LIFE IMITATING ART
How Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joker’ Made the Media Go Mad
Critics have argued that the supervillain saga “Joker” could inspire real-world violence. It recalls the media’s botched coverage of Aurora and the death of Heath Ledger.
In the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, wherein a deranged teenage Trump fanatic armed with a legally-purchased AR-15 style assault rifle murdered 14 students and three staff members, President Trump appeared to place some of the blame for the massacre on movies.
“You see these movies, and they’re so violent a kid is able to see the movie if sex isn’t involved, but killing is involved, and maybe we need to put a rating system for that,” Trump told lawmakers of the 2018 tragedy in Parkland, Florida. “The fact is that you are having movies come out that are so violent, with the killing and everything else, that maybe that’s another thing we need to discuss.”
Trump’s hypocrisy (this is a man, after all, who makes Don Jr. fast-forward to all the bone-crushing scenes in his favorite flick, Bloodsport), tremendous ignorance of the movie ratings system already in place, and flukily-valid point about the MPAA’s regressive attitudes toward sex notwithstanding, this movie-violence-inspires-real-world-violence refrain has reemerged in the recent hysterical media coverage of Joker, Todd Phillips’ noirish reimagining of Batman’s grinning nemesis.
Arthur Fleck—brought to chilling life by a gaunt Joaquin Phoenix—is a clown by day, ineffectual stand-up comic by night. Prone to bouts of irrepressible, screeching laughter, his is a predicament best described by Steve Buscemi in Con Air: “A font of misplaced rage. Name your cliché: Mother held him too much or not enough, last picked at kickball, late-night sneaky uncle, whatever. Now he’s so angry moments of levity actually cause him pain; gives him headaches. Happiness, for that gentleman, hurts.” When Fleck’s meds and therapy run dry, owing to austerity measures in Gotham, the bullied, mentally ill loner gets a gun and exacts his revenge.
Following its Venice Film Festival premiere, critics were quick to draw parallels between Fleck and the rash of involuntary celibates—or “incels”—responsible for so many recent mass shootings. Vanity Fair drew a line between the Joker and real-life “angry loners” who “shoot up schools and concerts and churches, who gun down the women and men they covet and envy, who let loose some spirit of anarchic animus upon the world,” arguing that it “may be irresponsible propaganda for the very men it pathologizes”; while The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg wrote that the film was “deeply disturbing and, I fear, could incite real-world problems.”
The notion that Joker could inspire a real-world shooter is not only downright Trumpian, but has little basis in scientific fact. Psychologists have been studying the link between violent media and real-world violence for decades, and the results have been inconclusive. In a June 2017 memo, however, the American Psychological Association (APA) cautioned media outlets against claiming that violent media influences real-world criminal acts.
“Public officials, news media, and scholarly organizations (such as APA) would do well to focus on scientifically valid substantive causes of violence ranging from poverty to mental health issues to educational and social disparities. Focusing on video games or other media can distract from real causes of violence and do harm,” the memo read. “News media would benefit from remembering that discovering a young male perpetrator of a crime also happened to play violent video games or watch violent movies is not remarkable given the commonness of such media use among young males. Such disclosures should not be treated as significant or as causes.”
The irresponsible media discourse surrounding Joker has led distributor Warner Bros. to tighten security at its Los Angeles and New York premieres, and bears some similarities to the exaggerated coverage of the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which saw a young man enter a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises and gun down twelve people. An initial report from ABC News, quoting then New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, alleged that the shooter, whose hair was dyed red, had called himself “The Joker.” Then The New York Times made matters worse, reporting that, “Witnesses told the police that [the shooter] said something to the effect of ‘I am the Joker,’ according to a federal law enforcement official, and that his hair had been dyed or he was wearing a wig.” And thus, a myth was born.
But those reports turned out to be false. As the Denver Post later concluded, “Investigators heard no witness talking about the Joker…And no police officer claimed [the shooter] called himself the Joker.” If that weren’t enough, the shooter himself confessed to a psychiatrist that he did not dye his hair red to emulate the Joker (whose hair is green, by the way), but that he did so because “red suggests bravery.” Because of the rampant media speculation, though, the shooter’s inmates did eventually take to calling him “The Joker,” to which the shooter remarked, “They kind of turned me into a supervillain.”
“If it had been The Avengers, he would have been there. If it were Jurassic World, he would have been there,” George Brauchler, the district attorney who prosecuted the case, told the Denver Post. “It had nothing to do that we can find with Batman.”
Perhaps there’s something about the Joker that causes the media’s collective imagination to go into overdrive. Over a decade on, outlets are still attributing the death of Heath Ledger to the mental toll playing The Dark Knight’s Joker took on him. According to the late actor’s sisters, Ashleigh Bell and Kate Ledger, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I was really shocked, because that was him having fun,” Kate Ledger said of Heath’s Joker turn at a panel last year for the documentary I Am Heath Ledger. “It was coming out that he was depressed and it was taking a toll, and we were going, ‘What?’” added Bell.
“Honestly it was the absolute opposite. He had an amazing sense of humor, and I guess only his close family and friends really knew that. But he was having fun. He wasn’t depressed about The Joker,” Ledger maintained.
A couple of weeks ago, the AP pressed Joker director Todd Phillips about how people might be “scared” going into his film because of the Aurora shooting.
“Aurora is obviously a horrible, horrible situation, but even that is not something you blame on the movie. And quite frankly, if you do your own research about Aurora, that gentleman was not even going in as Joker—that was misreported,” Phillips responded. “The one that bugs me more is the ‘toxic white male thing’ when you go, well, I just saw John Wick 3, he’s a white male, he kills three hundred people and everybody’s hooting and hollering. Why does this movie get held to different standards? It honestly doesn’t make sense to me.”