Controversial film Joker set for bumper Baftas

Crime doesn’t pay? The first R-rated film to make $1bn (£772m) at the box office. © Warner Bros

Is Joker immoral? Now poised for ample awards, the deeply troubling 2019 film immediately inflamed debate over its depiction of extreme violence and worries about copycat behaviour.

The flickering lights of a decrepit subway car are echoed by the flashes of a gun. Two rapid shots send large blood spatters onto the roof and windows of the carriage.

With these killings, Batman’s adversary, the Joker, is born.

This is the first of many gory death scenes in the 2019 film, Joker, which Bafta announced yesterday as being in the running to win 11 awards on 2 February.

As an origin story for the villain, Joker follows the character of the isolated, aspiring comedian Arthur Fleck. Audiences watch as life’s physical and emotional drubbings tip him into vindictive violence.

Unsurprising then that Joker has proven a divisive film.

Fleck’s savagery and his rejection by female characters has drawn comparisons with real cases of brutality by self-identified “incels”, such as a 2018 van attack in Toronto which killed 10 people.

Moreover, the families of those killed in 2012’s “Batman shooting” in Aurora, Colorado are horrified about the film inspiring similar attacks. In the US, with its lax gun laws, fears over potential triggers of violence are alarmingly relevant – there were 417 mass shootings in 2019.

Time magazine film critic Stephanie Zacahrek’s scathing review summarises many people’s distaste. Despite the regularity of American shootings, she writes: “We’re supposed to feel some sympathy for Arthur, the troubled lamb: he just hasn’t had enough love.”

Critics argue that, in suggesting a compassionate approach, Joker may inspire individuals who identify with Fleck’s troubles to mimic his actions.

However, others see the film as a source of reflection, not panic.

Responding to disapproval, Warner Brothers states that “one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues”.

Similarly, Guardian journalist Christina Newland notes more complexity in the film than some critics allow, arguing that “with severe cuts to mental health services affecting Arthur’s stability, along with the focus on the ominous effects of widespread gun ownership [...], the man it depicts is a product of our era”.

So, is Joker immoral?

Why so serious?

Certainly, argue some. It is a film which presents depraved violence in a way that suggests we should feel some pity for Arthur and, thus, for those who carry out similar crimes in real life. In the current climate, trying to understand why a lonely, white man would carry out killings is not exactly a topic that people want to sympathise with, or see lauded with awards.

No, approach it with more nuance, argue its defenders. The film depicts – but does not condone – violence and its motivating factors, many of which stem from other complicated elements in our society. We should not discourage filmmakers from tackling these issues, nor expect fictional works to be taken as moral guides.

You Decide

  1. Would you ever alter your behaviour based on something you saw in a film or on TV?
  2. Is it important that we find ways to sympathise with or understand people who carry out heinous crimes?

Activities

  1. Create your own superhero, listing their five most important attributes. Then create their arch nemesis and describe how they would challenge your hero.
  2. Think of a film that you have seen in the past year that you would nominate for a Best Picture award. Make a persuasive case for your choice.

Some People Say...

“There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.”

Frank Capra (1897-1991), Italian-American film director of classics such as It’s A Wonderful Life

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Despite dividing critics, Joker was a big hit with the viewing public, becoming the most profitable comic book film of all time. The film cost $62.5m (£47.5) to make and made more than 15 times that at the box office. It has won the Venice Golden Lion, two Golden Globe awards and 11 nominations at the Baftas.
What do we not know?
What the impact of viewing the film really had on audience behaviour. Conflicting studies have emerged in recent years about the effects of viewing violence on screens. For example, a 2014 study suggested people’s behaviour alters depending on how aggressive they are to begin with. However, a 2019 study demonstrated that, whilst PG-13 films from 1985 to 2015 became more brutal, overall rates of murder and violence in the US fell.

Word Watch

Drubbings
Beatings, thrashings.
Vindictive
A strong desire for revenge.
Divisive
Tending to cause disagreement between people.
Incels
Short for “involuntary celibate”, meaning members of an online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a romantic or sexual partner. Discussions in forums often focus on resentment, revenge, misogyny, self-pity and a sense of entitlement to sex.
Lax
Not sufficiently strict, severe, or careful.
Gun laws
Gun ownership laws are loosely regulated. The right to own a gun is protected by the Second Amendment of the American Constitution, the country’s supreme laws.

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