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Why's everyone fighting about Joker? The many controversies, explained

By James Grebey

Joker — the upcoming movie that reimagines the iconic Batman villain as the hero of his own sad, twisted story — is no laughing matter. Although the film doesn’t open in theaters until early October, it’s proven to be quite controversial since it premiered at the Venice and Toronto film festivals earlier this summer.


Traditionally, the Joker does not really have a set origin story, as perhaps was best demonstrated in The Dark Knight, where he first appeared as a fully formed villain and gave contradicting explanations for his trademark scars. Joker is different. Directed by Todd Philips, who is best known for creating The Hangover trilogy, Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely and seemingly unwell man. Fed up with a lifetime of being put down, unrecognized, and unloved, Fleck eventually turns to violence, lashing out against a society he perceives wronged him while adopting the Joker persona.

Batman is nowhere to be seen. Fleck’s Joker is certainly the film’s protagonist, but there's a debate about whether the film endorses his turn to villainy, tacitly or otherwise. And that’s causing controversy because, in the real world, there are already an unconscionable number of people who, feeling wronged, turn to deadly violence.

The same month that Joker premiered, there were two mass shootings committed by angry men with violent ideologies. In 2012, another mass shooter targeted a movie theater showing The Dark Knight Rises, with the gunman identifying himself as “the Joker” when he was arrested. Incel culture — a dangerous group of disaffected (mostly white) men online who resent women for not sleeping with them — is another dangerous modern phenomenon, and the idea of Joker presenting its similarly unloved main character as a sympathetic, possibly even heroic figure is potentially troubling. 



Officially, no — although it’s not surprising that Warner Bros. and the filmmakers would say that or that they would mean it.

“Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues,” the company said in a 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.”

Philips and Phoenix attempted to make the same claim. In an interview with IGN, Philips urged moviegoers to see the film for themselves and make up their own minds, rather than just listen to the backlash.

“Isn’t it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence?” he told The Wrap. “Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it?”

Philips followed his “I’m just asking questions” shtick by attributing much of the controversy to “the far left,” using “outrage as a commodity,” to further its own ends.

Phoenix, for his part, claimed he didn’t think “it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong,” and reportedly walked off during an interview with The Telegraph because he was unprepared to answer a question about the film’s potential to inspire violence. 



If you agree with Phoenix, then there’s no problem with Joker. But opponents of the film are worried that by showing horrible, all-too-real actions in a sympathetic light while abdicating the responsibility to make a firm judgment call about whether those actions are bad, Joker adds fuel to a dangerous fire.

“In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week,” Time’s Stephanie Zacharek wrote. “And yet we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for Arthur, the troubled lamb; he just hasn’t had enough love.”

Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson largely praised the craft of the film, but was troubled that he couldn’t tell “how serious the film is meant to be,” and he worried that it might be “irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes.”

Of course it’s not supposed to be serious, you might be thinking. It’s a comic book movie. That’s fine and true — the worry is just that other people, perhaps the sort of people who are inspired by incel martyr Elliot Rodger, might think differently. There’s no easy answer when it comes to discussing what is or is not appropriate in art (especially in 2019), but it’s a worthwhile conversation, although not always a civil or productive one, as the comment section on this article will probably illustrate. 

The Dark Knight Rises


In addition to the larger thorny questions that Joker poses, the character is especially charged when it comes to gun violence. In 2012, James Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 58 others when he opened fire during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. Holmes supposedly took inspiration from the Joker, though the extent to which the character can be blamed for the violence is extremely debatable, given Holmes’ mental illness issues. Either way, several families of the victims of the shooting were understandably upset about the Joker movie.

“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,” Sandy Philips, the daughter of one of the victims of the 2012 attack, told The Hollywood Reporter. “And that terrifies me.”

The theater in Aurora will not be showing the film, and five families of the victims worked with the gun control advocacy group Guns Down America to send a letter to Warner Bros. The letter notably did not ask the company to cancel the film’s release, but instead urged the company to stop giving campaign contributions to politicians who take money from the NRA.



The final twist in the Joker saga is so strange that it would almost be funny if it weren’t so depressing. In mid-September, military service personnel got an email warning them about the potential for incel violence at Joker screenings, and recommended that would-be military moviegoers “identify two escape routes” and to “run, hide, fight” should anything happen.

On the one hand, this could be kind of like Boomers on Facebook worrying about “the knockout game” or any number of overblown fears. On the other hand, the U.S. military is worried about incel violence, which is telling.

Joker hits theaters Oct. 4 and is expected to make somewhere in the $80 to $90 million range in its opening weekend. Here’s hoping that the discourse will be the only traumatic thing to come out of it. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.