Despite a 76 percent “fresh” score on Rotten Tomatoes from film critics, Todd Phillips‘ Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck has generated a significant amount of controversy ahead of its opening weekend. The film chronicles Arthur’s rise to become one of Gotham’s most notorious villains, and although it nabbed top prize at the Venice International Film Festival, some critics — including The Beat‘s own Kay-B — believe Joker is lacking in significant ways.
Setting aside critique of the film itself, there are layers of controversy surrounding it. For starters, when The Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin asked Phoenix if the movie has the potential to incite real-world violence from viewers — something we have seen before from a previous film with the Joker front and center — Phoenix reportedly asked “why” Collin would ask such a thing and then left the room. Phoenix returned an hour later, after speaking with a Warner Bros. PR person about how he should respond; he told Collin he hadn’t anticipated the question and according to The Telegraph, he never gave a direct answer.
Then, in an interview with IGN published Tuesday, Phoenix also addressed the controversy surrounding the film: “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. 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,” he said.
Regarding The Telegraph interview and whether Joker could fuel real-world violence, Phoenix told IGN, “I think if you have somebody that has that level of emotional disturbance, they can find fuel anywhere. I just don’t think that you can function that way.”
Meanwhile, Phillips says concerns about the film are mostly from people who are looking for something to be angry about. “I think it’s because outrage is a commodity, I think it’s something that has been a commodity for a while,” Phillips told The Wrap in a Sept. 20 interview first published Wednesday. “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.”
But for some, the violence in Joker and its possible real-world implications hit far too close to home. As reported by Variety, families of the victims who were shot at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 have asked Warner Bros. to donate to groups that support victims of gun violence. In a letter dated Sept. 24, 2019, the families wrote, in part:
We are the family members and friends of the 12 people killed at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20, 2012. This tragic event, perpetrated by a socially isolated individual who felt “wronged” by society has changed the course of our lives.
As a result, we have committed ourselves to ensuring that no other family ever has to go through the absolute hell we have experienced and the pain we continue to live with. Trust us, it does not go away.
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.
In the letter, the families ask Warner Bros. to “end political contributions to candidates who take money from the NRA and vote against gun reform,” “use [Warner Bros.’] political clout and leverage in Congress to actively lobby for gun reform,” and “help fund survivor funds and gun violence intervention programs.” They note that although companies like CVS and Wal-Mart have begun changing their gun policies in response to repeat mass shootings across the country, the federal government has yet to take any significant steps toward gun reform.
Warner Bros. released the following statement on Tuesday, per IGN: “Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. 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 address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. 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, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter Jessica was killed in the Aurora shooting, released another statement on Thursday that they crafted with gun control advocate Igor Volsky of Guns Down America. They said, “In its statement, Warner Bros. highlighted its past support for the survivors of gun violence and its rhetorical public call on lawmakers in Congress to pass stronger gun reform laws. Let us be clear: Asking for change is a good first step, but it’s nowhere near enough. Warner Bros. and its parent company must put its money where its mouth is and announce that it will no longer provide political donations to candidates and lawmakers who stand in the way of gun reform.”
In an e-mail sent out late last week, the U.S. military warned troops of possible incel violence at Joker screenings, largely out of an abundance of caution. The Cinemark Aurora theater where the 2012 shooting took place will not show the film at all and the Landmark Theatres chain (about 50 theaters nationwide) expanded its usual ban on face masks and toy weapons for all Joker screenings to include a ban on all costumes in order to ease fears.
As of Thursday, the FBI has not alerted the National Association of Theatre Owners of any credible threats, but tensions are still high. Joker is slated to hit most theaters nationwide on Friday, Oct. 4.