Does Joker promote violence?

James Luxford

The disruptive and much-discussed film, Joker has split audiences into those who love it and those who refuse to support it; a theme that's more common than you'd think in the world of film

Anyone following cinema at the moment has probably heard something about Joker. It’s proved divisive almost immediately, with some dismissing it and other hailing it as a classic with huge Oscar potential. An unsettling bi-product has also arisen in the security fears the film’s release has prompted, particularly in America. Todd Phillips portrays Batman’s greatest foe as a lonely, mentally ill man driven to violence by an uncaring society. Artistically, the influence of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy is there for all to see. Culturally, it’s hard to ignore the echoes of recent headlines in the US—a lone figure who gets easy access to a gun, and does unspeakable things. 

"Violence, sex, and religion have usually been the three pillars of what made a film controversial, or prompted a panic upon their release"

joker Joaquin Phoenix

The fear among many communities is that it may inspire a copycat, someone who views Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as some kind of siren call. It has basis, given that shootings have occurred in American cinemas in the recent past, and even during the opening weekends of Batman-related films.

But can a film itself be dangerous? 

Panic surrounding certain films is almost as old as the medium of cinema. In 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière’s short Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat drew panic from audiences, who reportedly fled the cinema as they saw the image of a train coming closer to them. The accuracy of the story is debated by film historians, but it was an early example of the kind of an aura of danger that could surround film making. As film evolved into a commercial entity in the first half of the 20th century, each evolution seemed to come with its own controversy. There was panic in some cinemas that rock ‘n’ roll movies like Blackboard Jungle would drive teenagers into a frenzy, while the medium pushed social limits regarding sexuality, and race relations in America at the time. Films like In The Heat of The Night, and Rebel Without A Cause, which are now considered classics, were once deemed quite edgy. 

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat

Violence, sex, and religion have usually been the three pillars of what made a film controversial, or prompted a panic upon their release. Alfred Hitchcock used the furore over Psycho’s use of violence almost as part of his marketing strategy in the Sixties, just a few years before the sexual violence of Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris caused uproar. Films that poke at religion have been consistently campaigned against. In one bizarre incident, John Cleese and Michael Palin of Monty Python had to go on British television to defend 1979’s Life of Brian against an outraged Bishop of Southwark, as well as satirist Malcolm Muggeridge (both of whom, it later transpired, had missed the all-important beginning of the film). 

psycho

Moral outrage has followed an innumerable amount of films over the years, from Stanley Kubrick’s self-imposed ban of A Clockwork Orange to The Daily Mail’s campaign against Reservoir Dogs (a movement that actually resulted in the film being more successful in the UK than in the US). Every so often, however, a film becomes linked with tragedy, heightening the idea that culture can impact our safety in the outside world. Taxi Driver became part of the inspiration for an attempt on the life of then-President Ronald Reagan. In 1999, it was alleged by the media that various films including The Matrix and Pulp Fiction influenced the actions of the Columbine High School massacre. 13 years later, there was a shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, with the perpetrator later claiming to have been influenced by Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.

"There’s no way of telling what context the film might be viewed in by a certain person"

clockwork orange

One cannot look at this loss of life and entirely dismiss the idea that films may have a negative influence on an unquiet mind. However, to suggest that the films are the root of these problems is too simplistic, and requires an assumption that there were no murders or political assassinations before the arrival of motion pictures. Art offers up discussions about our lives, many of which allow us to draw our own conclusion. Often, they can be irresponsible with the glamourising of violence, self-image, or sexuality. However, art does not make a killer, and more often than not a disturbed individual will read something in the work that is different to what the creator intended. The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” became central to the beliefs of Charles Manson, who saw it as being a prophecy of the oncoming apocalypse. 

McCartney would later reveal that it was merely a means of making as loud a rock ‘n’ roll song as possible. His band mate, John Lennon, would describe it in a 1970 interview as “just a lot of noise”. Lennon himself would later be killed by a shooter who had become fixated by JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye.

There’s no way of telling whether the security concerns over Joker are merited, or in what context the film might be viewed by a certain person. However, it is far from the first film to explore these themes, or prompt this kind of concern. Many of the films once seen as dangerous are now cherished works of art, as we grow further in distance from their cultural impact. What this suggests is that while film can certainly affect fragile minds in negative ways, it is too often the easily explanation behind events that are too complicated to explain.  


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