s because before the film had even begun playing in theaters across the country, it seemed as though everyone already had an opinion on the film, and not all of them kind.
Since the first reviews out of the 76th Venice International Film Festival in August saw critics rather split on whether or not Phillips’ had the sort of sensitivity required to approach a story that took the birth of Batman’s most enduring adversary and placed it in a ultra-realistic world that seemed to deserve the sort of terror he enacts upon it while the director and his star received an eight-minute standing ovation at its screening, after which it took home the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize, there’s been a wild divide over whether the film represents an abdication of responsibility on the part of its creator in light of, you know, all the madness going on in our real world or its simply victim to overreaction from a bunch of well-intentioned but overly squeamish hand-wringing critics.
“Why? Why, would you …? No, no,” he reportedly stammered before storming out of the interview in late September.
The very same day, the U.S. Army Base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma sent a memo to commanding officers warning of a “credible potential mass shooting to occur at an unknown movie theater” screening Joker. Operating off intelligence posted by the sheriff’s office in Travis County, Texas, working in conjunction with local FBI operatives, the bulletin didn’t specify where the attack was supposed to occur, only that it was based on “disturbing and very specific chatter on the dark web.”
A statement released by the studio regarding the decisions made about the premiere events simply read, “A lot has been said about Joker and we just feel it’s time for people to see the film.”
And the thing is, a lot of them did. Despite all the hot takes on what sort of power art has over unstable individuals, the film grossed $234 million in its first weekend, setting a new opening record for the month of October, while earning a B+ CinemaScore from audiences who actually saw it. It would go on to eventually cross the $1 billion mark, becoming the first R-rated film to ever do so. While it seems as though Joker got the last laugh for now, with the film, Phoenix’s performance and Phillips’s direction each nominated for awards at this weekend’s Golden Globes, all eyes are on whether or not it’ll breakthrough when Oscar nominations are announced on January 13—and what fresh debate it’ll spark when it inevitably does.
(Originally published on October 7, 2019 at 4 a.m. PT.)