A Roundup of All the Controversies Surrounding Joaquin Phoenix's 'Joker'

From FBI warnings about incel violence to Aurora victims' response, the Todd Phillips-directed film is having a rocky rollout.
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Warner Bros.

While director Todd Phillips' Joker film is one of the year's most anticipated blockbusters, the forthcoming feature has also been plagued with controversy. Early reviews of the movie have been varied, with some calling it a "masterpiece" and warranting Oscar buzz while others have said that it too closely mirrors and even empathizes with the deluge of white nationalist and incel terrorism. The conversation surrounding it has reached such a boiling point that when pressed on the potential for Joker to inspire violence, star Joaquin Phoenix—who plays the titular DC Comics villain—panicked and walked out of an interview with The Telegraph.


With just over a week before Joker hits theaters on October 4, the contentious cloud hanging over the film shows no sign of dissipating. This week, a group whose loved ones witnessed or were killed in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado shooting, where an AR-15-armed shooter killed 12 people during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises, have petitioned Joker's studio Warner Bros. to denounce gun violence before its release. Imploring the company to lobby for gun reform, they wrote, "We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe." Their letter comes on the heels of the news that the Aurora theater where the tragedy took place would not be showing Joker at all.

Warner Bros. then issued a response to the victims' statement. Mentioning that the studio has donated to anti-violence causes, it says, "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.” The statement also reads, "Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies." The studio has also pledged to join "other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic."

However, in even worse news for the film, the FBI and the United States military have now issued warnings about incel and extremist violence that may occur as it hits theaters. Two separate memos were uncovered by Gizmodo's io9 where service members were warned of credible threats from incels during screenings of the film. Recipients of the email were advised to "remain aware of their surroundings and “identify two escape routes” in movie theaters. Another email from the U.S. Army detailed that Texas law enforcement officials had discovered “disturbing and very specific chatter” on the "dark web" about the targeting of an unknown movie theater during the release.”

As of press time, Warner Bros. has not responded to these warnings.

Update: In an interview with The Wrap on Wednesday, director Todd Phillips responded to the criticism plaguing the film. He told the publication, “It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like, ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it f–ing Joker.' That’s what it was." Later in the chat, he placed the blame for the controversy on the "far left," saying, "I think it’s because outrage is a commodity, I think it’s something that has been a commodity for a while. What’s outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda. It’s really been eye opening for me.”