Untangling the Controversy Over the New Joker Movie

Even before its release, the film has sparked debate for two main reasons: the online fandom inspired by the character and fears of possible gun violence.

Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros.

Since Joker debuted at the Venice Film Festival this summer and hype began building over its intense themes, questions have surfaced about whether people would be too nervous to see it. Not just because it’s a violent, R-rated thriller featuring a murderous psychopath, but also because much of the prerelease chatter about Joker has centered on fears of mass shootings at screenings, with the U.S. military advising service members to be alert, local police departments posting officers at theaters on opening weekend, and families of the 2012 movie-theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, publicly expressing concern over the film.

As Joker approaches its Friday release, this narrative of anxiety has taken on a life of its own—and seems to be somewhat rooted both in the actual plot and in broader fears about the state of American pop culture. If audiences are nervous, those sentiments aren’t showing up in box-office tracking; Joker is projected to break October records with an opening of more than $80 million. But how did this film, initially pitched as a serious take on comic-book lore indebted to the work of Martin Scorsese, turn into a lightning rod? As the movie marches to financial success and potential Oscar nominations this fall, the discourse it has inspired has the potential to curdle even further.

After Joker’s premiere in Venice, where the film won the coveted Golden Lion, commentators started debating the movie’s portrayal of a psychopath, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), who embraces cruelty and murder. Joker is usually presented as Batman’s archenemy, a garish and gleeful purveyor of nihilistic violence who lives to provoke his do-gooder rival. But in Joker, Batman isn’t a presence at all (though a younger version of his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is). Instead, the director Todd Phillips positions Joker as an antihero, an evil figure who nonetheless becomes an avatar of vigilante justice within the film.

Phillips has pushed back against the notion that his movie could be blamed for any real-life violence. “We’re making a movie about a fictional character in a fictional world, ultimately, and your hope is that people take it for what it is,” he told Vanity Fair. “You can’t blame movies for a world that is so fucked up that anything can trigger it.” Phoenix walked out of one interview when he was asked whether Joker might inspire copycat behavior; in another, the actor said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”

It’s a fair point, and Joker is hardly the first movie in history to focus on a disturbing antihero. Much of the unease over this particular film seems rooted in two disconnected things: first, the specific online fandom for the Joker character as a standard-bearer for rage, and second, the horrific Aurora shooting, which took place at a screening of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises. A persistent rumor, attributed to then–New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, is that the shooter, James Holmes, was dressed up as Joker and referred to himself as such when he was taken into custody.

But it isn’t true, as George Brauchler, the Colorado district attorney who prosecuted Holmes, has repeatedly pointed out. According to Brauchler, Holmes picked a Dark Knight Rises screening only because it was the big blockbuster being released that weekend. Still, the link between a major Batman movie and the shooting has endured in the public memory, to the extent that the families of Aurora victims have commented on the release of Joker.

“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,” read their letter to the studio. “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 studio responded by pointing to its donations to victims of gun violence, but defended releasing Joker. “Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues,” read a statement from the company. “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.”

But once a movie is viewed by a wide audience, a filmmaker’s intention matters only so much; people will walk away with their own interpretations, and it can be hard to predict where or why passionate fandoms will pop up. Joker paints with a broad enough brush that it’s easy to see ways in which it could be grimly interpreted, as the Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek noted in her review. “The movie lionizes and glamorizes Arthur even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behavior,” she wrote. “Is he a villain or a spokesperson for the downtrodden? The movie wants it both ways. Its doublespeak feels dishonest.”

Phillips has pushed back against that notion, wondering aloud why his movie is the one getting all the attention when gun violence is prevalent in many a Hollywood action film. “Aurora is obviously a horrible, horrible situation, but even that is not something you blame on the movie,” he told the Associated Press. “I just saw John Wick 3. He’s a white male, he kills 300 people, and everybody’s laughing and hooting and hollering. Why does this movie get held to different standards?”

Though Keanu Reeves is not white, the Wick movies he stars in are undoubtedly brimming with gun violence of a highly stylized and unrealistic sort. But they’re also premised on a strange kind of moral code, following assassins who do battle with other assassins and largely leave civilians out of the mess. The films also wrestle with the psychological toll that killing has taken on Reeves’s character, a man unable to live a normal life because of his status as a dealer of death. In drawing the comparison, Phillips actually sheds light on some of the storytelling choices his movie doesn’t make—though he is, of course, entitled to tell whatever tale he wishes.

The director came up in the world of comedy, helming breakout hits such as Old School and The Hangover that had a bristling, bro-y energy. Phillips hasn’t worked in that genre since 2013’s The Hangover Part III, and he told Vanity Fair that his brand of humor has seemingly fallen out of favor in Hollywood. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he said. “All the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’” Phillips admitted to channeling that edgy, angry tone into Joker: “‘How do I do something irreverent, but fuck comedy? Oh, I know, let’s take the comic-book-movie universe and turn it on its head with this.’”

That general sense of rage pulses through Joker and makes it a compelling viewing experience; though I was not a fan, many critics are, and the movie’s triumph at the Venice Film Festival is significant. But that spiteful energy has also fueled worries. When Joker finally reaches theaters, these anxieties may abate as people see and reckon with the film for themselves. But that wider cultural conversation is bound to crop up again around something else as critics, and audiences, contend with the influence these movies have on the national mood.