Having broken multiple box office records by taking almost a quarter of a billion dollars in its opening weekend alone, Todd Phillips’ DC supervillain origin story Joker is already on track to becoming one of the biggest films of the year.
But that’s not all. Having prompted the kind of heated, divisive cultural conversation that the likes of A Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs did almost 50 years ago, Joker is also set to be one of the most controversial films of 2019.
With the debate around the film likely to keep raging for a while, here are the ten biggest controversies (so far) about Joker.
10. The film makes an incel-like killer its lead character
In Joker, an angry loner who lives with his mother and has unrequited feelings for a female neighbour one day snaps at the world that he feels has disregarded him for so long, and begins executing his perceived enemies.
If this scenario sounds awfully familiar, it’s because Arthur Fleck – the Joker’s real name in this take on his story – is seemingly inspired by a number of so-called ‘incel’ shooters that have carried out atrocities in the US of late.
Whether the film’s depiction of such a person is sympathetic is up to individual interpretation, though those who fall on the anti- side of the Joker argument have called the film irresponsible for even making such a figure its lead character in the first place.
9. The Aurora connection
On July 20, 2012, a young man shot up a theatre full of cinema-goers in Aurora, Colorado for a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The man killed 12 and injured 70 more.
At the time of the shooting, it was reported that the shooter, who had dyed his hair bright orange before the event, referred to himself as ‘The Joker’. Seven years later, passions over the incident haven’t subsided.
Due to the connection between the Aurora incident and a Joker origins story in which Batman’s foe is depicted as an incel-like killer, the same Aurora theatre has refused to screen Joker for fear of copycat incidents, while many Joker critics have questioned whether such a film should have been made so soon after the shooting happened.
8. The US military warned its own troops about potential shooting incidents
Aurora theatre owners aren’t the only ones to fear copycat crimes as a result of Joker. Prior to the release of the film, the US military issued a warning to its own troops to “fight with whatever you can” in case any of them were to find themselves in a screening when an attack breaks out.
Apparently, the military had received a “credible” report of “disturbing and very specific chatter” on the dark web regarding the planning of a shooting at an unknown movie theatre, and so made the decision to warn its workforce to remain “prepared and diligent”.
7. Joker director Todd Phillips lashes out at ‘woke culture’
Joker director Todd Phillips, formerly known as a comedy director with the likes of Road Trip and the Hangover films, isn’t a fan of where our society is heading.
Speaking to Vanity Fair before the release of Joker, an intensely serious and brooding type of comic book movie, Phillips said he had left the world of comedy behind because “woke culture” had made it difficult to make funny movies anymore.
This prompted an instant backlash, from a range of critics – including members of the Joker cast – decrying Phillips’ decision to blame other people for taking offence with his films.
6. Joker actor Marc Maron calls Todd Phillips out
A lot of people took issue with Phillips’ Arthur Fleck-esque view of the world in the Vanity Fair interview. Even Marc Maron, who plays TV producer Gene Ufland in the film, thinks Phillips should pipe down.
Following Phillips’ comments, Maron released his own statement: “Really, the only thing that’s off the table, culturally, at this juncture – and not even entirely – is shamelessly punching down for the sheer joy of hurting people…
“Bottom line is no one is saying you can’t say things or do things. It’s just that it’s going to be received a certain way by certain people and you’re gonna have to shoulder that.”
5. Convicted paedophile Gary Glitter stands to make money from use of one of his songs in the film
Towards the end of Joker, Arthur – now in full costume as the Clown Prince of Crime – dances down a row of steps to the sound of a tune that isn’t heard so much anymore: Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll Part 2, known best as The “Hey!” Song.
In the US, the song is most familiar to sports fans who once upon a time used to hear the song as an accompaniment to football and basketball games. In the UK, however, the song has a more toxic reputation, as one of the songs of convicted paedophile Gary Glitter.
Beginning in 1999, Glitter has spent time in and out of prison for multiple child sex offences, and is currently serving a 16-year sentence in Wandsworth prison. He stands to make thousands of pounds from the use of his 1972 song in Joker.
4. The depiction of mental illness
Not everyone has been happy with the way Joker depicts mental illness. While some have responded favourably to a comic book movie taking mental health so seriously, others have their reservations.
According to James Moore at the Independent, Joker “makes a mockery of mental illness”, while Insider‘s Callie Ahlgrim argues Joker “makes an explicit connection between mental illness and violence”, a connection she called “dangerous”.
3. Joaquin Phoenix’s antagonistic press tour
Apparently still a little bit in character, Joaquin Phoenix has handled the press tour for Joker with the same mischievousness and deliberate antagonism towards the media Arthur Fleck displays in the film.
Asked about the controversy surrounding the film, Phoenix walked out of one interview, while he became so uncomfortable as an interviewee in conversation with Jimmy Fallon that Phoenix swapped chairs with Fallon so he could interview the host instead.
In another televised interview, this time with Jimmy Kimmel, Phoenix turned frosty on his host when he was shown a behind-the-scenes clip from Joker purportedly showing the actor berating the film’s cinematographer Lawrence Sher. The clip later turned out to be fake – Phoenix was just playing a prank on Kimmel.
2. When Joaquin called his unhealthy weight loss “empowering”
So far, Phoenix’s press tour has gone about as well as the fake one he embarked upon for journo-baiting ‘documentary’ I’m Still Here in 2008. One comment of Phoenix’s has caused more outrage than any other, however.
To play Arthur Fleck, Phoenix lost 52 pounds prior to production on Joker. In an interview with Indiewire, Phoenix called the weight loss “empowering…because you’re able to control yourself in that way.”
Naturally, this provoked an immediate social media backlash, from people calling Phoenix’s comment ‘irresponsible’ and ‘dangerous’ for potentially trivialising eating disorders. Phoenix has yet to respond.
1. The film’s initial critical acclaim was followed by an intense critical backlash
When Joker opened the Venice Film Festival in August, the response from critics – give or take a few naysayers – was highly positive. The film was so well-received, in fact, it even took home the Golden Lion, the prestigious festival’s highest honour.
Cut to the film’s wide release in early October, and Joker was garnering a much more sobering response. The critical backlash to the film was so vicious in some corners of the press it almost seemed designed to make up for the rapturous response back in August, balancing out the formerly high score.