Every six months or so, there’s a movie that everyone has formed a strong opinion about long before it’s actually released in theaters. This fall, it’s Joker, the Warner Bros. film starring Joaquin Phoenix as the iconic Batman villain. Joker doesn’t officially come out until October 7th, meaning most of the people talking about it haven’t even seen it yet. Yet it has sparked a flurry of debate on topics ranging from gun violence to toxic masculinity to censorship to the Disney company monopoly. Even the U.S. military has weighed in, with a memo leaking earlier this week warning servicemen about credible threats of mass shootings at screenings of the film.
So what, exactly, is it about Joker that has engendered so much controversy? We tried to break it down for you.
Many claim the film is a romanticization of incel culture.
Joker tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a mentally ill aspiring comedian whose rejection by society prompts him to snap and embark on a life of crime. He is also rejected sexually by a single mother (Zazie Beetz) who lives next door to him. This narrative is very similar, in numerous ways, to that of many disenfranchised young white men who become radicalized, or black-pilled, and embark on shooting sprees. And this parallel was not lost on many critics, including Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair, who wrote that the film “may be irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes. Is Joker celebratory or horrified? Or is there simply no difference?” he asks.
Lawson wasn’t the only film critic to feel that Joker casts disaffected young white men in an overly sympathetic, verging on celebratory, light. Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek leveled a similar critique against the film, referring to Joker as “aggressive and possibly irresponsible” and referring to a romantic subplot involving Fleck’s neighbor as a way to frame Fleck as “the patron saint of incels.” By framing Fleck as an underdog antihero of sorts rather than a homicidal maniac, Zacharek accuses director Todd Phillips of being overly sympathetic to the plight of similarly disenfranchised young white men who wish to act out on their violent impulses. “The movie lionizes and glamorizes Arthur even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behavior,” Zacharek writes.
It’s worth noting that few of the reviews criticizing Joker on these grounds have explicitly suggested that the movie will incite violence — just that it is overly sympathetic to those who commit violent acts as a way to regain some semblance of power from a society that, they believe, has stripped them of it. And to be fair, not everyone agrees with this assessment of the film. Joker has a 76 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating mostly positive reviews; our own David Fear also had a more nuanced take on it, writing, “Whether you find the movie’s vigilante-worshipping protesters in whiteface to be an Occupy: Gotham movement or something closer to incel-igentsia trolls taking to the streets depends on how you choose to read it. He’s an outrage-culture cypher, a clown for all mad-as-hell seasons.”
Phillips has refuted any suggestion that his film is an attempt to rationalize or empathize with white male violence in the first place, arguing in one interview that any suggestion otherwise is simply a product of left-wing outrage culture. “We didn’t make the movie to push buttons,” he told the Wrap last week. “I literally described to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ ” Phoenix has also responded to the question of whether Joker is irresponsible by in essence dodging it entirely. “I don’t think it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to teach morality,” he told IGN. “And if you don’t know the difference between right and wrong, then there’s all sorts of things that you are going to interpret in the way that you want.”
Warner Bros. has also issued a statement regarding concerns over the film. “Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind,” the company said. “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.“
Fears that Joker may incite violence have prompted movie theaters and even the military to take preventive action.
The criticism of Joker has pushed many to express concern over whether the release of the film will lead to real-world violence. Earlier this week, the families of the victims of the 2012 shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, wrote a letter to Warner Bros. expressing concern over the release of Joker. (James Holmes, the man behind the 2012 shooting, reportedly told police he opened fire on theatergoers because he “was the Joker,” though Aurora police have denied this.) Though they didn’t advocate for the film to be pulled from theaters, the families did urge Warner Bros. to donate some of the proceeds to gun violence survivors and gun violence intervention efforts, as well as to cease political contributions to candidates who accept donations from the NRA: “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 military has also voiced concern about mass shootings potentially taking place at screenings of the film. According to iO9, on Monday senior officials in the U.S. Army’s criminal-investigation unit issued a memo urging service members to take caution while seeing the film, saying it had intercepted “credible” intelligence from Texas police regarding “disturbing and very specific chatter” on the dark web about “the targeting of an unknown movie theater during the release” of Joker.
Movie theaters screening Joker have also taken some measures to attempt to prevent violence at screenings. On Thursday, the CEO of Landmark Theaters, which operates more than 50 movie venues in the United States, said the theaters would ban moviegoers and employees from donning “costumes, face painting or masks” during the film. While it’s unclear how, exactly, preventing comic book fans from dressing up as a fictional villain would mitigate the threat of violence, such news likely wasn’t welcomed by the DC marketing team, which has released a licensed version of the trademark Joker blazer.