The Warner Bros. film “Joker” took home $39.9 million in domestic ticket sales on its opening day Oct. 4. Surpassing films like “Gravity,” “The Martian” and “Venom” (2018), the highly anticipated drama broke the record for the highest grossing opening day for a film in the month of October.
However, a film giving the origin story of the infamous DC Universe villain with a taste for violence was bound to be wrought with controversy.
Even before the film’s release in theaters, writers and just about any concerned movie viewer with an internet connection bashed the film for being radical in supporting white terrorism or embracing violence, cruelty and murder that could inspire copycat crimes.
In our current socio-political environment, concerns about the impact that films like “Joker” can have on our society are understandable. To many people it seems like violence and death is around every corner, especially with nearly 300 mass shootings in the past year.
Before the film hit theaters, film critic Alan Zilberman critiqued the type of audience the film would attract.
“JOKER, a film where you’re supposed to sympathize with a mediocre white man radicalized into deranged violence, will no doubt be appealing to the wrong audience for the worst reasons,” Zilberman tweeted.
Issues arise when audiences are completely “canceling” or writing off films and television shows that display or attempt to approach violence. What these critics fail to consider is the purpose of fictionalized violence. There is nothing gained from ignoring the reality of violence by eliminating it as a subject of artistic or creative expression.
Although some studies have concluded that violence in media has negative effects on viewers, newfound findings as of January 2019 led to a different conclusion.
As violence increased in PG-13 films between 1985 and 2015, rates of violence and crime actually declined during the same period of time, according to a study published in the Springer Psychiatric Quarterly.
“Joker” is not the first film to receive backlash for portraying violent and villainous characters in a supposedly sympathetic perspective.
The Ted Bundy-inspired film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” was torn apart by critics and audiences alike because of its portrayal of Ted Bundy as the charming boyfriend of Liz Kendall. Being advertised and created through the biased and corrupted perspective of a woman who once loved the serial killer, the film was entering controversial and ethical gray areas.
Even though the 2019 crime drama told an untrue story of Ted Bundy, the story was true to the storyteller, Liz Kendall, and told her side of the story. It gave more depth to her story as well as Bundy’s.
Although starkly different films — one tells the story of a fictional comic book character and the other a real-life serial killer — both received backlash for their portrayal of crime and violence.
Storytellers, like authors and filmmakers, love writing about crime and horror. It doesn’t mean they are condoning or romanticizing that horror or violence; it just means that they make great stories.
There is a reason that there are so many popular true crime podcasts, horror films and television shows starring anti-heroes, and it’s not because humanity is evil (necessarily). It’s because evil is interesting even to those who are terrified of it. It’s common to enjoy being scared and horrified.
For every million people who view a violent film a day, violent crime rates decrease across the United States by 1.2 percent, according to research conducted for the Quarterly Journal of Economics.
The researchers said that the results “emphasize that media exposure affects behavior not only via content, but also because it changes time spent in alternative activities.”
If society cannot portray evil and violence in our stories because it may inspire copycat killers or because we are too sensitive, then the way we react to these depictions of violence is the problem, not the stories.