Ahead of the new Joker movie’s release on Oct. 4, a group of family members who lost loved ones in the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. have released an open letter saying the film, with a violent plotline told in part from the aggressor’s perspective, “gave us pause.” They are calling for Warner Bros., the studio behind the film, to support the movement for gun safety and gun control in the U.S..
On July 20, 2012 a shooter entered a late night screening of The Dark Knight Rises (also a Warner Bros. production) at a Century 16 movie theater and fired at the audience, killing 12 people and injuring 70.
In the letter, which was shared with TIME on Tuesday, the group ask Warner Bros. to follow in the same footsteps as Walmart and CVS who “are going to lean into gun safety.” Both Walmart and CVS are among national retailers who have recently announced that customers are “requested” not to openly carry weapons in their stores.
“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,” the letter sent to Warner Bros. said. “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 family members described the Aurora shooter was a “socially isolated individual”, drawing a line to the Joker as he’s portrayed in the new movie, which serves as the comic villain’s origin story. The character — played by Joaquin Phoenix — is presented as someone whose run of bad luck, tough breaks and ostracization from mainstream society leads to him becoming increasingly angry and radicalized.
Writing for TIME, Stephanie Zacharek described the Joker as “the world’s saddest punching bag.” Listing a litany of woes the plot rains down on him, she continues:
In this context, the letter expresses concern that the film “presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story.”
The letter then asks for Warner Bros. to take specific actions: ending political contributions to candidates who take money from the NRA, use their political leverage in Congress to lobby for gun reform and help fund survivor funds and gun control intervention programs.
Among the signatures are Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was one of the 12 people killed, and Theresa Hoover, who lost her 18-year-old son Alexander J. Boik. Other signees include Heather Dearman, whose cousin, Ashley Moser, lost a 6-year-old daughter and an unborn child, and Tiina Coon, whose son witnessed the shooting.
“Since the federal government has failed to pass reforms that raise the standard for gun ownership in America, large companies like Warner Brothers have a responsibility to act. We certainly hope that you do,” the letter says.
The new Joker film will not play at the site of the shooting, the now renamed Century Aurora and XD, an employee at the movie theater confirmed to TIME on Tuesday.
In a statement sent to TIME, Warner Bros. acknowledged that “gun violence in our society is a critical issue” and says that the company has a long history of donating to victims of violence. “In recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic,” the statement notes.
The company also argues that job as cinematic storytellers is in part to incite tough conversations on complex issues, but that they are not in anyway supporting violence or violent rhetoric.
“Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind,” the statement said. “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”
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Write to Josiah Bates at email@example.com