On ‘Joker,’ ‘The Hunt’ And The Myth Of Movies That Inspire Violence

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We are one week from the domestic debut of Todd Phillips’ Joker. At this point, the thing most likely to inspire copycat violence during/after the release of the Joaquin Phillips super villain origin story is the constant media chattering about whether the release will inspire copycat violence. As this madness unfolds, mostly (I hope) in the bubble that is Film Twitter, we should remember that A) 99.99995% of the universe hasn’t seen the movie yet and B) the filmmakers and the studio are being forced to answer hypothetical charges that their (mostly unseen) movie will inspire copious copycat incidents, despite (almost) no movie ever actually inspiring mass violence.

James Holmes didn’t dress up as the Joker nor was he explicitly inspired by Chris Nolan’s Batman sequel when he opened fire during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012. Columbine school shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were not bullied outcasts or members of the “Trench Coat Mafia.” They were not cosplaying as Neo and reenacting The Matrix’s climactic office lobby shootout when they shot up their school on April 19, 1999. Even the attack on a subway ticket tooth employee initially blamed on Money Train was unrelated to that Woody Harrelson/Wesley Snipes action-comedy. The thieves who infamously forced robbery victims to drink bleach before shooting them planned to commit a robbery/homicide months prior to watching Magnum Force.

There are a few movies over the decades, like Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers, which have inspired real-life violence. However, and this is a key distinction, they have mostly inspired the specifics of violent action rather than the violent act itself. Individual pieces of pop culture, be it movies, TV or video games, don’t turn empathetic people into murderers. We know this because the science says as much again, and again and again. Even the rise of violence in PG-13 flicks (as post-Columbine pressures and the allure of worldwide box office glory led Hollywood to nip-n-tuck arguably R-rated genre films like Taken and White House Down into the PG-13 box) ran parallel with a decrease in violent crime from 1985 to 2015.

That doesn’t mean pop culture has no impact on the culture. Institutional sexism and racism, be it implicit or explicit, has led to a pop culture mostly populated by white guys saving the day and getting the girl (who is presented as a damsel or a game-ending trophy) and/or flawed white dudes behaving badly in prestigious, critically-acclaimed crime dramas. We automatically proclaim entertainment about dudes to be more prestigious and serious than movies about women. In real life and in pop culture, we look for any excuse to forgive a man’s most grievous transgressions while looking for reasons to villainize a woman for any minor infraction. Decades of romantic comedies which portrayed stalking as romantic, persistence as heroic and rejection as merely an obstacle to be overcome didn’t help either.

The irony of the uproar over Joker is that the film follows the template for the kind of movie that would get (and generally has received) raves, plaudits and awards. I am sympathetic to Warner Bros., as they probably weren’t expecting to have to put out a statement arguing that their movie about the world’s most famous fictional villain doesn’t paint its title character as a hero. I’d applaud Sandy Phillips’ use of this high-profile flick to pressure Warner Media into taking a hard line on gun control if I thought it might work. Instead, it (predictably) bubbled into a “Do violent movies inspire real life violence?” debate and increased the likelihood that someone already plotting a spectacle murder will use the movie as an attention-grabbing springboard.

 That’s probably part of what led Universal and Blumhouse to pull The Hunt. In a sane world, I would be dissecting Thursday night preview numbers for Craig Zobel’s riff on The Most Dangerous Game. It was delayed after it got tagged as insensitive after two high-profile mass shootings and an alleged “liberal elites hunting MAGA folks” political screed. Even Donald Trump implicitly chimed in. The Hunt was probably harmless, as Blumhouse is known for making politically potent popcorn entertainments that have their cake and eat it too. Once it became a focal point of the “talk about anything other than gun control, toxic masculinity or alt-right politics” narrative, and with the notion floating about that The Hunt might trigger adverse reactions, Universal had little choice but to delay.

In late 2014, Sony’s The Interview was marked for doom by outside terrorists who may or may not have been associated with the North Korean government. Once one theater chain decided not to show the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy,  then the other chains would have to do so or face increased liability if something did happen in-and-around a theatrical showing of the $40 million, R-rated comedy. It wasn’t worth it for Universal’s recent $17 million-budgeted The Hunt either, especially if theaters ended up pulling it at the last minute only after a costly marketing campaign. This turn of events was doubly frustrating considering its theoretical competition. It’s a cruel coincidence that The Hunt got shelved for being politically unreleasable right in between Rambo: Last Blood and Joker.

Last weekend gave us Lionsgate’s R-rated Rambo: Last Blood, a gruesome action flick with an old white guy righteously shooting, stabbing and exploding his way through various scary Mexicans in order to save one (Hispanic) teen girl from sex traffickers. Next weekend will see the above-mentioned R-rated flick about a disgruntled white guy who falls through the cracks of society and becomes a costumed supervillain. I’ll see Joker tomorrow, and who knows when anyone will see The Hunt. On the surface (and since the controversies over Joker and The Hunt are both spurred by folks who mostly haven’t seen either film), the only film that was deemed too toxic to be released was the one where, ironically, the stereotypical conservatives are the (alleged) victims instead of folks doing the violence.

Or maybe The Hunt was a small sacrificial lamb while Joker is an essential end-of-2019 release. My worry remains that the back-and-forth over whether Joker will be a lit match will become a self-fulfilling prophecy which will be the match that lights a fuse. Dave Cullen, who literally wrote the book on Columbine, is among many who have argued that the mass media attention over a mass shooting is a variable in inspiring the next one. The sheer amount of mass shootings over the last several years, an upswing coinciding with the 2004 failure to renew a Clinton-era assault weapons ban, has turned them into almost par-for-the-course. To someone who wants to plan a “spectacle murder” which gets a bit more attention than what has become the norm…

The Todd Phillips-directed movie may be terrible and toxic. It may even be a sympathetic-but-judgmental portrait that, like Edward Norton’s American History X, will get lionized in the wrong ways by those who see the protagonist looking cinematic as he misbehaves. It may be, dare I hope, a feature-length variation on the life-scaled villain origins that made Batman: The Animated Series so compelling. Or, warts and all, it may just be a decent studio programmer, a mid-budget, “real movie” character study that, absent the super villain IP, might have failed to break out even in the Easy Riders Raging Bulls era. Fun fact: The King of Comedy earned $2.5 million domestic in 1983. Either way, Joker isn’t going to inspire anyone to do anything they didn’t already want to do.

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