Why Joker has been deemed dangerous by critics

Todd Phillips's Joker origin story parallels violent real-world perpetrators

Some fear that the film's portrayal of violence will have dangerous, real-world implications.
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Though it’s not uncommon for films to receive heavy criticism following their release, DC Entertainment’s newest blockbuster, Joker, has generated an unprecedented amount of controversy. The concern shared by critics and audiences alike is that the film glorifies mass shooters and will have dangerous real-world implications.

Having only been in theatres for a week, reviews of the film have been extremely divided. Some praise the film for its acting performances and cinematography, while others condemn its irresponsible message about violent offenders.

The film tells the origin story of one of DC Comics’ oldest and most alluring supervillains, the Joker, and explains the events that led him to crime.

In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, an aspiring comedian living in Gotham City. Fleck’s life is riddled with challenges, including not being able to afford treatment for his mental health issues, taking care of his sick mother, and feeling constantly rejected by those around him. 

The social isolation that Fleck experiences, combined with his inability to access much-needed support services, leads him to begin a violent killing spree against those who’ve wronged him. As such, major criticisms of the film have focused on its apparent justification of violence taken by those who feel like outcasts in society. This view chillingly reflects modern headlines about mass shootings and violence.

Because the audience follows the story from Fleck’s perspective, it’s natural for viewers to initially feel sympathy for him.

Fleck is bullied, abused, and ignored by the people around him, and he’s not able to access adequate support for his increasingly suffering mental health. As Fleck’s revenge grows more and more destructive, audiences are left with unsettling feelings toward a character they once felt bad for. 

Critics are concerned about this take on the origin behind the Joker’s violence, arguing it justifies the harm the character inflicts on the community that has rejected him. What’s even more concerning is that the Joker’s journey from being an outcast to harming others is easily paralleled to incidents we see more and more often these days.

 Fleck’s behaviour in the movie mirrors the behaviour of the online incel community. Incels, a portmanteau of “involuntary celibate,” are members of a subculture of men who feel like outcasts for not being able to find a romantic partner, despite desiring one.

There have been cases where incels have lashed out at women and men, who fit the social definition of “attractiveness” or who have attained romantic happiness, by committing acts of violence. In Canada, the most notorious of these acts is the 2018 Toronto van attack, committed by a man who shared his incel views online before killing 10 people and injuring 16. The majority of the victims were female. 

Critics have expressed fear of how the movie portrays Fleck’s actions in a way which encourages viewers to sympathize with his violence. By portraying Fleck being bullied and failing to attain mental health support, the film’s creative team cushions the blow of troubled individuals’ choices.

The film’s portrayal of violence might justify people using their senses of social rejection as excuses to justify horrendous acts.

In the wake of Aurora, Colorado’s 2012 theatre shooting during another Joker film, The Dark Knight Rises, there’s even been concern for the safety of audiences watching the film in theatres. As such, theatre chains have acted accordingly: many have provided an added police presence at the film's screenings.

The film’s director, Todd Phillips, has responded to all of this criticism by claiming the film does not glorify Fleck’s behaviour. Rather, he argues, the plot highlights the lack of empathy and support society often shows toward people like Fleck, which can lend itself to the creation of villains.

The vast criticism surrounding the film is striking. It leads us to question whether movies like Joker are really necessary, especially during an era of mass shootings.

The idea that films have societal implications speaks to the ever-growing impact media has on our lives, and the power that filmmakers carry.

Whether or not the Joker should have been made, the creatives behind the film should have better considered the impact of their portrayal of the villain.

In future, filmmakers like DC Entertainment should listen to the key lesson in Marvel’s Spider-Man comics: with great power comes great responsibility.

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