In the weeks leading up to the release of Todd Phillips’ most recent film “Joker,” almost all the news coverage of the film focused on controversy. There were Phillips’ comments on creating comedy in “woke culture”; the question of whether or not convicted pedophile Gary Glitter would receive royalties from his song being used in the film; and perhaps most importantly, the conversation of whether or not the film glorifies mass murder.
Critics and audiences have generally received the film positively, praising the performance of Joaquin Phoenix and the interesting development of the titular character’s backstory. However, before it hit theaters, the families of the victims of the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado signed a letter that was sent to Warner Brothers, cautioning them about the film and encouraging them to donate to gun-control charities.
The 2012 shooting took place during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” another film that depicted DC’s Joker, and rumors circulated that the shooter referred to himself as “The Joker.” While the film was not screened in that same theatre, concerns were raised about the film promoting “incel culture” and giving a super-villain character a sympathetic backstory.
Many are concerned that people who identify with those traits, or the film, might be inspired to imitate the actions of the Joker. In the event that those actions occur, should Phillips or anyone else who worked on the production of “Joker” be held responsible?
What always needs to be considered is intent. Phillips is not intending to promote violence through his film — he is intending to demonstrate the complicated backstory of one of the most complex characters in pop culture history.
While it is important to ensure their audience is aware of their intent, a mistranslation of it can’t hold the artist entirely accountable. Interpretative and provocative art needs a place to exist without censorship due to concerns over the possible responses of the audience. The man who killed John Lennon identified with J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” “Helter Skelter” by the Beatles was never intended to incite violence, but Charles Manson used it as a vehicle to mass murder, for which the Beatles cannot possibly be considered responsible.
After all, “Joker” doesn’t paint the Joker as a hero; he is a deeply broken man who takes extreme and horrible actions against others. Phillips doesn’t paint those actions in any other light, and it’s his intention that the audience sees them in that same light as well.