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Joker has toxic fans. Does that mean it shouldn’t exist?

The new movie is exposing some of the toughest questions about art.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Niko Tavernise / Courtesy of TIFF

I’ve been getting death threats.

Not a lot of them. Probably because I gave Joker a lukewarm score of 2.5 out of 5. Also, it’s extremely unlikely any of these people has seen Joker, since it doesn’t open in theaters until October 4.

That hasn’t kept fans from spiking the IMDb score (as of the Tuesday before release) to 9.4 out of 10 with more than 17,000 votes, the majority of which have to be from people who couldn’t have seen the movie yet. (Rotten Tomatoes’ audience score isn’t available yet because the company introduced a policy earlier this year that keeps audience scores from being logged until the movie opens. That prevents the kinds of coordinated review-bombing efforts that movies like Black Panther and the all-women Ghostbusters movie faced — or at least kicks the problem down the road a little.)

That Joker isn’t out yet hasn’t kept fans from sending threatening, often misogynistic tweets and emails — some vaguely warning of theater shootings — to some critics who have seen the movie but didn’t praise it enough for their tastes.

Receiving this kind of vitriol isn’t entirely uncommon for film critics, particularly when we’re writing about movies based on comic books or other properties with deep, allegiant fan bases. (I got some particularly incoherent emails when I panned Bohemian Rhapsody last year.) Before I or many of my colleagues had seen Joker at festivals a month ahead of its release, we were already cracking weary jokes stemming from well-worn gallows humor, knowing that if we criticized the movie — no matter the reason — we’d be buried under angry emails from toxic fans.

Joaquin Phoenix applying face paint in the movie “Joker.”
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Warner Bros.

But the Joker threats seem different, or worse, like rancid icing on a moldy cake. Not only are they designed to provoke and intimidate, but they’re supposedly defending a movie in which the protagonist (and one for whom we’re at least meant to feel sorry, if not sympathize) fits the profile of many mass shooters: lonely and deluded men who feel as though they’ve been rejected by society and pick up a gun to make a very public point.

The Joker crowd has escalated the threats this time. The US military newspaper Stars and Stripes reported more than a week ahead of the film’s release that Army commanders at Fort Sill in Oklahoma had been put on notice about a credible threat. “Disturbing and very specific chatter on the dark web,” the article said, had tipped off a Texas law enforcement agency and the FBI to the possible targeting of a theater during Joker’s October 4 release. Additionally, several theater employees from various parts of the country who asked not to be named reported to me that security was being increased in advance of the film’s release. And the Landmark Theatre chain announced that it would extend its ban on face masks and toy weapons in theaters — common among major movie chains — to include all costumes during the film’s run.

Some of this precaution has a historical basis. In 2012, a shooting before an Aurora, Colorado, screening of The Dark Knight Rises left 12 dead and 70 wounded. After the shooting, rumors flew that the gunman had linked himself to the character of the Joker. Those rumors have since been debunked. (In addition, the Joker character does not even appear in The Dark Knight Rises, and Joker is not meant to be related to any existing films set in Gotham City.)

Regardless, that tragedy, coupled with early reports of the film’s plot having to do with a violent criminal depicted in a sympathetic light, led families of the Aurora shooting victims to send a letter to Warner Bros. on September 24, asking the studio to stand publicly against gun violence and donate to organizations that aid victims of gun violence. They also called upon the studio’s parent company, AT&T, to stop donating to politicians who take money from the National Rifle Association. Warner Bros. replied, noting that the company had a history of donating to these causes and would continue to do so. Meanwhile, Joker will not screen at the Aurora theater at which the 2012 shooting took place.

The Joker controversy is reminiscent in some ways of The Hunt controversy. But it’s also very different.

What the families didn’t do — what no public figure has done — is call for Joker’s release to be canceled (though some critics wondered aloud if it would be better if it had never been made). And Warner Bros. made it clear in its statement that it had no interest in doing so, unlike Universal Pictures, which reacted to right-wing outcry in August by canceling the release of a controversial film, The Hunt. “Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind,” the statement says. “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers, or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

Message received: We will be releasing this film on schedule.

It’s worth pausing here on the responses to these two films since they bear both similarities and differences. Concern over The Hunt’s release first popped up after the film’s trailer dropped, depicting a violent world in which people coded as “elites” hunt ordinary people. By nature, a trailer doesn’t give away the full story of the film, and The Hunt was almost certainly going to be satirical; the trailer couldn’t capture that nuance or context. But after trepidation surfaced over the timing of The Hunt (the trailer appeared around the time of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton), the film was picked on by right-wing media and eventually the president as evidence of elite Hollywood’s hatred of red-state Americans. A day after the president tweeted about the movie, Universal announced that it would be postponing The Hunt’s release indefinitely.

