Michael Swartz / Sep. 27, 2019

‘Joker’ Reignites Debate About Media Violence

Is violent entertainment a trigger for unstable individuals? Sometimes, it could be.

Seven years ago, the nation was rocked by a mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where a packed movie theater became the scene of carnage as a gunman opened fire during the showing of a Batman sequel “The Dark Knight Rises.” Fast forward to the present day, and a new Batman-related movie called “Joker” — which tells the backstory of the Caped Crusader’s most infamous nemesis — is slated to open next week.

That movie premiere has already drawn credible threats of violence, in particular those rumored to be from a sub-sect of society dubbed the “incels” — the urban-dictionary term for men who are involuntarily celibate. (In other words, companionship-seeking men who are continually rejected by women.) This group sees both Aurora shooter James Holmes and the Joker as role models of a sort for their deep-seated revenge fantasies. Hence, a movie glorifying the violence created by the Joker as he descends into a life of crime seems a perfect fit for mayhem.

It’s a viewpoint espoused by family members of Aurora victims, who have called on Warner Brothers, the studio releasing the Joker movie, to take a stand against violence. No, it’s not a call to delay or scrub the release of the film, as happened with another controversial movie called “The Hunt,” but instead for Warner Brothers and Hollywood in general to stop donating to groups they consider pro-violence … such as the Republican Party.

According to the trade publication Variety, the letter reads, “Since the federal government has failed to pass reforms that raise the standard for gun ownership in America, large companies like Warner Brothers have a responsibility to act. We certainly hope that you do.”

This simplistic call, however, raises more questions about this group’s priorities. Since the old Hays Code went away in favor of the familiar G-to-X movie-rating system, producers and studios have pushed the envelope ever further in their depictions of violence. From the horror-movie franchises of the 1970s and 1980s (“Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” and the like) to more and more realistic portrayals of violent death as CGI technology has improved and moved into the realm of video gaming, Americans are now awash in violent imagery.

What makes “Joker” the tipping point besides its loose relationship to the Batman series (and by extension, Aurora)?

There’s a line of argument about media violence that traces this attitude back further, to Roe v. Wade as the trigger for the devaluing of human life. Others blame the removal of religion from the public square, such as the elimination of daily prayer from public schools. But did these things really create the cultural rot that now afflicts us?

After all, it’s presumed that “Joker” will make money for its investors, even if the concept doesn’t lend itself to kids’ toys and the like. Moreover, Joaquin Phoenix, who has drawn film-festival raves for his portrayal of the title character, declared, “I think that, for most of us, you’re able to tell the difference between right and wrong. So I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong. I mean, to me, I think that that’s obvious.”

In that respect, Phoenix is correct: Most people still know right from wrong. The vast majority of the audience — which, by the way, will be only a small fraction of Americans — will watch “Joker” as a twisted tale of an anti-hero succumbing to his environment and his mental illness. The risk is that rare and deeply troubled individual who doesn’t understand or embrace this distinction.

This is certainly not to say that graphic violence has no place in movies; sometimes it’s required to properly tell a story. (“Hacksaw Ridge” comes immediately to mind.) And like it or not, we live in an age where a movie can be a powerful influence. The question, then, is whether the movie can push people over the edge. These days, juvenile gender dysphoria and Climate Derangement Syndrome are great ways to seek notoriety and fame, but so is shooting up a movie theater. Perhaps the one difference between James Holmes and Arthur Fleck is that the latter is a fictional character better known as the Joker, while the former is serving 12 consecutive life sentences and won’t be returning to a theater near you. (Nor will “Joker” be coming to the theater complex in Aurora where the shooting occurred.)

One final point: It’s quite unfortunate that the Aurora families chose the advocacy group Guns Down America to denounce an easy, politically correct target rather than talk about some of the real cultural issues that cause the rare few among us to see the Joker as a role model. But that would involve stepping on some toes and telling the truth: Guns aren’t the problem. And while the violence in our media rightfully takes some of the blame, it’s not the whole issue, either.

Rebuilding a healthy respect for life has to be the first step.

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