The loved ones of victims of the 2012 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, are speaking out against the controversial Joaquin Phoenix film, Joker.
Directed by Todd Phillip, Joker tells the origin story of clown Arthur Fleck turned Batman villain, played by Phoenix. The character, who has been portrayed in numerous other Batman films, is treated cruelly by his peers in Gotham. Eventually, Fleck has a breakdown that leads to violence, and his actions start a dangerous movement within his home city. Fleck, under the Joker persona, goes on to become one of the most ruthless, violent villains in Batman lore. The film, which caused a stir with its premiere at Venice Film Festival in August, hits theaters nationwide on October 4.
Sandy Phillips, mother of Aurora victim Jessica Ghawi, who now runs nonprofit Survivors Empowered, told The Hollywood Reporter that the film feels “like a slap in the face.” She worries isolated people will identify with the Joker’s violent decisions.
"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," Phillips told THR.
In 2012, an armed man killed 12 people and injured 70 when he opened fire on a movie theater showing Christopher Nolan’s Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. The film does not feature the Joker (played in Nolan's previous Batman installment The Dark Knight, by the late Heath Ledger) but police claimed at the time that the murderer called himself “the Joker,” and styled his look like the comic book character. (This detail was later debunked.)
In an open letter to Warner Bros. CEO and chairperson Ann Sarnoff published Tuesday in the entertainment trades, the families of Aurora victims Ghawi, Alexander J. Boik, Ashley Moser as well as Tiina Coon, whose son survived the shooting, expressed their disappointment in Warner Bros. “[presenting the Joker] as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story.” The group is not calling for a boycott of the film, but instead wants Warner Bros. to use their power to help strengthen gun safety laws.
“End political contributions to candidates who take money from the NRA and vote against gun reform," the letter reads. "These lawmakers are literally putting your customers and employees in danger. Use your political clout and leverage in Congress to actively lobby for gun reform. Keeping everyone safe should be a top corporate priority for Warner Brothers."
In a statement to Refinery29, Warner Bros. addressed the controversy.
"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," it reads. "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."
According to Deadline, Joker will not play in the Aurora theater. The decision was reportedly made by Warner Bros. and Cinemark, the company which owns the theater. Refinery29 has reached out to Cinemark for confirmation, but did not hear back at time of publishing.
In the midst of all this, director Phillips (no relation to Sandy Phillips) defended the controversial film. "The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message," the Joker helmer said.
Star Phoenix echoed Phillips' opinion in his comment to IGN.
“[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," Phoenix told the outlet. "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."
Refinery29 has reached out to Phoenix and Phillips for comment.