The evolution of hype around Joker has been one hell of rollercoaster, recently culminating in a series of provocative early reviews. Before the film was even released into cinemas, screenings at the Venice and Toronto film festivals prompted critical insights that range from it being "a true original that's sure to be remembered as one of the most transgressive studio blockbusters of the 21st Century" to "a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels." (Those quotes are from the same review, by the way.) As a lifelong film enthusiast, there's nothing that makes me want to see a movie more than controversy — but Joker is different.
On its face, the film is the origin story of one Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), the man who will go on to become Batman's most infamous foe. Repeatedly cast out by a cruel and untrusting society, Arthur spirals into a life of violence, finally gaining the recognition he's been craving. Where once mothers scolded Arthur for making faces at their children on the bus, he becomes the anonymous epicentre of a terrorist movement, his actions adored and emulated by Gotham's budding criminals. In another time and another place, I would love to see this movie. But it's 2019 in America, and I'm too scared to go to the theatre to see a movie about a violent madman who feels wronged by the world.
"It's 2019 in America, and I'm too scared to go to the theatre to see a movie about a violent madman who feels wronged by the world."
On Tuesday, the families of the 12 men and women who were gunned down at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012 shared a letter they had sent to Warner Bros.'s CEO Ann Sarnoff. They urged the studio (which produced both The Dark Knight Rises and Joker) to use its influence to "actively lobby for gun reform" and "end political contributions to candidates who take money from the NRA and vote against gun reform."
On Friday, Joaquin Phoenix walked out of an interview after being asked if the movie could "perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it's about, with potentially tragic results." (He came back, but avoided the question.) I don't ascribe to the oft-debunked theory that violence in media leads to violence in the real world, but it's impossible to deny the parallels between Arthur Fleck's state of mind and the psychological profiles of the many gunmen in the past decade.
Director Todd Phillips has commented that the purpose of the film isn't to "push buttons," but rather his intent was to make a "real movie with a real budget" under the guise of a comic book adaptation. Warner Bros. has defended the film, claiming it doesn't endorse real-world violence. Of course it doesn't. But should the film inspire someone teetering on the edge of sanity to step off the cliff, it wouldn't be the first time a piece of art indirectly contributed to unintended consequences.
Following the letter to Warner Bros. and the studio's subsequent response, the Army circulated a memo warning service members of potential threats during showings of Joker. Though the memo was just a "precautionary measure," service members were instructed to "run if you can . . . If you're stuck, hide . . . and stay quiet. If a shooter finds you, fight with whatever you can." This memo came after Monday's news that a Texas sheriff's office was working with the FBI after discovering "disturbing and very specific chatter on the dark web."
The Army confirmed that this "chatter" came from the incel (aka involuntary celibate) community, groups composed primarily of men who blame their lack of sexual activity on the inherent superficiality of women. The term made headlines last year when a man drove a van into a crowd of people in Toronto, killing 10 people in the name of "The Incel Rebellion." The driver was inspired by the 2014 Isla Vista shootings, famously perpetrated by a young man with a 137-page manifesto against women. Neither man deserves to be named here.
A week before any of this news, I turned to my husband and told him I couldn't bring myself to see Joker in theatres. The families, who have suffered far more than I could imagine, later articulated what I had been feeling ever since the film's initial trailer was released: "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. And that terrifies me."
I know I'm not alone in feeling this particular type of dread. Aurora was only the beginning of a wave of mass shootings across America. Kids don't feel safe in school, motorcycles backfiring in Times Square cause mass panic in tourists, and places of worship have been repeatedly desecrated. Armed with loaded guns and hatred — of different races, of women, of themselves — these men have robbed us of our right to feel safe in public.
"Why, when I'm already pondering if movie theatre seats are bulletproof during a showing of Booksmart, would I put myself through two hours of anxiety?"
When considering this piece, I confided my fear in my coworkers and was met with a chorus of agreement. "I am extremely stressed every time I see a movie in the theatre now," wrote my colleague from Chicago. "I look at every person that walks in, and my heart starts beating if something falls on the floor. I plan my exit/hiding strategy."
"I haven't been the same since Aurora," said another, from New York. "It makes me deeply uncomfortable when someone comes in mid-movie, especially if they're carrying any kind of bag."
My disgust at the state of gun violence in America is matched only by my shame that I can't muster the bravery to go see a movie about a comic book character. I tell myself that the chances of a shooting at my local megaplex are microscopic, that it's more likely I'll die in a car crash on the way to the theatre. Why, when I'm already pondering if movie theatre seats are bulletproof during a showing of Booksmart, would I put myself through two hours of anxiety?
Joker isn't the first time Hollywood churned out work that humanises and glorifies criminals — please see such iconic antiheroes as Tony Soprano or Travis Bickle — but its subject isn't a gangster with a heart of gold, it's a character who has historically served as an avatar for the lonely and misunderstood. Joker's motivations are what set him apart from, oh, say, John Wick. When asked about the controversy swirling around his film, Phillips brought up John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum:
"The one that bugs me more [about the] toxic white male thing is when you go 'Oh, oh, I just saw John Wick 3.' He's a white male and he kills 300 people and everybody's laughing and hooting and hollering. Why does this movie get held to different standards? It honestly doesn't make sense to me."
It's true that John Wick is one of the most violent franchises in movie history, but unlike Joker, Wick doesn't kill civilians for sport. Wick doesn't "just want to watch the world burn," as Alfred muses about Joker in The Dark Knight. Phillips is presenting a film in which we're ostensibly supposed to relate to this broken man. While audiences may understand why Joker snaps, there is a very, very small portion of people who may agree with his actions — and in a time where there have been more mass shootings in America than days in the year, that's where the danger lies.
Now that reviews are in, we know that Joker is a "hypnotically perverse, ghoulishly grippingly urban-nightmare comic fantasia" tailor-made for demoralised outsiders. Even critics who seem to despise the film's message agree that Joaquin Phoenix is giving a performance worthy of the Academy's attention. While Warner Bros., Phillips, and Phoenix, have the right to tell the story they want to tell, I won't be watching it in theatres.