The "news" has a habit of treating everything it talks about as something new. Partially that just comes with the territory, and since sensationalism and outrage sell too well there are perfect illustrations of this principle surrounding the release of controversial films like Joker. But the media frenzy over the film, and indeed much of its plot points and thematic motifs themselves, is nothing new: we already saw all of this in 1994. It was called Natural Born Killers.
Directed by Oliver Stone and starring Woody Harrelson and Juliet Lewis, the film has a similarly complicated interplay between the film's coverage of the media and the media's coverage of the film. The plot of the film itself follows two serial killers romantically involved with one another whose crime spree across America attracts the attention, and eventually the adulation, of the media and those consuming it.
The two main characters, Mickey and Mallory, don't have some grand philosophy they are proposing or a political force they stand in opposition to. Really, at the end of the day, they are both simply victims of childhood abuse who internalize that violence and grow up to inflict it and propagate it throughout the world. But something about their relationship, their flair for drama, and the macabre nature of their crimes hooks into the American imagination within the film.
News networks pay lip service to how shocking and appalling Mickey and Mallory's crimes are while giving them as much attention and focus as possible, and that hypocrisy is exactly what the film sets out to explore. Sensationalist reporter Wayne Gale, played by a very pre-Iron Man Robert Downey Jr., makes it clear there are no morals or scruples in the journalism he practices. And when he gets drawn into the violence firsthand rather than profiting from it at the distance of satellite projection, it's to teach him a lesson.
The lesson seemed lost, however, on the real-life news networks reporting on the film and sensationalizing the crimes allegedly tied to it. Reporters delivered stories with the same hypocritical relish as Wayne Gale about how Natural Born Killers glorified the violence is showed and spurred the young and mentally-addled into emulating it. Of course, there was a glorification of violence in Natural Born Killers, but director Oliver Stone's attempt was at showing that the glorification could be as sickening as the violence itself.
But news media in the modern-day , built on short soundbites, tidy stories, and short attention spans, is not particularly well equipped to cover nuanced discussion. It appears that very little was learned from this lesson in the nearly 25 years since Natural Born Killers' release, as the same cycle seems to repeat all over again with Joker.
Joker depicts a straightforwardly disturbed man by the name of Arthur Fleck. Working as a clown and afflicted with a condition that causes him to laugh at inappropriate times, Fleck finds himself a frequent victim of abuse and violence that eventually brings him to a psychological breaking point. Much like Mickey and Mallory, he turns that violence back around and throws it back at the world. The world's response is not one of abject horror, but one of titillated political interest. Fleck becomes the makeup-caked face of a movement, and the film gives abundant attention to the way his message is produced, co-opted, and misinterpreted.
And then, as if by some voodoo doll process, real-world news outlets started to do just the same thing. Loads of media attention surrounded the security coverage at major theaters showing Joker, while any incident however small attached to the film was inflated and repeated to enhance its importance. While neglecting to give much attention to what the film's story was actually about, news outlets focused on the broad strokes of the plot, concocted connections between the character and violent incidents of the past, and seemingly waited with bated breath for something to go wrong. Sound familiar?
A comparison between the two films not only deflates the impact of the outcry from news outlets, but it also deflates the impact of Joker itself by showing that it's ideas aren't revolutionary, it's not doing anything particularly original, and its message doesn't even work particularly well in the context of the film. Not only did Natural Born Killers tout essentially the same message 25 years ago, but it did so when the 24-hour news cycle was just firing up and before the internet exacerbated the problems the film criticized.
By contrast, Joker came out in 2019, well after plenty of other films conveyed the same message, and is set in 1981, well before many of the problems it criticizes even truly existed. Fleck's acts of violence somehow go "viral" in a time before the modern usage of the concept was even invented, and part of what makes the film fall flat is that it's so evident how anachronistic its 21st Century politics are in its period-piece setting.
So before getting worried about the real-world impact that idolizing or exalting films like Joker might have, it's worth taking a look back at its predecessors. The film's box office performance greatly benefited from the free marketing outraged news outlets provided, and they capitalized on the "danger" of the movie even while propagating it. But the more dangerous movie already came out 25 years ago -- and back then it was better.