The long-awaited Joker movie hits theaters Friday — but in the last few weeks, hysteria surrounding its release reached fever pitch amid rumors that incels were plotting violence at screenings.
“Incel,” which stands for “involuntarily celibate,” is an online cult made up of angry, young men that’s been linked to several mass killings in recent years.
Members of a popular online forum for incels started a thread about Joker in April, around the same time that the first trailer dropped. But they weren’t yet claiming the misanthropic lead character as their own — they were responding to people on social media who were comparing them to the Joker character.
The protagonist is a lonely, white male rejected and beaten down by society. Check. He appears to live with his mother. Check. He seems to be interested in a woman, who does not return his affections. Check.
But other incels were less than pleased by the comparison, saying that it was offensive and just more evidence that so-called “normies” saw incels as monsters.
“This kind of analysis can only come from shit-eating brainlets,” one person wrote on the incel forum. “Any unattractive struggling man who is against societal norms is branded an incel today…. They don’t see the pain, they only see with disgust.”
Concern around the movie grew over the summer following a string of mass shootings. People who’d seen the trailer worried that it portrayed a would-be mass shooter in a sympathetic light — and could inspire future attacks.
In early September, someone on the incel forum asked “will the movie Joker inspire people to go ER” — a reference to Elliott Rodger, their figurehead, who killed six people in Isla Vista, California, in 2014 as revenge for sexual rejection.
Days later, someone on that same forum ventured the possibility that a screening of Joker could become a target in and of itself. “How many theaters do you think will get shot when the joker movie is released?” the person wrote.
Answers varied, but one person shared a picture of the man wearing a red wig, who carried out a mass shooting in 2012 during a midnight screening of the Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado.
From there, things snowballed. The Department of Defense issued a warning to service members, saying that incels had been discussing the possibility of attacking a screening and that they should be extra careful if they were planning to see the film.
Earlier this week, the NYPD and LAPD said that they were planning to beef up their presence at movie theatres over the weekend. And one national movie theatre chain said that they were banning masks and face paint at screenings (AMC has banned masks at screenings since the Aurora shooting).
The movie theatre in Aurora where the 2012 shooting happened won’t screen Joker at all.
But the buzz — and anxiety — surrounding the release of the Joker movie has reopened up another debate: Does the entertainment industry have a responsibility to portray violence in a certain way?
Gun control advocates say that blaming violence on entertainment, like video games or movies, misses the point.
“We have been very clear that it’s not the movie that’s the problem,” said Igor Volsky, executive director of Guns Down America, a gun control advocacy organization. “It’s the fact that people here in the U.S. can easily obtain dangerous weapons of war. I think it’s very significant that we’re having this conversation in the U.S. and the U.S. alone. The movie is opening all over the world, but only here in America is there a danger and a threat of gun violence.“
Cover: Joaquin Phoenix at the premiere of "Joker" in Hollywood, California (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty)