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The Weekend Movie Takeaway: 'Joker' is No Joke, Narratively Speaking

October 7, 2019
2 min read time

It was the most talked-about movie of the year before anyone had even seen it. Many commentators suggested that perhaps it shouldn't be seen at all. But after an extremely dramatic build-up, Joker finally hit theaters over the weekend.

Warner Bros. faced a lot of advance criticism over whether or not they should've even made the film, but they'll be glad they did now that Joker has smashed all October box office records for a staggering weekend domestic take of $96 million.

Despite all the consternation surrounding the film and how it might play to certain sections of the audience, it's impossible to see this as anything but a victory for narrative. In a film market saturated by comic book adaptations, Joker set itself apart from the hordes and generated a huge amount of advance interest not by virtue of its special effects or action scenes, but because of its narrative.

Whatever your thoughts on the finished product are, it cannot be denied that co-writer and director Todd Phillips, co-writer Scott Silver, and star Joaquin Phoenix have delivered an undeniably unique take on a one of the most well-known characters in pop culture.

The massive weekend box office take will hopefully spur more major studios to take bigger creative risks with their intellectual property. It's the only way the IP-centric modern movie marketplace can survive creatively, so thankfully there's a weird mega-hit on the books to encourage such risk-taking.

Joker's emphasis on story makes it an even bigger hit than the initial numbers suggest. The previous record-holder for an October opening—incidentally, another comic book adaptation centered around a well-known villain, Venom—was a special effects-laden action film that probably cost four times whatever was spent on the down-and-dirty Joker. The latter chose instead to invest in a unique narrative perspective.

The takeaway: Joker is a success of narrative over spectacle. A notion strengthened by the fact that the emphasis made it a cost-effective production—but not at the expense of wide box office appeal—rendering it an even bigger success from a commercial perspective.

There is also perhaps a worthy takeaway to be derived from the discussion that dogged the film before its release. The pervading worry about something bad happening became so that they couldn't stop talking about the potential for something bad happening, that it arguably enhanced the possibility that...something bad would happen.

To try and derive narrative lessons from the modern media discourse is to open a giant can of toxic worms, but all the advance hand-wringing that surrounded Joker suggests that we should maybe wait until we see films before we speculate too much on the harm they may cause society. While they can be social commentary, they are, still, in the end, just that: films, not fortune-tellers.

There isn't a lot of room for nuance in the media narratives that permeate movie releases, but this is definitely a situation where some might've helped.

Beyond Joker, there were some notable results at the bottom of the box office charts over the weekend that also proved narrative matters. The ninth and tenth spots were both taken by Bollywood films, War and Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, respectively.

Bollywood films have long had a profitable presence in American cinemas, but don't often show up on the charts. Having two claims spots in one weekend is an important reminder that the modern American cinema audience is a lot more diverse than we sometimes give it credit for.


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