The much-hyped “Joker” movie debuted in theaters this weekend with lots of fanfare and skyrocketing ticket sales but none of the violence the media promised us. For weeks leading up to the film’s release, we were subjected to headline after headline fretting that the story of a psychotic, mass murdering clown might “encourage” or “inspire” copycat attacks. “Joker” is a “dangerous” and “toxic” film, we were assured. But opening weekend came and went, and none of the predicted anarchy materialized.
Why did the film warrant these concerns? In the words of a different Joker: Why so serious? You might think that all of the worry over “copycats” was justified by the fact that the Colorado theater shooter in 2012 dressed as the Joker. The problem with that explanation is that it’s based on a myth. The Colorado theater shooter did not dress as the Joker or claim to be the Joker. That was a rumor fueled and spread by the media. A pattern is emerging here.
Besides, violent movies and shows grace the big and small screens every week. Films where the central character is a murdering lunatic are nothing new, either. Charlize Theron played real-life serial killer Aileen Wournos in the critically acclaimed “Monster” several years ago. I don’t recall any discussion at the time about the danger that Theron might inspire other women to go around murdering random men. On the contrary, Theron was given an Academy Award for the “humanizing” performance.
But we don’t have to go years into the past to find examples of violent films that didn’t provoke the ire of the media. Almost every gore-fest to come out of Hollywood in the last three decades falls into that category. You rarely hear anyone panicking over the possibility that a copycat might shoot up a “John Wick” screening or stage an attack during the latest Liam Neeson flick. In fact, Joker’s female sidekick Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie, is getting her own movie in a few months. I have not seen one single headline expressing any concern about the potential glorification of violence in that reportedly “feminist” film.
Is the violence in “Joker” really so much worse than the violence in any of these other movies? No. If anything, it’s less problematic. The scenes of gore and brutality in “Joker” aren’t stylized like “John Wick,” or played for laughs like the upcoming Harley Quinn movie, or meant to humanize a real life serial killer like “Monster.” The violence in “Joker” is disturbing and sad and sometimes shocking. Nobody will leave the theater wanting to be more like the guy Joaquin Phoenix (brilliantly) portrayed. He is a pathetic and broken man at the beginning and much more so by the end. The audience feels towards the violence, and towards the central characters, exactly as it should feel. You are not attracted to either, but repulsed by both. This is, quite literally, the exact opposite of glorification. “John Wick” could probably be accused, with some credibility, of glorifying violence. Even your average superhero film might be guilty of that charge, to some extent. “Joker” goes the opposite direction entirely. That, to me, seemed to be the whole point.
So the original question remains: why did the media go on and on about the “dangers” of this film? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the headlines about potential Joker-inspired violence were more suggestions than warnings — like the media was trying intentionally to put the idea into the mind of some sicko out there — but I do think they were whipping up hysteria for the sake of clicks with no real concern for the result. Ironically, in the end, it wasn’t “Joker” being irresponsible and provocative. It was the media that made that accusation in the first place.