Director Todd Phillips' Joker inspired significant controversy leading up to its theatrical release. There were fears the film's bleak message, and its portrayal of protagonist Arthur Fleck, could inspire real-world violence. Screenings were canceled, the New York City Police Department increased its presence on opening weekend, countless think pieces were written. And then, nothing. Nothing happened.
Joker is only the latest controversial film, joining a series of others that contain subversive, or extreme, content, although it appears as if this release has not, in the first week after its premiere, incited violence. But what it has inspired is a lot of people behaving in a paranoid, and occasionally idiotic, manner. Joker brought out the worst in some people, for sure, only not in the way that was predicted.
The Atmosphere Leading Up to Joker
It's undeniable that some in the media anticipated the film might encourage already-violent people to behave badly. The debate on whether violent media, such as movies and video games, inspire violence is messy and ugly. For years, some insisted that everything from heavy metal to Dungeons & Dragons to Grand Theft Auto led innocents down a dark and violent path. Those accounts are mostly hogwash, but we fall back on that all of the time. Such was the case with Joker.
Of course, Joker arrived in the shadow of the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Dressed in tactical gear, and using an array of weapons, James Eagan Holmes killed 12 people and injured 58 others. Some erroneous early reports contended Holmes, perhaps because of his dyed reddish-orange hair, was inspired by Heath Ledger's Joker from 2008's The Dark Knight; it was also suggested that he referred to himself as "The Joker," although that was never confirmed.
However, although Holmes was compared to the Joker after the fact, he didn't dress as the character to carry out the massacre, and never cited the Joker as an inspiration. Holmes had fantasized about murder for at least a decade before the shooting, if the notebook submitted as evidence at his trial is proof of anything. That was long before Batman Begins came out, let alone The Dark Knight.
Still, some were so convinced Joker could inspire real-world violence that theater security, and local police, were on high alert. Arrests were made, sure, but those taken into custody weren't maniac. They were simply rude.
Two stories surrounding Joker made headlines. In one case, two men were arrested in Chicago for smoking during a screening, blowing smoke into the faces of movie-goers, and being loud. In another case, audiences in a Long Beach screening abandoned the theater after a suspicious figure began walking around, seemingly surveying the site. Although he didn't possess any firearms, he had an outstanding warrant for his arrest on, which led to his arrest.
Of course, arguably the best story surrounding the theatrical release of Joker is the one in which a guy was banned from all AMC theaters for life.
It began with a tweet, featuring a photo of a flyer on an AMC ticket booth that said the theater would not allow any single people to see Joker. Arguably, this was due to the narrative that incels, or involuntary celibates, would create an atmosphere of violence, lending the image some credibility -- at least initially.
Just one problem: This flyer is fake, taped to the ticket booth by the guy as part of a prank.
So sorry for any confusion. This sign was not posted by us, and this is not our policy. The sign was removed as soon as it was found by the theatre team. -Elizabeth— AMC Guest Services (@AMCHelps) October 4, 2019
What This Tells Us
No threats of violence have been enacted on movie theaters in the name of Joker. But the film did inspire destruction: self-destruction. In the atmosphere charged with fear, people felt the need to be obnoxious. They felt the need to draw attention. They capitalized on society's anxieties for their own ends.
On the flip side, some also became immediately wary of people they might otherwise overlook. A person walking up and down the aisles of a theater, for example, might not draw too many eyes. But when people are afraid of a shooter coming into a theater? They notify the police.
The truth is, though, that Joker did inspire chaos; the film inspired fear. All people needed to make total embarrassments of themselves was a little push.