Why Is There So Much Fear Surrounding Joker?

PHoto: Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.
Heath Ledger’s performance as Gotham City’s big bad, Joker, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy brought the superhero genre into Oscar’s golden glare. Naturally, it should follow that another Academy Awards-favorite, Joaquin Phoenix, would step into the latest incarnation of the role. Out nationwide October 4, co-writer and director Todd Phillips’ Joker has been laden with controversy since it first screened at the Venice Film Festival in early September. While Forbes heralded the film as the best of the year, another damning perspective emerged. After a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, Refinery29 writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang described Joker as a radically dangerous movie that supports white terrorism
As the media and internet trolls stoke the controversy, the studio behind the film, Warner Bros., and the National Theater Owners Association have been forced to take preventative measures. Theater chains are sending out parental advisories. There was a noticeable police presence at the movie’s New York Film Festival premiere. Families of victims and survivors of the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, CO movie theater during a showing of The Dark Knight Rises spoke out against the movie. They fear the origin story given to Phoenix’s Joker makes his turn to violence seem sympathetic.  
In this latest interpretation of the DC Comics character, Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a working clown with dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian. Fleck is plagued with a condition that causes him to break into shrill laughter at the most inopportune moments. As the story unfolds, he is beaten, bullied, and humiliated by his personal failings, culminating in Fleck — now fully inhabiting his Joker persona — going on a violent killing spree.
According to ABC News, the film, co-written by Phillips (famous for helming bro comedies like The Hangover and Old School) and Scott Silver (already Oscar bait due to his 2011 Best Original Screenplay nod for The Fighter), has given rise to a subset of the incel population called “clowncels,” per an FBI intelligence bulletin obtained by ABC News. This points to an even greater concern by critics that the Joker, who lives out his gruesome revenge fantasies in bloodshed, could actually provoke terrorism for viewers who might empathize with him. However, following an investigation of “clowncel” groups, the FBI determined that as a whole, they are not regarded as dangerous.
In its parental advisory warning released on Tuesday, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema discouraged parents from allowing any children to see the film, even if they are supervised. 
“There's lots of very, very rough language, brutal violence, and overall bad vibes. It's a gritty, dark, and realistic, Taxi Driver-esque depiction of one man's descent into madness. It's not for kids, and they won't like it, anyway. (There's no Batman.)," the post reads.
While the Alamo plans to take additional security measures for Joker showings, other theaters are following suit, issuing their own warnings and posting officers at various locations in the United States. The Landmark and AMC Theater chains instituted rules for moviegoers that include banning all masks, weapons, and even toy weapons, and both theaters plan on working with law enforcement to enact these rules at locations throughout the country. NYPD Chief Rodney Harrison vowed to “visibly” station cops outside of every theater showing the movie across all boroughs. In a 360-degree policing approach, the NYPD also vowed to have undercover officers inside theaters to “pacify the situation quickly and conclusively,” according to statements reported by Deadline
Per the NYPD, there have been no reported specific or credible threats to cause any widespread alarm, but both police and military are encouraging filmgoers to comply with the additional security protocols in place. “Members of the public are encouraged to help police in the shared responsibility of public safety. If you see something, say something by calling 911,” the NYPD chief said in an official statement.
Precautions around the showings are just that — precautionary — but they aren’t necessarily unfounded. This year alone, there have been 12 mass shootings in the United States, and countless threats throughout. While the film itself in no way promotes violence or terrorism directly, it has sparked a fierce debate over art and the people who might imitate it. Phoenix recently told 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. 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."
Ahead of the weekend, family members of the Aurora victims spoke out against the Joker’s production and release. "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,” said Sandy Phillips (no relation to Todd Phillips), whose daughter was killed in the Aurora theater. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Phillips said that the film’s release feels like a “slap in the face,” and that she is terrified of what could come of it.
Although the Joker character wasn’t included in The Dark Knight Rises, Phillips and other Aurora victims’ loved ones believe that sympathy for this type of character is a much larger issue, and a studio like Warner Bros. should be using its power to spread messages against gun violence instead. In response to the outpouring of concern, Warner Bros. released a statement that extended sympathies to all families who are affected by tragedies of gun violence.
“Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind,” the studio said in a statement to Refinery29. “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero."
Joker is a work of fiction, and one that to many is a great display of cinematic artistry. But the fear around this film is palpable, especially during a time when gun violence is so prevalent in the United States. If you’re planning to see the film this weekend, expect an increased security presence around theaters and stay vigilant. A request for comment from the National Theater Owner’s Association went unreplied.
Despite all the discourse, the film already earned $11 million on Thursday night (extremely high for an early October release), and box office projections  estimate the film could take in more than $80 million on opening weekend. Vanity Fair posits that the controversy may only help get butts in seats. And at 70% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s looking like Phoenix may maniacally laugh his way to a third Best Actor nomination.

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