Why So Serious? We’re actually afraid of “Joker”

The toxic communities and individuals online who put effort into cheerleading the nightmare scenario of a mass shooting revel in the chaos they help create.

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Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joker
In another scene, we see Arthur interact with Bruce through the gates of the sprawling Wayne mansion. They’re united in the mise en scene, Arthur’s tan jacket matching the colour of Bruce’s sweater. This much is unambiguous: Arthur Fleck and Bruce Wayne – Joker and Batman – are two sides of the same coin. One, though, has been showered with love, money and privilege; the other has gone without.

I didn’t realize how anxious I was about seeing Joker in theaters until Warner Bros. felt compelled to remind everyone that the movie isn’t a hero’s journey.

“Make no mistake,” the studio’s Tuesday statement read. “Neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”

I want to get a couple things out of the way up front: First, none of the concern expressed here is meant as a knock on the movie. Like most people, I haven’t seen Joker yet. What I know comes only from reviews and the troubling discourse that followed the movie’s Venice Film Festival premiere.

It’s also important to remind you that mental health issues aren’t inherently bad. The Joker we’ve come to know in Batman comics is a homicidal, crazy person, but only one of those things makes him evil (it’s the one where he kills people). The Joker’s bad tendencies may be heightened or intensified by his state of mind, but at the core the character has always been a monster by choice, not by virtue of his brain chemistry. 

Joker
Things have changed in the intervening seven years. The United States is a more divided country now, sure, but more pressingly: Mass shootings are out of control. We’ve had 19 of them so far in 2019, according to an early September report from ABC that defines such incidents as having four or more victims not including the suspected killer.

The 2012 Aurora shooting is particularly relevant here, because it was an incident that unfolded at a movie theater showing Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. We were living in a different world back then, but I can still clearly remember how I felt after that happened. It was a horrible thing to learn about, but at the time I also didn’t think twice about seeing the movie. Of course I would still go.

The numbers are rising, too. An Aug. 5 report looks at the big picture of mass shootings in the United States, going all the way back to 1966. Over time we’re seeing more mass shootings, in more public places, with higher body counts, and perpetrated by younger attackers.

While a mass shooting is specifically the thing that worries me in relation to Joker, it’s also important to remember that gun violence encompasses much more than those horrific events. Suicide still accounts for the majority of gun deaths in the U.S., but the widespread availability of firearms and the relative ease of obtaining one is an undeniable problem that’s led to plenty of disturbing front-page headlines in recent years.

There’s more reason in 2019 to believe you might get shot in a public place in America than at virtually any time that came before. And yet we still leave the house and go about our lives. So why the sudden hesitance with Joker?

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joker
Joker

I think it’s the inherent ridiculousness of a studio feeling compelled to remind people that this famous Batman villain is, in fact, a villain. Theater chains are banning masks and toy weapons. The police are involved. There may be no credible threats to any one theater or screening, but there’s genuine concern about all of them. The Aurora theater where 2012’s shooting took place has specifically shut down any possibility of Joker screening there.

So I’m afraid. For the first time in my life, I find myself in the surreal position of measuring the safety risk of seeing a new movie, and deciding that seeing it isn’t worth the risk. I know I’m not alone.

What really worries me, though, is the precedent this sets. It’s sort of like life under Donald Trump has been for a lot of U.S. residents: Each horrible thing he does pales in comparison to the thing that follows. As that cycle winds on and on, we become desensitized to the last terrible thing.

To put all of that in more specific terms, this is the first time I’ve ever been afraid to go to the movies – but I’m more afraid that it won’t be the last. The toxic communities and individuals online who put effort into cheerleading the nightmare scenario of a mass shooting revel in the chaos they help create. 

I don’t think WB was wrong to make a statement, but I’m scared for where that leaves us. It’s foolish to think the merry band of online trolls and cretins won’t feel empowered by its existence. I still want to see Joker, but it’s going to have to wait. I never thought I’d have to say this about a movie, but it’s simply not worth the risk.

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