This movie theater in Huntington Beach, California showing the film 'Joker' was closed down on Thursday night after a 'credible' threat was reported to police Image Credit: Huntington Beach Police department

It’s a work of fiction that shows what made Gotham City’s big bad, Joker, the supervillain that he is. But, Todd Phillips’ movie has been laden with controversy since it first screened at the Venice Film Festival in September. Forbes may have heralded it as the best film of the year, but, Joker was soon described as a radically dangerous movie that supports white terrorism and justifies gun violence, and it led to a global reaction.

Global reactions to Joker

News reports said that Joker viewers around the world walked out of movie theaters. Daily Mail reported that viewers urged cinemas to ban the ultra-violent film saying it glamorizes gun crime and deals with mental health issues in a ‘triggering’ way. Some said it was too violent and not fit to be shown to 15 year olds.

Film critic Alan Zilberman took to Twitter and wrote: “Joker, a film where you’re supposed to sympathise with a mediocre white man radicalised into deranged violence, will no doubt be appealing to the wrong audience for the worst reasons.”

The movie gave rise to a group called ‘Clowncels’

Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek was among several critics questioning the movie’s message. “In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence… practically every other week. And yet we’re supposed to feel some sympathy”, she wrote. She added that the character could “easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels.”

Handout photo by Warner Bros

Incels are a community of “involuntarily celibate” people. According to urbandictionary,com “an incel usually has a horrible personality and treats women like sexual objects and thinks his lack of a sex life comes from being “ugly” when it’s really just his blatant sexism and terrible attitude”. Incels have little to no self-awareness.

According to ABC News, an FBI (American Federal Bureau of Investigation) bulletin said that it had given rise to a subset of the incel population called “clowncels.”

However, following an investigation of “clowncel” groups, the FBI determined that as a whole, they are not regarded as dangerous.

Police presence during Joker's US screenings

Warner Bros, the studio behind the film and the National Theater Owners Association were forced to take preventative measures. Theater chains are sending out parental advisories. Then the New York Police Department decided to deploy undercover police officers at the New York Film Festival premiere and there was police presence during screenings in the US.

According to a Washington Post article, on Thursday [October 3] evening a theater in Huntington Beach, California, was closed down for the night after police responded to what the Los Angeles Times termed a “credible threat” involving a “Joker” screening. The news followed the circulation of a document from a US Army base in Oklahoma noting “disturbing” chatter about a “potential mass shooting” at a screening on Friday; no location was given in the report. The theater was scheduled to re-open Friday.

In Manhattan, a disruptive patron was escorted out after scaring moviegoers.

Protests surrounding the film

The fear around this film is intense, especially in the United States where gun violence is so prevalent.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker-1570028321603
Handout photo by Warner Bros

Families of victims and survivors of the 2012 mass shooting at a movie theater in Colrado protested against the movie. They fear the origin story given to Phoenix’s Joker makes his turn to violence seem sympathetic.

On July 20, 2012, a mass shooting occurred inside a Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises. The perpetrator James Eagan Holmes set off tear gas grenades and shot into the audience with multiple firearms. Twelve people were killed and seventy others were injured, 58 of them from gunfire. At the time, it was the deadliest shooting in Colorado since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, until the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016. Holmes confessed to the shooting but pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. After the shooting, rumours flew that the gunman had linked himself to the character of the Joker. Those rumours have since been debunked.

Ahead of the weekend, family members of the Aurora victims spoke out against the Joker’s production and release and wrote a letter to the studio expressing concern. “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, 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.

Studio responds

Although the Joker character wasn’t included in The Dark Knight Rises, Phillips and other Aurora victims’ family members believe that sympathy for this type of character is a much larger issue, and that 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. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero,” the studio said in a statement.

The company said the film would not play in the Aurora Theater, which is part of Cinemark, the country’s third-largest chain.

Joker might provoke violence, say critics

An even greater concern by critics is that the Joker could serve as inspiration to people contemplating violence. And, that his character lives out his gruesome revenge fantasies in bloodshed and could actually provoke terrorism for those who might empathise with him. It has sparked a fierce debate over art and the people who might imitate it.

Joaquin Phoenix 3-1570347290759
Handout photo by Warner Bros

This year alone, there have been 12 mass shootings in the United States, and countless threats throughout.

But Joaquin Phoenix recently told entertainment media website 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.”