As of the writing of this post, Joker has made over $600 million worldwide in just under three weeks. By the time this piece goes live, there is a solid chance it may have passed the $700 million mark. It’s currently the tenth highest-grossing movie of 2019 so far, having made more money than Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Disney’s live-action remake of Dumbo, and Alita: Battle Angel. That’s impressive for any movie but especially an R-rated title mid-budget effort that’s been mired in debate for months. Indeed, it is that controversy that seems to have defined the movie, with some fearing it could incite real-life violence and that it is too sympathetic towards its violent protagonist. Whatever you think about the movie — and I mostly think it’s nowhere near exciting or thematically deep enough to warrant that much attention — it’s fascinating to see Joker and understand its specific context. That leads us to a very curious list that I’ve become rather fascinated by in recent weeks.
Box Office Mojo is a reliable mainstay of entertainment journalism. The site, founded in 1999, is the go-to source for all things box office related in the movie world. I use it every week for my own box office reports and it remains a handy tool for understanding the trajectory of the industry, changing trends, and how the market has become what it has in 2019. The website also has an eclectic array of lists that show how films of various genres, languages, and other defining factors stack up against one another. Ever wanted to know what the highest-grossing dog movie of all time is? Apparently it’s Scooby Doo. Who knew? If you’re a film trivia nerd like myself, you could easily lose hours of your life on this site, and I have. However, there’s one ‘genre’ that’s baffled me since I recently discovered it. Controversy.
The idea of controversy being a genre is its own strange concept, but whatever way you spin it, I’m not sure it makes the Box Office Mojo list make any more sense. They define it as being focused on ‘movies that created headlines over their allegedly controversial subject matter’, from 1980 to the present. The movie’s issue, perceived or real, is listed in parentheses.
Congrats to Joker on being the second highest-grossing movie in the Box Office Mojo "controversy" genre?— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) October 20, 2019
This list continues to BAFFLE me! pic.twitter.com/anaezC2Fdz
The Passion of the Christ comfortably takes the top spot, leaving Joker sandwiched between it and The Da Vinci Code, another movie slammed for its supposed anti-religious stance. Then the list gets much stranger. Apparently, The Day After Tomorrow is controversial because of ‘global warming’, while Brokeback Mountain’s problem was ‘gay cowboys’. My personal favorite is the double-bill of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Basic Instinct, deemed controversial for their respective issues of ‘anti-Bush’ and ‘vagina flash’ (I need a drag cabaret double act with those names as soon as possible.) Some movies aren’t given reasons for their controversy, such as the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters, although we all know why that one was slammed. Thelma and Louise’s big problem was allegedly ‘feminism’. It’s a strange experience to see films with anti-Arab sentiments deemed just as shocking as movies about 9/11, ones with alleged mistreatment of animals, and a film whose director is a convicted child molester. Joker doesn’t even get a reason for its controversy, although having the 2019 date in parentheses feels like as good an explanation as any.
‘Controversy’ is a tough thing to gauge in entertainment, especially now as we’re supposedly embroiled in ‘culture wars’ and an endless stream of canceling. Never mind that the latter is an overblown concept that mostly seems to be preached by white men who miss being able to say the N-word; what has defined our current era of pop culture is a perceived cycle of shock and apology. That reading is, at best, misguided, and a list like Box Office Mojo’s can only offer a highly condensed understanding of how pop culture and politics have intersected in an intangible manner.
This is nothing new, of course. Films have been controversial for as long as they’ve existed. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation helped to revive the popularity of the KKK and was protested by the NAACP. Disney’s Song of the South faced similar criticisms and remains locked away in their vault with no chance of a home release. John Waters made his career out of controversial cinema, while Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was so hated by the Catholic Church that they tried to have it banned and someone attacked a cinema in Paris with sulphuric acid. Nowadays, with the proliferation of online discourse and the international reach at all of our fingertips, we’re more aware than ever of the insidious nature of censorship. Just look at what’s happened in China for further proof of that.
We’re also more aware of the structures of power and entertainment that dictate popular tastes and how general audiences see the world. Ergo, we have far less patience for yet more gun-toting action movies where the black guy dies first and the villains are all Arab. We can’t help but throw our hands up in exhaustion whenever we see another movie where being gay or trans is the punchline or white saviors reign supreme. Still, I have a hard time labeling such discourse as ‘controversy’, especially when it’s lumped in with the likes of rampant homophobes or people who engaged in bad faith criticism of First Man over a ginned up non-story involving an American flag.
Controversy, as defined by Box Office Mojo, is an all-encompassing term for hot take frenzies, and it’s one that doesn’t take into account how controversy actually works or the tangible impact it can have on audiences. The Ghostbusters remake, for example, truly suffered at the hands of a misogynistic hate mob empowered by right-wing creeps who latched onto pop culture as a means to spread their message. The film itself was not controversial, but the toxicity surrounding it and how it originated most certainly was. The perception of controversy can be a double-edged sword but to shove all titles under the same vast umbrella overlooks the vast differences between films marginalized by hate speech and those movies that actually say something remotely dangerous. How do films that truly push the boundaries and refuse to adhere to societal demands of ‘decency’ face the same light touch of scrutiny as those directed by literal child molesters? The mind boggles.
Nowadays, I hesitate to call any film truly controversial, especially in terms of major studio releases that are based on prominent intellectual properties. I doubt the noise surrounding Joker hindered its success but it certainly did make it seem a whole lot more important than it actually is. Box Office Mojo’s list, as reductive as it is, gives us a brief snapshot of close to forty years of changing tastes and societal shifts, but for a truly wide-ranging and contextual understanding of the issue, perhaps it’s more beneficial to look beyond the hot takes.
Header Image Source: Box Office Mojo