The FBI's Afraid of "Joker"—But Here's Why They're Wrong

"Joker" is a mirror, and we need to examine the source of what it's reflecting.


The FBI has warned service members of the possibility of a mass shooting at viewings of Joker, Gizmodo reported.

The article, which bore the incendiary headline "U.S. Military Issues Warning to Troops About Incel Violence at Joker Screenings," reported that a memo was sent out by senior officials in the U.S. Army's criminal defense division on Monday, September 23rd, and came to the public's attention after being posted in a Facebook group popular with Air Force personnel, according to The Wrap. The memo stated that the army had received "credible" information about "disturbing and very specific chatter" on the dark web "regarding the targeting of an unknown movie theater during the release."

The article also cited another warning, an email sent on Wednesday, September 13th. "Posts on social media have made reference to involuntary celibate ('incel"' extremists replicating the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, at screenings of the Joker movie at nationwide theaters," read the email. "This presents a potential risk to DOD personnel and family members, though there are no known specific credible threats to the opening of the Joker on 4 October."

The email, which was sent to "service members" and labeled "For Official Use Only," went on to define incels and stated that this subgroup tends to "idolize" the Joker. "When entering theaters, identify two escape routes, remain aware of your surroundings, and remember the phrase 'run, hide, fight.' Run if you can," it read. "If you're stuck, hide (also referred to as 'sheltering in place'), and stay quiet. If a shooter finds you, fight with whatever you can."

The film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, has yet to be released but has already sparked a firestorm of controversy. Though it received glowing reviews during its premieres at various film festivals and even earned the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, some early critics issued warnings about its content, calling it "dangerous," "deeply troubling," and "a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying individuals," Time reported.

JOKER - Teaser Trailer

Though it's tempting to draw conclusions about these statements, those of us who haven't seen the film need to wait to make conclusive judgments about it until we see it for ourselves. In general, reviews have been sporadic and all-over-the-place, though generally it seems that your opinion about whether the film is dangerous is correlated to how much you enjoy it. Most reviews laud Joaquin Phoenix's performance, reading the film's chaos as an emblem of the absurdity of our modern times, and those who dislike his acting seem to excessively criticize the film's lack of structure and nihilistic implications.

It's easy to see why the Joker character could be read as a flashpoint of inspiration for the incel community, a loose term that describes a group of men who are "involuntarily celibate." A quick glance at threads about the film on incel forums reveal there is dissent about the film within the subculture, with most members writing off the idea that any shootings might occur and disavowing that the incel community promotes violence. But indeed, several encourage the possibility—however, the haze of the Internet's post-ironic discourse makes it difficult to tell whether or not they're actually being serious.

It's not hard to see why the Joker might inspire people to pick up a weapon. The Joker is a downbeat clown whose social ostracization culminates in him rediscovering his power through violence, and it's not a stretch to compare his apparently sympathetic narrative to the fact that we frequently hear young white male mass shooters being called "misunderstood" (whereas nonwhite people are often referred to with the dehumanizing racist terms like "terrorist" or "thug"). So, is the answer to stop humanizing white male shooters, to label them terrorists, or to deepen our humanization and empathy for members of other races who commit violent acts? (Probably a bit of both, though we all know that nobody commits mass shootings in America like white males, but that's a discussion for another time).

Of course there have been sympathetic, nuanced films about villains (and moral panic around them) since the dawn of cinema. What sets Joker apart is the fact that the franchise has been connected to gun violence before—in Aurora, Colorado, when James Holmes cited the Joker as an inspiration for why he shot twelve people during a showing of the Joker film The Dark Knight Rises in 2012.

Protests against the film gained prominence when family members of people killed in Aurora issued a letter responding to the film's release. "When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called Joker that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause," read a letter signed by five family members"We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression. But as anyone who has ever seen a comic book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility. That's why we're calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns."

It's vital to note that the letter does not ask that the film be canceled. Instead, it asks Warner Bros. to support gun safety efforts. The letter reveals that its writers are well-aware that Joker is not the root cause of gun violence, nor a direct catalyst for incel brutality. They are aware that if we begin canceling films that tell stories and offer windows into the minds of wicked characters, we will inevitably see that so much of our best art is about wicked and incomprehensible actions.

Creativity has always gone hand-in-hand with humanity's darkest impulses. We love horror movies and depraved serial killer flicks for many reasons, but we do love them. If we begin to police and censor art that merely tells stories about human evil, we echo totalitarian control.

Gif from Carrie (1976) another film that humanizes a mass murderer (albeit under different circumstances)

In fact, all the backlash against the film might be completely unmerited if it weren't for the fact that the Aurora shooting took place during that screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Because of that correlation, and because of the new revelations from the FBI about online discourse surrounding the film, it is difficult to extricate the story from its cultural implications. Due to the immediate, reactive nature of social media, we can't separate art from the culture in which it exists; and though the film doesn't deserve to be canceled, everyone involved with it should prepare to have some difficult conversations.

That's something that Joaquin Phoenix doesn't seem prepared for. On Friday, The Telegraph reported that Phoenix walked out of an interview when he was asked, "Aren't you worried that this film might perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it's about, with potentially tragic results?" When he rejoined the interview an hour later, he had no answer, only a question about "what an intelligent answer might have sounded like." According to the article, Phoenix walked out because "the question genuinely hadn't crossed his mind before." Of course, it's not an actor's duty to justify or take responsibility for the meaning of the parts they play, and Phoenix should not have to carry the franchise on his back. Still, he probably should prepare a better response as the film's October 4 release nears.

As should Warner Bros., who finally broke its silence on the film in a statement that read, "Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues."

Films like Joker do not independently cause chaos. If anything, they're symptoms that mirror preexisting realities. Hate speech and the proliferation of accessible military-grade rifles are our realities, and these are what cause gun violence, not stories. Stories can perpetuate mythologies; they can also subvert them, which is why perhaps instead of protesting Joker, we simply need more stories and films that propose alternative ways of handling the despair that is part of life.

If there is a mass shooting at a screening of Joker, it will be horrific but perhaps not surprising. The roots of these white terrorist-led acts of violence stretch much deeper and further than a comic-book villain, and if Joker himself has long been such a successful character because he is a symptom of a deep-rooted sentiment of rage, entitlement, and insecurity, that's only because these things predate him. We could spend eons psychoanalyzing the roots of this rage, but ultimately we'll find ourselves going in circles while pinning our lives on unbelievably stupid advice like, "If a shooter finds you, fight with whatever you can." We could keep letting the media and its contentious glitz blind us to the obvious conclusion, which is and has always been that we need stricter gun laws.