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The furore over Joker’s potentially dangerous impact just kicked up a notch, with the U.S. Army warning service members to stay alert during screenings. This comes after Joker star Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips had to address Joker‘s controversial content in interviews, and Warner Bros. had to publicly clarify that the film doesn’t condone violence. Warner Bros.’ statement was a direct response to an open letter from relatives of people killed at the Aurora shooting, which took place during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012.
In an email obtained by io9, the Army singled out “incels” as a possible source of violence at Joker screenings. The email, which was directed at service members, recommended that people identify escape routes and “run, hide, fight” in the event of a shooting in a movie theater. This message was inspired by a bulletin from the FBI, which did not specify any particular threat or suspects, and was intended as a general warning. io9 also learned of a second memo relating to “credible” information from Texas law enforcement, warning of “disturbing and very specific chatter” on the dark web about an unspecified shooting target.
The original email included this description of the incel community and the dark side of Joker fandom:
“Incel extremists idolize violent individuals like the Aurora movie theater shooter. They also idolize the Joker character, the violent clown from the Batman series, admiring his depiction as a man who must pretend to be happy, but eventually fights back against his bullies.”
While the Army’s description of the character is debatable, the Joker movie does arguably align with incel imagery, positioning the Joker an emotionally disturbed loner who is pushed to the brink by social isolation and mockery.
Anonymous individuals have also been posting memes on 4chan about mass shootings at Joker screenings, but it’s always hard to tell whether this kind of post is an actual threat or just troll humor.
In its reply to the open letter from relatives of Aurora shooting victims, Warner Bros. said, “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.”
However, it seems pretty clear that the more extreme response to Joker has very little to do with the film’s actual content, since Joker doesn’t come out until Oct. 4. Right now, the only people who have seen it are critics and film festival attendees. The U.S. Army email focuses more on Joker’s image as a pop culture icon and the character’s thematic resonance with “incel extremists.”
It’s unlikely that Joker includes more “gun violence” than the John Wick franchise, or more disturbing content than mainstream horror movies like The Purge or Saw, and it’s not intended to make the Joker look like an admirable character. Judging by early reviews, it’s similar in tone to classic Scorsese movies like Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. So while it’s easy to make blanket statements about Joker somehow inspiring violence with its violent content, this controversy has more to do with the character’s pre-existing cultural baggage, which ties into wider societal issues relating to toxic masculinity, troll culture, and the idolization of mass shooters.
- Warner Bros. addresses violence in ‘Joker’ after letter from Aurora shooting victims
- Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips discuss whether ‘Joker’ is a ‘dangerous’ film
- ‘Joker’ is catnip for Batman’s toxic masculinity fandom
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Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor