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'Joker' is stirring controversy even before it hits theaters

Joaquin Phoenix as the the title character in

Joaquin Phoenix as the the title character in "Joker."   Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Niko Tavernise

It has been called a work of profound social commentary and a new kind of dramatically serious super-hero movie. But even though Todd Phillips' "Joker" won the Venice Film Festival's top prize, the Golden Lion, in early September, it has also been blasted as politically toxic, morally dubious and potentially dangerous.

And while critics debate its merits, others are being reminded of another movie about The Joker that became connected to a mass shooting. Earlier this week, the families and friends of those who were killed in 2012 by a gunman during a screening of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo., sent a letter to Warner Bros., the studio that will release "Joker" on Oct. 4.

"This tragic event, perpetrated by a socially isolated individual who felt “wronged” by society has changed the course of our lives," reads the letter. It adds: "When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called “Joker” that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause."

The letter did not ask the studio to pull the film from release and instead urged Warner Bros. to use its corporate power to advocate for gun safety. According to The Hollywood Reporter, however, the theater in Aurora where the shooting took place will not be showing the film.

The public will make up its own mind about "Joker" when it arrives in theaters. Already, though, it seems destined to join the ranks of other cinematic Molotov cocktails that have exploded in popular culture, from the shockingly violent crime drama "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) to the scorned-woman fable "Fatal Attraction" (1987) to Oliver Stone's nihilistic satire "Natural Born Killers" (1994). Though nominally just the origin story of a DC Comics villain, "Joker" is adding fuel to volatile political debates over gender, race, gun violence and domestic terrorism.

"People are much more aware of the political angles of films now," says Rodney Hill, Associate Professor of Film at Hofstra University. "There was a time where if you started talking about the politics of a film, people would say, 'Oh, come on, the movie doesn't really mean that.' But now, the power of films to create a political outlook is very real."

"Joker" stars Joaquin Phoenix in the title role, an unsuccessful comedian who transforms himself into an ultra-violent version of Batman's most persistent arch-villain. Much of the debate over the film centers on whether Phoenix's character is meant to elicit sympathy or repulsion. Variety critic Owen Gleiberman, in his positive review for "Joker," acknowledged, "there’s no denying that we feel something for him — a twinge of sympathy, or at least understanding." But writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang, in an essay at the female-oriented website Refinery29, asked, "Did we really need a brutal movie about a white terrorist figure who uses gun violence to enact revenge on the society that rejects him?"

Some criticisms of the film seem to stem from a growing exasperation with stories about the problems of white men, says Peter Mascuch, Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at St. Joseph's College of New York. "People who aren't straight white males have more of a voice than they did even a decade ago," Mascuch says. "You can get a lot of acclaim if you do a well-made film that's a critique of masculinity. If it's somehow seen as sympathetic towards, or cutting slack for, the excesses of white masculinity, you're going to get pushback."

Another strike against the film may be the reputation of Phillips, the Huntington-raised director and co-writer of "Joker." His biggest successes -- "The Hangover" and its two sequels – were comedies about white guys behaving badly. Phillips' ability to shift gears from comedy to drama has impressed some critics, but certainly not all. Stephanie Zacharek, at, called "Joker" a movie of "aggressive and possibly irresponsible idiocy."

Could "Joker" really lead to real-world harm? The argument that entertainment directly causes violence is an old one that has never been definitively settled, says Hofstra's Professor Hill. "I think people are often too quick to blame various media for violence in the real world," he says. "Nobody criticizes Shakespeare for having Richard III as a hero. But he's a pretty despicable character, too."

Warner Bros. and the filmmakers have addressed the criticisms over the past weeks. “The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message,” Phillips told the website IGN during a press junket. Phoenix, at the same junket, added, " “Well, I think that, 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."

In a response to the letter from the Aurora victims' families, Warner Bros. expressed condolences and pointed to a history of donating to victims of violence. "At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues,” the studio said. “It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero."

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