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"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.
Early indicators suggest "Joker" will be a box office hit and may attract attention during awards season. Director Todd Phillips has said there are no plans for a sequel but suggested he may be open to one if Phoenix were interested in reprising the role.
The film validates the anger of potentially dangerous young men
"'Joker' is an attempt to elevate nerdy revenge to the plane of myth, which is scary on a lot of different levels." — David Edelstein, Vulture
The movie may unintentionally resonate with the wrong people
"[The film may] speak to the people in our world who are predisposed to think of Arthur as a role model: lonely, creatively impotent white men who are drawn to hateful ideologies because of the angry communities that foment around them." — David Ehrlich, IndieWire
"Joker" can't be separated from the real-world violence its story echoes
"The message that 'well, of course he became a mass murderer, society gave him no choice!' is dangerous on its own. But if you consider the larger social context of turning 'a supervillain into a kind of folk hero' in a world where Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger, and Faisal Hussain exist, it’s even more distressing." — Kathleen Newman-Bremang, Refinery 29
"Joker" could be seen as providing a rationale for violence
"...the movie plays right into advance fears that it could act as a kind of incel manifesto, offering not just comfort or understanding to disaffected young men angry at the world but a playbook for striking back at it." — Sam Adams, Slate
Art can and does influence real-life behavior
"I don’t have the answer as to exactly what we should do about a movie like ‘Joker’ coming out at a time like this. But I do know there’s great power in art, and we owe it to ourselves — and a generation growing up with the specter of mass shootings looming over their offices, schools, and movie theaters — to wield that power with great responsibility." — Rick Marshall, Digital Trends
Art can't be blamed for real-world violence
"Individual pieces of pop culture, be it movies, TV or video games, don’t turn empathetic people into murderers." — Scott Mendelson, Forbes
"Joker" is an example of our impulse to turn everything into a political fight
"The Joker may not technically be real, but, in one sense, he is as real as any other phenomenon that drops into your feed, with opinions of ‘Joker’ hardening along ideological lines before the movie is even out." — Josephine Livingstone, New Republic
"Joker" doesn't treat its main character as an aspirational figure
"...the film itself is clearly not intended to function as a depraved call to arms for the world’s villainous clowns." — David Sims, the Atlantic
Suggesting "Joker" could cause violence insults its audience
"... our critics have accepted the Joker’s power to corrupt the masses in real life, on a more literal level than the most addled comic-book fan ever would. That’s a failure to maintain critical distance, but it’s being projected onto an audience that critics imagine to be more suggestible than themselves — insanely more suggestible, almost comically so." — Dan Brooks, New York Times Magazine
The film doesn't endorse one political point of view
"...despite suggestions that it is a reactionary call for incel vigilantism, ‘Joker’ doesn’t especially cleave to one political perspective." — Christina Newland, the Guardian
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Warner Brothers Pictures