Art holds power. It can change us. It can move us physically and emotionally in ways we don’t expect, and it can inspire us to greatness just as easily as it can drag us into the depths of depravity.
That’s the power of art, in all of its forms — and it’s why we’re in such a tricky place right now when it comes to the upcoming Warner Bros. film Joker.
Joker is ostensibly an origin story for Batman’s infamous, psychopathic archenemy who delights in the suffering of innocents while wearing the face of a clown. Indelibly portrayed in 2008’s The Dark Knight by Heath Ledger — who won a posthumous Oscar for his incredible performance — the Joker makes his way back to the big screen in the October film, which casts Joaquin Phoenix as an emotionally stunted outcast who deals with the obstacles he’s faced in life by donning clown makeup and becoming the titular mass murderer.
At a point when the U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of disturbed men engaging in deadly shooting sprees as a response to some perceived slight, Joker couldn’t arrive at a more inappropriate time — and it presents a unique dilemma for everyone interested in it for one reason or another.
The Aurora letter
Families of the victims of the 2012 Aurora, CO shooting spree that resulted in 12 deaths and injuries to 70 others during a screening of the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises (the sequel to The Dark Knight) recently penned an open letter to Joker studio Warner Bros. Pictures expressing concern that the film could inspire another mass shooter. That the killer in the Aurora shooting, James Holmes, was initially — albeit erroneously — associated with the Joker character makes the connection between the new film and the real-world tragedy even more troubling. The letter’s authors compared the film’s titular lead to Holmes, another “socially isolated individual who felt ‘wronged’ by society.”
“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, the mother of Aurora victim Jessica Ghawi, who worked with other victims’ families to craft the letter. “And that terrifies me.”
She’s not alone.
This week, the U.S. military warned service members of credible threats uncovered by the FBI regarding potential acts of violence at screenings of Joker by incels, radicalized men whose violent, misogynistic ideology is rooted in a perception of themselves as “involuntary celibates” wronged by society. Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger self-identified as an incel before murdering six people and injuring 14 others in 2014 near the University of California campus in Santa Barbara.
Holmes himself is often held up as a hero in some incel circles, and it’s the conversation in those circles surrounding Joker that put the FBI and the U.S. military on alert.
It’s not the body count
Adding to all of the troubling buzz surrounding the film is the surprisingly dismissive response from the film’s director, as well as Phoenix, who both seem to be genuinely perplexed that anyone would see a link between the arc of the film’s socially deranged psychopath and that of the real world’s recent outcasts-turned-murderers.
Phoenix walked out of an interview when asked about the effect the film might have on individuals prone to violence, while director Todd Phillips has suggested Joker and its story of an average man who decides to become a mass murderer is no different than that of John Wick, a stylized action movie about a nigh-invulnerable assassin who fights his way through legions of killers-for-hire to punish the criminal who killed his puppy.
What Phillips — and, apparently, Phoenix — don’t seem to grasp is that it’s not the film’s body count that raises red flags.
It’s no secret that lax gun-control laws in the U.S., combined with the nation’s relative disinterest in treatment of mental health issues, are at the core of the mass-shooting epidemic in the country. Despite a groundswell of public support for sensible gun regulation and improved mental health practices, meaningful progress on both issues remains a distant hope in the current sociopolitical environment.
However, as the Aurora survivors and countless advocacy groups, think pieces, critics, and even psychologists have argued, the power of a movie (or other forms of art, for that matter) to inspire, shape opinions, and even incite action is part of that dangerous picture, too.
The debate over Joker has polarized public opinion, with one side recommending we take a hard look at the film’s themes and the likelihood of it inspiring another shooter, and the other dismissing that recommendation from one of two positions: Either a movie can’t hold blame for someone’s actions, or that holding a film accountable is a slippery slope to the total eradication of creative freedom.
The first argument hails from the same, basic philosophical camp as “blame the person, not the gun” and strips art of its power to move and inspire its audience, while the second suggests that the piles of bodies created by mass shooters are the price we pay for preserving creative freedom.
The evidence against the former — which supports the power of art to inspire and move us — is well-documented at this point. As for the latter, that morbid sentiment isn’t likely to find much support when you put it to public consensus (particularly among survivors of mass shootings).
But that hasn’t stopped defenders of the film from putting Joker at the center of an imaginary battle for our creative souls.
A slippery slope
It’s no surprise that defense of Joker has been equated to a defense of artistic freedom, given that the argument offers the best defense for doing nothing.
Acknowledging that a movie like Joker could indeed increase the likelihood of another mass shooter like Holmes forces us to choose between our ability to enjoy the movie guilt-free and the potential for harm to come to innocent people.
It’s a tough moral dilemma to present to the casual movie fan — which probably explains why, at a point when most major releases have already begun screening for critics, advance screenings of Joker have been conspicuously limited to film festivals attended by only the most dedicated cinephiles. That audience is more likely to prioritize cinematic creativity over any potential social or cultural implications of a film, even while extolling the power of the medium to inspire its audience.
The sticky implications of the film don’t end there, either.
The controversy around Joker also has a nasty habit of putting otherwise open-minded, progressive movie lovers in a difficult position regardless of whether they’ve seen the film.
At a time when we’re urged — and are urging others — to listen to the voices of survivors of abuse, racism, bullying, and other injustices, there’s plenty of resistance to the warnings from the survivors of the Aurora shooting and others with firsthand experience with exactly the sort of individuals Joker could potentially inspire. The survivors have identified the thematic red flags their tragic experiences make them acutely aware of, but when it comes to Joker, it’s become all too common to dismiss what they’re telling us.
No easy solutions
At this point, with just a week to go until Joker is scheduled to hit theaters, there’s no easy solution to the problems the film poses.
On one hand, the studio could delay the film’s release until a more appropriate time, but there’s no certainty we’ll ever get to such a point, given the litany of obstacles to treating the root causes of mass shootings. Conversely, the studio could release Joker in theaters as scheduled, surrounded in a cloud of controversy and fear, and hope — along with everyone who buys a ticket — that its legacy will have more to do with the box office than real-world bullets and bloodshed.
The most viable option might be to educate the film’s most prominent advocates — Phillips and Phoenix — on the complicated issues the film and its themes present in a world where bitter men turning to mass murder is an all-too-real phenomenon. As the ambassadors of such a high-profile film, they have the ability to get the right message out there about the story they’re telling in Joker, and would do well to spend more time reinforcing that message instead of walking out of interviews or condemning critics.
As for the rest of us, a movie like Joker coming to theaters makes us all look at what we’re actually willing to sacrifice. If we as a society are silent on Joker or try to rationalize it away as being just a movie, it means we’re only in favor of dealing with the causes of mass shootings when they don’t directly affect us — and don’t require any self-sacrifice or self-examination.
I don’t have the answer as to exactly what we should do about a movie like Joker coming out at a time like this. But I do know there’s great power in art, and we owe it to ourselves — and a generation growing up with the specter of mass shootings looming over their offices, schools, and movie theaters — to wield that power with great responsibility.
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