All of the concern over The Hunt came from its trailer — which is to say, from a movie nobody at all had seen, and thus from pure speculation. But the responses to Joker have come from two different groups of people. The first includes the Aurora families and others who saw snippets of Joker and concluded that the movie would feature a sympathetic main character who matched many characteristics of mass killers, including actually killing people. And while some of those fears were justifiable and the concerns expressed in a reasonable manner, criticizing a movie based on hearsay or a trailer is dangerous and risks tipping into bad-faith hysteria powered by partisanship.

The second group includes critics at several festivals and a small group of the public at Toronto International Film Festival in September. Having seen the film, this group is most qualified to comment on its content. And the results were mixed, if positive on the whole (coming out of the festival season, the film had a score of 70 on Metacritic). Some critics hailed it as a masterpiece, and the jury at the prestigious Venice Film Festival handed the movie its top prize, the Golden Lion. Some saw it as a potential training manual for mass killers; others disagreed. Some found its very existence disturbing. And some — myself included — found Joker to be pretty underwhelming, more muddled and less provocative than it thinks it is.

Probably none of this matters all that much for the film’s box office draw, though threatening to shoot up a theater seems more likely to scare people away from seeing a movie than encourage them to go. But the Joker’s most noxious fans are so committed to its success, so unable to bear the idea that anyone might degrade what they love sight unseen, that they’re willing to resort to sending sick threats to strangers.

Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Joaquin Phoenix in Joker.
Niko Tavernise / Courtesy of TIFF

This is one big wind-up to set up what I’m about to say, because I want to acknowledge a few things. First, people who lose loved ones in a mass shooting — and there are so many in America today — deserve to be taken seriously. Second, the kinds of threats around this movie match, in a non-accidental way, a message that could be taken away from the movie — that violence is the logical answer to feelings of loneliness and despair — no matter what Warner Bros. or the film’s director, Todd Phillips, says.

But third, the fight over Joker encapsulates two things: the importance of context when we talk about movies and the artist’s responsibility when making potentially inflammatory art that could even be blamed for real-life violence.

When we talk about art, context matters

My experience with all of this is colored by the first 10 years of my career, in which I wrote predominately for a Christian audience at Christian publications. The way conservative Christian publications do film criticism is usually tied more to content issues than to the movie as a whole; in other words, a movie is objectionable if characters use profanity or have sex, no matter the context.

Interestingly, conservative Christian audiences seem to have a better sense of context when it comes to violence than sex or profanity. After all, The Passion of the Christ — a gory, intensely violent film — remains the top R-rated film at the domestic box office 15 years after its release largely because church groups turned out en masse. And movies like Hacksaw Ridge, Braveheart, and Saving Private Ryan have done well with Christian audiences; their violence is related to patriotism and heroism, unlike, for instance, the Saw films.

But in general, “content over context” is the rule in that world. I often felt as though I were fighting an uphill battle in advocating that we read a movie as a whole rather than react to isolated bits of it, as if every instance of offensive content caused the same level of offense.

Interestingly, Phillips tried to draw on this kind of reasoning in offering a defense of his film. Speaking to the Associated Press, he compared the violence in Joker to the violence in the John Wick movies, which star Keanu Reeves as a former assassin who’s dragged back into the business when some mobsters kill his puppy. “He’s a white male who kills 300 people and everybody’s laughing and hooting and hollering,” Phillips said of Wick. “Why does this movie get held to different standards? It honestly doesn’t make sense to me.”

Premiere Of Warner Bros Pictures “Joker” - Arrivals
Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix arrive for the premiere of Joker.
Photo by Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Leaving aside how Phillips’s characterization of Wick is slightly wrong (Reeves’s ancestry includes Chinese and Hawaiian parentage and he identifies as a person of color), the defense is still disingenuous. The John Wick movies’ stylized violence has its roots in martial arts and revenge genres, and the series is at pains to establish an internal system of morality as well as Wick’s anguished love for his departed dog (and his dead wife who gave the dog to him) as his motive.

By contrast, Joker is about a man who’s convinced that society has gone entirely mad, who explicitly believes in nothing and no moral code, and who becomes a folk hero for turning to violence as a result. The way the movie is structured and shot strongly suggests he may be the only “sane” one in a “crazy” world.

These aren’t the same things at all. The violence in both Joker and John Wick is expressed differently, shot differently, and couched in different situations and moral universes. In art, what matters is not just the words you say but how you say them. The issue is not what art’s about; it’s how it’s about it.

Saying the uproar over Joker is about its violence is a deflection. The worry isn’t that people will see some guns in this one movie and suddenly be inspired to commit crimes; it’s that the manner in which the Joker’s actions are depicted will encourage copycat violence from people who see in him a hero.

Should artists be responsible when evil actions are blamed on their art?

But in comparing Joker and John Wick, I think Phillips is trying, clumsily, to get at one big question: Do artists and their art bear any responsibility for what happens next, once their art is in the world? To put it another way, when Warner Bros. says that the movie isn’t supposed to be “an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind” and that nobody intends to “hold this character up as a hero,” does that settle how the film should be received?

Obviously not. Artists don’t get to determine the final meaning of their art. Once it’s out in the world, it takes on a life of its own. Everybody’s got an interpretation. Everybody takes something different away from a movie. Just the spectrum of critical reactions to Joker confirms this fact.

For some — at least those acting in good faith — that’s the same concern that came up with The Hunt, even though it was impossible to judge whether those concerns were valid since nobody had seen the full film. There’s no evidence that violent movies cause violent actions.

But while art doesn’t tell us what to do, it does shape how we imagine the world. It gives us images and narratives by which to justify our choices and live our lives. It confirms our desires and tells us how to go about getting what we want. It gives us permission to live a certain way by showing us what it looks like to live that way.

So I think it is, unfortunately, very likely that someone could attempt an act of violence and claim it was inspired by Joker. Most likely, this person won’t be someone who previously had no violent impulses and developed them because of Joker. It seems much more likely that Joker simply will have furnished an excuse, a handy pop culture reference to pin blame on or explain away an unspeakable action. If, God forbid, that were to occur, neither Todd Phillips nor Warner Bros. could take it back by saying they didn’t intend for it to happen.

Yet it’s not Phillips’s fault, or the movie’s, if violence occurs. It’s a strange kind of not-quite-responsibility to bear, but it’s one that artists have to bear regardless. Charles Manson claimed to have been inspired by the Beatles’ White Album to order his followers to conduct brutal murders, but that’s not the Beatles’ fault. The Catcher in the Rye has been linked (albeit tenuously) to a number of murders, but that’s not J.D. Salinger’s fault. The worst fans of Breaking Bad saw Walter White’s destructive and egomaniacal path as heroic, but that’s a misreading of the text; they saw what they wanted to see. We can’t fall into the trap of using the worst fans of a work of art to throw out or invalidate the work of art.

But neither can we say any work of art is above criticism just because its creator wants to shrug off responsibility. I’d personally never suggest Joker was intended to incite violence. But it portrays its main character with sympathy and his actions as a reasonably logical conclusion to his circumstances. The violence isn’t the problem. The filmmaking has failed to do what it wanted to do: avoid valorizing violence. It’s not great art.

And if Joker engenders sympathy for the devil, so to speak, then it’s well within critics’ and audience’s rights to call it out and decry its moral bankruptcy if they think that’s bad. Intentions matter, but only to a point.

All of this can’t and shouldn’t dissuade artists from trying to understand the world through making art, whether it’s a movie or a book or a painting or anything else. Hollywood has engaged in a long history of self-censorship, but that often came with dire consequences that hampered artists from the great work they could have produced.

Still, a work of art has to be able to stand up to critique or at least endure some blows, however much the artist might disagree. It’s right and good for critics and audiences to lodge some complaints and arguments against a work of art — acting as a place for us to argue and rethink our lives and commitments is one thing that art is made for and what it does best. That’s what gives art life. That’s what gives life vitality.

I think the people making death threats against critics or audiences are getting what they want: the feeling of being powerful, the enjoyment of making other people live in fear. It’s the same evil and cowardly impulse that drives abusers and tyrants. It’s the same chaos the Joker character, in other tellings, is trying to sow — not fear of any one thing in particular but a general sense that nothing makes sense and every part of life is dangerous.

In a broken world, this is the gamble we make when we’re creating art or experiencing it. Safe art is usually bad art; then again, not all unsafe art is good art. But if the meaning-making ends when the artist releases the work into the world, then it’s dead on arrival. The best thing that can happen from a movie like Joker is we vigorously fight over it, learn from its flaws and its successes, and walk away with something for next time.

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