Seven years ago, a mass shooting took place during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. A gunman opened fire during the film, killing 12 and injuring many others, when a gunman opened fire killed 12 and injured countless others. And now, the pending release of the new Warner Bros. movie Joker has raised concerns, prompting a group of Aurora victims' families to write a letter to Warner Bros., asking the studio to donate to groups that help victims of gun violence. Warner Brothers responded to the letter with the following statement, obtained by Bustle via e-mail:
"Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bi-partisan legislation to address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. 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 letter, as reported by Entertainment Weekly, lays out the authors' concerns that the film might glorify the Joker. Specifically, they worry that the central character, played by Joaquin Phoenix, could be glorified, despite the fact that he ultimately goes on a killing rampage. “When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called Joker that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause," the letter reads. As the letter pointed out, though there is no evidence that the Aurora shooting was inspired by the Joker, it was "perpetrated by a socially isolated individual who felt 'wronged' by society," much like the Joker.
Despite these concerns, the letter makes it clear that they do not expect the studio to cancel the movie's theatrical release, nor do they urge people to boycott the film. “We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression,” the letter explains. That said, these Aurora victims and their families believe that the studio has a responsibility to audiences that goes beyond what happens in the movie theater. “That’s why we’re calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities," the letter continues, "keeping everyone safe should be a top corporate priority for Warner Brothers.”
Sandy Phillips, whose daughter was one of the Aurora shooting victims and who signed the letter, explained to THR that she felt the movie was “a slap in the face" and could inspire viewers to connect to the villainous character. "My worry is that one person who may be out there — and who knows if it is just one — who is on the edge, who is wanting to be a mass shooter, may be encouraged by this movie. And that terrifies me," she noted.
Critics have shared a similar fear prior to the movie's upcoming release on Oct. 5, though Joaquin Phoenix made a point of coming to the film's defense, arguing that his character is still an obvious villain who shouldn't serve as anyone's role model. “Well, I think that, for most of us, you’re able to tell the difference between right and wrong,” Phoenix stated during an interview with IGN. He continued:
“And those that aren’t are capable of interpreting anything in the way that they may want to. People misinterpret lyrics from songs. They misinterpret passages from books. So I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”
That said, when asked whether or not he worried the character would inspire copycats in an interview with the Telegraph, the actor reportedly brought the conversation to a halt and walked out. He apparently returned to the interview later on, explaining that he'd panicked because "the question genuinely hadn’t crossed his mind before." According to the Telegraph, he didn't go back to answer the original question.
At its core, the letter from the Aurora shooting victims and their families is not really about the release of Joker, it's about the corporation behind it. "Since the federal government has failed to pass reforms that arise the standard for gun ownership in America, large companies like Warner Brothers have a responsibility to act," the letter reads, according to EW.
The Aurora shooting victims and family members who signed the letter have not yet responded to Warner Bros.' statement.