“Joker,” a gritty, violent origin story of one of the most iconic villains in comics, hit theaters this week. The film follows a lonely man named Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) as a series of incidents gradually push him to become Batman’s criminal nemesis.
The movie has received high praise from many critics. It won the Golden Lion award for best film at the Venice Film Festival. Phoenix has also garnered Oscar buzz for his performance. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Academy Award for his portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Night.” Jack Nicholson was nominated for a Golden Globe for his take on the character in 1989’s “Batman.”
Why there’s debate
Debate about “Joker” has shifted from its merits as a film into concerns whether its main character — a disaffected loner who uses his alienation from society as a rationale for killing — might inspire real-world violence from men in similar circumstances. One critic called it a “toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels.” Incel is a self-imposed label chosen by “involuntary celibate” young men responsible for mass killings in Isla Vista, Calif., and Toronto.
These concerns are heightened by memories of the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colo., which took place during a screening of “The Dark Knight Rises.” Parents of some victims in that shooting have expressed their unease with a film that gives a villain like the Joker a “sympathetic origin story.” Police departments are increasing their presence at screenings of the film as a deterrent.
Warner Bros. released a statement saying “Joker” is not an “endorsement of real-world violence,” and the film doesn’t “hold this character up as a hero.” That sentiment has been echoed by some critics who say the movie’s plot is much more nuanced than detractors — many of whom have yet to see the film — make it out to be.
Others question the power of any piece of art, regardless of its content, to directly lead to violence in real life.