Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as a clown who eventually becomes Batman’s arch-nemesis, doesn’t hit theaters until Oct. 4. But the film has already caused a backlash, with some critics saying its message is dangerous while others continue to staunchly defend it.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker strays far from the cartoon villain known for tormenting Batman in the DC Universe comic books. In an origin story which explains the forces that shaped the character, Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a lonely man who lives with his mother and for whom life is a revolving door of disappointment, violence and isolation. The lack of love, and a feeling that the world is consistently beating him down, pushes Fleck into crime as he morphs into the murderous, now-iconic villain.
But for some critics, Fleck’s homicidal tendencies—which the movie depicts as having spawned from his sense of being treated badly at at every turn—cut a little too close to reality. In a time when headlines all too frequently report mass shootings and other acts of violence committed by people whose motivations are later tied to anger at the world or specific groups, they argue that giving the Joker such an origin story could encourage misplaced sympathy at best, and violence at worst. Here’s what to know about controversy surrounding the movie.
Why have critics called the new Joker movie “dangerous”?
Critics who saw Joker during its run at the Venice and Toronto film festivals in late August and early September, respectively, have called it “dangerous”, “deeply troubling” and “a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels.” In a review that prompted a flood of angry reactions from the movie’s defenders, TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote: “In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week. And yet we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for Arthur, the troubled lamb; he just hasn’t had enough love.”
Taken together, reviews like these posit that empathizing with and glorifying a character who ultimately terrorizes society because it did not accept him might not be the kind of message audiences want or need to hear in 2019. In the current climate, a story that explains why a misunderstood white man would be spurred to violence feels not just well-tread in the news cycle, but even dangerous for its potential to inspire violence. People like the Joker already exist in real life, the argument goes—just see Elliot Rodger, who went on a killing spree near the University of California Santa Barbara campus in 2014 after sharing a video in which he said: “Tomorrow is the day of retribution for the last 8 years of my life, ever since I’ve hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure and existence of loneliness, rejection, and unfulfilled desires…I don’t know why you girls are not attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.”
The movie also premiered the same month that two mass shootings took place in the space of 24 hours. First, a 21-year-old man with a history of posting racist rhetoric online killed 22 people and injured many more at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The following morning, a shooter opened fire on a street in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine and wounding 27 with an AR-15-style assault rifle in the span of 32 seconds.
The film arguably furthers a tendency, in American media at least, to look for a reason that would explain why a white man would be driven to commit mass violence. In his review of the film, Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson writes:
Despite these concerns, Joker has garnered mostly positive reviews, currently holding a score of 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. It earned the top prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival, which lends it an air of prestige and confirms its potential as an awards contender, which, with a few notable exceptions like Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning Joker performance and Best Picture nominee Black Panther, is uncommon for movies inspired by or based on comic books. Critics have complimented the film for its gritty, realistic portrayal and Phoenix’s unhinged performance.
It should be noted that many of the people engaging in the debate about the movie on forums like Twitter have not actually seen it yet, as it hasn’t opened in theaters. But the movie’s mere existence is inspiring a debate, and not always a civil one, about what responsibility creators bear for the way in which audiences interpret their work. Months before the movie’s premiere, some expressed concern in reaction to the first teaser trailer, released back in April:
Why did the families of Aurora shooting victims voice concerns over the film?
Film critics (and their readers) aren’t the only people who have expressed concern about the movie. Family members of people who were killed on July 20, 2012 in a mass shooting at a movie theater showing the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colo., have said Joker could inspire viewers to carry out violent acts. Sandy Phillips, whose daughter was among the 12 people killed in the shooting, told the Hollywood Reporter this week that the film feels “like a slap in the face.”
“My worry is that one person who may be out there—and who knows if it is just one—who is on the edge, who is wanting to be a mass shooter, may be encouraged by this movie,” she said. “And that terrifies me.”
The theater in Aurora where the shooting took place will not be showing the film, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Phillips worked with Igor Volsky, the director of the gun control advocacy group Guns Down America, to write a letter signed by five family members of those killed in the shooting urging Warner Bros. to “understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe.”
“When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called Joker that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause,” they wrote. “We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression. But as anyone who has ever seen a comic book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility. That’s why we’re calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns.”
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by TIME, doesn’t request that Warner Bros. cancel the release of the film, but asks instead that the studio “end political contributions to candidates who take money from the NRA and vote against gun reform.”
“Keeping everyone safe should be a top corporate priority for Warner Brothers,” they wrote, urging the studio to use its political influence to lobby for gun control reform.
WarnerMedia, of which WB is a subsidiary, has donated to both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate. On a list of their 2018 contributions to federal candidates, three (Devin Nunes, Marsha Blackburn and Dean Heller) were among the top six recipients of contributions from the gun rights sector.
How has Warner Bros. responded to the criticism?
Following the letter from family members of the Aurora shooting victims, Warner Bros. released a statement on Tuesday rejecting claims that the film promotes mass violence.
“Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues,” read the statement. “Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”
In response to requests by the family members for Warner Bros. to stop political contributions to lawmakers who take money from the National Rifle Association and vote against gun reform and to start helping to fund programs that help survivors and gun violence intervention programs, the company said it was already complying. “Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to end this epidemic.”
How have Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix responded?
Last week, at Joker‘s press junket in Los Angeles, Phillips and Phoenix were asked by IGN to comment on concerns that the portrayal of the villain could be interpreted as a heroic or sympathetic figure.
Phillips responded by urging people to watch the movie “with an open mind” and cautioned against judging the film on behalf of other people.
“The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message,” he said. “To me, art can be complicated and oftentimes art is meant to be complicated. If you want uncomplicated art, you might want to take up calligraphy, but filmmaking will always be a complicated art.
He added: “It’s … bizarre when people say, ‘Oh, well I could handle it, but imagine if you can’t.’ It’s making judgments for other people.”
Phillips continued to reject criticisms of the film in an interview with The Wrap published on Wednesday, saying he was confused as to why people were against talking about violence. “Isn’t it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence?” he asked. “Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it?”
Phillips said he believed the controversy arose because people on the “far left” are looking for something to get angry about. “Outrage is a commodity, I think it’s something that has been a commodity for a while,” he said. “What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye-opening for me.”
Phoenix echoed Phillips, saying that a person who is already emotionally disturbed can find inspiration for violence anywhere. “Well, I think that, for most of us, you’re able to tell the difference between right and wrong. And those that aren’t are capable of interpreting anything in the way that they may want to,” he said. “People misinterpret lyrics from songs. They misinterpret passages from books. So I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong. I mean, to me, I think that that’s obvious.”
Speaking with the Associated Press in an interview published Sept. 30, Phillips said he was hopeful that Joker would prompt real-life conversations about the implications of violence and the painful treatment mentally ill people receive from others.
“The truth is you see it and it’s heartbreaking,” Phillips said. “And you know what happens in the movies when you have a world that lacks empathy and lacks love? You get the villain you deserve.”
Phoenix, in the same interview, continued to press that the viewers alone are responsible for whether they are inspired by the Joker as a character. “If you don’t know the difference between right and wrong, then there are all sorts of things that you are going to interpret in the way that you want,” he told the AP, later adding, “I just hope people see it and take it as a movie.”
In another interview, conducted by The Telegraph, Phoenix allegedly walked out of the room after being asked about whether a viewer could misconstrue the message from the film.
With an opening weekend box office projection of between $82 million and $90 million and awards buzz for Phoenix, debate around the movie is certain to continue in the months to come.
How are security concerns being addressed?
The U.S. military, law enforcement officials and movie theaters around the country have issued warnings urging people to remain cautious while going to see Joker.
In an email sent Sept. 18, the U.S. military warned service members of potential mass shootings at screenings of Joker. Service members were told to stay aware of their surroundings, “identify two escape routes” and “run, hide, fight” if a shooting were to occur, according to a report from Gizmodo.
The warning came after military officials said they had found social media posts referring to “incel” extremists talking about replicating the 2012 mass shooting at the Aurora theater during Joker screenings at theaters across the country. Incels refer to the community of people who say they’re “involuntarily celibate,” or rejected by potential romantic partners.
“This presents a potential risk to DOD personnel and family members, though there are no known specific credible threats to the opening of the Joker on 4 October,” read the email from the military, obtained by Gizmodo.
Separately, senior officials with the U.S. Army’s criminal investigation division released a memo on Sept. 23 saying they had received an intelligence bulletin from Texas law enforcement officials regarding a “credible potential mass shooting to occur at an unknown movie theater” during the Joker‘s release on Oct. 4. Texas officials worked with local FBI agents to discover “disturbing and very specific chatter in the dark web regarding the targeting of an unknown movie theater during the Joker release,” the memo, also obtained by Gizmodo, stated.
“Commanders need to be aware of this threat for soldier and family safety and to increase situational awareness should they choose to attend the release of this movie at a local theater,” they wrote.
At least two movie chains have banned costumes and masks during showings of Joker, Reuters reported on Sept. 26. Landmark Theaters, which operates in locations across the U.S., said it would not allow “masks, painted faces or costumes” in its theaters, according to a statement to Reuters.
AMC theaters reminded people of its costume policy in a statement last week. While the theaters allow costumes, masks and face paint are not allowed. “AMC does not permit weapons or items that would make other guests feel uncomfortable or detract from the movie-going experience,” the statement read, according to Variety.
A spokesperson for Regal Cinemas said in a statement that the theater chain is collaborating with the trade organization National Association of Theatre Owners to keep in contact with law enforcement over security matters, Variety reports.
Police have also announced warnings. The Los Angeles Police Department asked residents to “remain vigilant and always be aware of your surroundings” once the movie opens, CNN reports. “While there are no credible threats in the Los Angeles area, the Department will maintain high visibility around movie theaters when it opens,” the department said. The New York City Police Department confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that it will also assign officers to theaters showing the movie this weekend, adding that “Any additional personnel will be deployed as needed.”