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"Joker" Is More Likely to Mitigate than Incite Mass Violence

The film will shine a spotlight on some important psychological issues.

 Promo image
Source: Promo image

Joker—a film directed by Todd Philips and starring Joaquin Phoenix—is not yet out in theaters but is already causing quite a controversy.

The highly anticipated movie, which is rated R and clearly intended for a mature audience, tells the gritty story of how a good-natured but mentally fragile man named Arthur Fleck gradually evolves into the psychopathic supervillain from the Batman comic series. A number of journalists have already written articles arguing that given the current climate of violence in the United States, the movie could inspire mass attacks and is therefore dangerous; sentiments that have been echoed in hundreds of tweets and Facebook comments.

For example, this article titled "This is the wrong time for Joker" asks, "In an era of mass shootings, is it right to do a glorification story about a mentally ill white man who is so damaged by society that he eventually becomes a killer?"

In a recent interview with The Telegraph, a journalist asked Joaquin Phoenix whether he thought the film would incite mass violence, prompting the frustrated actor to walk out (he eventually returned). His initial reaction was one of bewilderment: "Why? Why would you...? No... no."

The film's director responded to the criticism days later, saying that the early knee-jerk reaction is a product of "outrage culture" run amok.

So who's right? What will be the film's net effect on society, and should such considerations play any role in determining whether it runs in theaters across the nation?

Personally, I think that censoring or banning any type of art—whether it be film, literature, or music—would throw us onto a slippery slope that we do not want to go down. But that's not the only reason I think Joker should be shown to the public. From the two trailers that have been released, I believe the positive effects on society would outweigh the negative ones. Only a shallow interpretation of the featured scenes would lead someone to describe the film as an "instruction manual for incel vigilantes," as it has been called.

What I see in the trailers is a character study that would educate society about mental illness and how to deal with it. Arthur Fleck was not initially a homicidal maniac. He was a comedian and an entertainer who wanted to bring joy to the world, and a son who lovingly took care of his sick mother. He becomes unhinged and violent only after he is bullied, beaten, and humiliated by others. If Joker has the effect that I presume was intended by its creators, it will make us all think more deeply about the societal and psychological factors that can help push a mentally vulnerable person over the edge.

The movie also appears to comment on the failure of the mental healthcare system in this country. In the trailer, Arthur's psychiatrist tells him, "I have some bad news for you. This is the last time we'll be meeting." His treatment is cut off, despite the fact that he makes it crystal clear that he needs it: "You don't listen, do you? You just ask the same questions every week. How's your job? Are you having any negative thoughts? All I have are negative thoughts."

Joker will likely do what all good art does—inspire discussion and start a conversation that needs to be had.

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