As it rolled out its campaign for “Joker,” Warner Bros. faced protests from the families of mass-shooting victims, pundit criticism that the film could inspire violence, a warning from a respected theater chain and even comments from its director that he was fueled by resentment for liberal Hollywood.
Then the New York Police Department decided to deploy undercover police officers to screenings.
“Joker,” the new Joaquin Phoenix movie about a marginalized middle-aged white man who finds salvation in violence, hit theaters Thursday night. For a modern studio system that scrupulously avoids controversy — shunning ideological content in its scripts and coaching stars to avoid politics in interviews — the movie has become the most unusual of products: a lightning rod.
“There’s been so much controversy around it that I don’t think anyone really knows what to expect,” said Bruce Nash, a movie-release expert from the box office site the Numbers.
That includes Warner Bros., which has been uncommonly trying to avoid headlines in an era when coverage is highly valued. Executives, after all, must steer the release to a country seething with anger and reeling from mass shootings.
A rare movie that makes a villain the hero, “Joker” centers on Arthur Fleck, a failed clown and stand-up comic with a neurological deficit who turns to mass murder after being marginalized. He eventually becomes the Joker, folk hero to an angry populist mob.
How 'Joker' became one of the most divisive movies of the year
The criticism of the movie has often come from the left-leaning entertainment punditocracy, atypically pitting liberal Hollywood against itself.
The backlash began even as the Todd Phillips movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where it landed one of the film world’s top honors, the Golden Lion. Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek was among several critics questioning the movie’s message.
“In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week,” she wrote during the festival. “And yet we’re supposed to feel some sympathy” for him. She added that the character could “easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels."
Other journalists worried “Joker” could serve as inspiration to people contemplating violence.
“The film is also deeply disturbing and, I fear, could incite real-world problems. Gun violence, mental illness and random senseless killings don’t play like they used to at the movies,” wrote the Hollywood Reporter columnist Scott Feinberg. The sentiment prompted Claudia Eller, editor in chief of rival publication Variety, to say: “Totally agree with you.”
In the past week, the fears about real-world violence have been echoed by those who’ve suffered its consequences. Members of five families affected by the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater in July 2012 — at another Batman-themed film, “The Dark Knight Rises” — spoke out against “Joker” and encouraged the studio to atone for its sins by supporting gun-control laws.
The five family members — including two who lost children — wrote a letter to Warner Bros. chief executive Ann Sarnoff saying the sympathetic depiction of a mass murderer “gave us pause.” The family members asked the studio to use its “massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities with fewer guns.”
The letter prompted the studio to take the highly unusual step of interpreting the film for its audience. “Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero,” Warner Bros. said in a statement.
Still, the company said the film would not play in the Aurora theater, which is part of Cinemark, the country’s third-largest chain. A Warner Bros. spokesman declined to comment further for this piece.
Other chains have been treading carefully. “Parental warning (this is not a joke),” a representative for the 40-theater upscale Alamo Drafthouse chain wrote on Facebook, citing “very, very rough language, brutal violence, and overall bad vibes.” “It’s not for kids, and they won’t like it, anyway,” the post said. The boutique chain Landmark, meanwhile, has banned masks at screenings.
Warner Bros has also worked with law enforcement in New York City, where the movie is spiritually set, with uniformed and undercover police officers dispatched to screenings.
On Thursday evening a theater in Huntington Beach, Calif., was closed down for the night after police responded to what the Los Angeles Times termed a “credible threat” involving a “Joker” screening. The theater was scheduled to reopen Friday. The news follows the circulation of a document from a U.S. Army base in Oklahoma noting “disturbing” chatter about a “potential mass shooting” at a screening on Friday; no location was given in the report.
The film opens on some 4,300 screens. Tracking has been strong — an opening of $90 million or even $100 million is projected. If the film reaches $100 million, “Joker” will make history: Only three R-rated releases have hit that mark.
The movie did well in so-called Thursday night previews, tallying more than $13 million in sales, ahead of “Deadpool,” one of the three $100 million films.
Throughout the campaign, Warner Bros. has walked a line that few toe during Oscar season, the period of overheated movie publicity that begins in September and stretches into the winter. A splashy party at Toronto was followed by a low-key premiere in Los Angeles last weekend at which no print journalists were allowed on the red carpet. The studio has also been judicious about its stars’ media appearances, balancing the need for promotion with the fears of more hot water.
But events have often seemed to overtake the studio.
In a largely unrelated Phoenix profile in Vanity Fair this week, Phillips, known for “The Hangover” movies, noted the film came about because he was angry about the direction of liberal Hollywood.
“Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” he told the magazine. “So you just go, ‘I’m out.’… So I go, ‘How do I do something irreverent, but [forget] comedy?”
On Sunday, co-star Robert De Niro, who plays a talk-show host and object of the Joker’s obsession, appeared on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and dismissed defenders of President Trump with a four-letter epithet, adding gasoline to the fire.
But politics could actually drum up business for the film. Though people at the Toronto event, including some affiliated with the film, privately said they saw the film’s angry populists as Trump voters, Hollywood marketing insiders said the movie could easily play across the aisle.
“People are angry and feel powerless,” said a longtime studio marketing executive not involved with the film who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his company did not authorize him to talk to the press. “This is a movie about a beloved angry character who finds his power.”
The tracking, he said, suggests Warner Bros. may be making a mistake trying to tamp down the negative attention. “The controversies and pearl-clutching are only supercharging it,” he said.
Some experts worry the controversies — particularly over the potential incitement of violence — could distract from more significant goals.
“All the talk about whether it causes violence takes away the real opportunity we have here: to use the movie for a dialogue about questions like alienation, toxic masculinity and the fragility of whiteness,” said Kendall Phillips, a professor at Syracuse University who studies how works of popular culture affect social tensions.
“These are questions we have a hard time talking about after a mass shooting because both sides get so entrenched politically. A movie allows us to talk about these issues — if we allow it to.” He said that despite isolated instances like “Taxi Driver” and “Birth of a Nation,” there was little evidence that would suggest the film would lead to any violence.
Asked by The Washington Post whether he was worried the film could become a model for those with violence on their minds, director Phillips had an unusual answer. He didn’t rule out the possibility — he just said that the medium of film is meant to be potent.
“Art isn’t safe,” he said. “You want a safe art form, take up calligraphy.”