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Box Office: ‘Joker’ Eyes Hefty $80 Million-Plus Debut

Warner Bros.’ “The Joker,” an origin story about the notorious Batman villain, is shaping up to be a big hit despite being one of the darkest mainstream movies to hit screens in years.

The film is on pace to debut to a sizable $76 million to $88 million when it hits theaters on Oct. 4, according to early tracking. Some executives believe those numbers are very inflated because the film is so unconventional and has characteristics that could alienate fanboys and fangirls as well as more mainstream crowds. Warner Bros. believes the dark thriller could launch in the $50 million to $55 million range.

Even if “Joker” opens well below that bullish tracking, a start above $50 million-plus would be a success. While those figures would rank on the lower side when it comes to comic-book adaptations, “Joker” is not a typical superhero tentpole — it’s a violent R-rated character study that’s closer to “Taxi Driver” than “Aquaman” or “Shazam.” It unfolds in a 1980s urban landscape pockmarked by burnt out buildings and graffiti, unstintingly documenting one character’s descent into madness as the social structures around him crumble.

Because the movie is so different from standard comic book fare, Warner Bros. kept costs low. Most Batman adaptations cost more than $150 million to produce, but “Joker” reportedly totaled $55 million in production costs. That means that an opening above $50 million would position the film to make back that money, as well as recoup its marketing and distribution costs.

“Joker” was directed by Todd Phillips (“The Hangover,” “Old School”) and stars Joaquin Phoenix as an aspiring stand-up comedian whose dead-end existence ultimately results in a life of crime and chaos. The movie generated mostly positive sentiment out of the Venice Film Festival, where “Joker” had its world premiere and won the festival’s top prize. Variety’s Owen Gleiberman offered high praise out of the festival, writing “Joaquin Phoenix is astonishing as a mentally ill geek who becomes the killer-clown Joker in Todd Phillips’ neo-‘Taxi Driver’ knockout: the rare comic-book movie that expresses what’s happening in the real world.”

Audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival were more reserved, however. Some complained that the movie was too slow and depressing, while others worried it sent out a disturbing message by humanizing a psychopathic killer as mass shootings are on the rise and society is increasingly alarmed by gun violence. That brewing controversy could depress box office receipts and lead to backlash.

Because the movie is more interested in the Joker’s neurosis than it is in staging elaborate fight scenes, some Batman fans could feel shortchanged. In fact, the Caped Crusader never makes an appearance in full vigilante form.

After a tepid summer season at the box office, “Joker” should continue a robust fall for Warner Bros. Since launching last weekend, the studio’s “It: Chapter Two” has racked up nearly $200 million worldwide. Warner Bros.’ upcoming slate includes Edward Norton’s “Motherless Brooklyn,” Stephen King adaptation “Doctor Sleep” and Michael B. Jordan’s legal drama “Just Mercy.”

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