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.’”