Families whose loved ones were killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting are urging Warner Bros., the studio behind the upcoming Joker film, to take action against gun violence in America.
"We are the family members and friends of the 12 people killed at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises on July 20, 2012," the families state in an open letter addressed to Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff and obtained by Variety. "This tragic event, perpetrated by a socially isolated individual who felt 'wronged' by society has changed the course of our lives."
The gunman who killed a dozen people and injured 70 more at the Aurora theater reportedly told authorities that he was "the Joker" — something that was later refuted in testimony at trial.
The families wrote that when they found out that the titular character in Joker, played by Joaquin Phoenix, would be given "a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause."
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Warner Bros. weighed in on the controversy, saying the film is not meant to hold up the Joker as a hero, nor is it an endorsement of "real-world violence of any kind."
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.
Phoenix's Joker doesn't debut in theaters until Oct. 4, but the film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this summer. It won the festival's top prize, the Golden Lion. Amid the praise, there has been a bubbling conversation online about whether the film is giving so-called incels a figure to look up to with Joker.
However, for the most part, it seems that critics don't think the Joker is an incel, which is shorthand for "involuntary celibates", mostly male members of a toxic online subculture who define themselves as unable to find a sexual partner.
"There is still a lot of masculine rage in Joker, but it’s directed more at society as a whole than at women in particular," wrote Vulture's Nate Jones. "Also, for what it’s worth, the majority of Joker’s victims are men."
Critic Kayleigh Donaldson shared a similar view after seeing the film at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"I don't think Joker is incel bait and it's honestly much too tame to be truly threatening as some incitement to violence," Donaldson said in a tweet. "I'm sure others will disagree, but for me, the movie is both saved & marred by that fear to really transgress, although I understand why it does that."
And in an interview with the Associated Press published Tuesday, the film's director, Todd Phillips said Aurora "is obviously a horrible, horrible situation, but even that is not something you blame on the movie."
"Quite frankly, if you do your own research about Aurora, that gentleman wasn't even going in as joker," he said. "That was misreported. His hair was dyed red and he was having a mental breakdown and there's something horrifying about it, but it wasn't related to it outside of the fact that it happened at a movie theater."
The families of the Aurora victims clarified in their letter that they support "free speech and free expression."
"But as anyone who has ever seen a comic book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility," they said. "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 with fewer guns."
In the letter, the families specifically request that Warner Bros. sever ties with political candidates who receive funds from the National Rifle Association and vote against gun reform. They write that these politicians "are literally putting your customers and employees in danger."
Sandy Phillips, whose daughter was killed in the 2012 shooting, told THR, "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."
The theater where the 2012 shooting took place has chosen not to screen the film. A representative for the theater did not immediately respond to a request for comment.