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'Joker' Opens To Controversy Over Film's Depiction Of Violence

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The movie "Joker" opens this weekend, and it's controversial for the way it sympathizes with its violent main character, the famous Batman villain.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOKER")

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Arthur Fleck) My mother always tells me to smile and put on a happy face.

CORNISH: That's Joaquin Phoenix playing the title role. Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson wrote about the film, and I asked her why the movie has been so scrutinized.

ALISSA WILKINSON: The character of the Joker is shown as basically self-actualizing through becoming violent. So he kind of rises above his circumstances by becoming a violent hero. And the profile of the Joker somewhat matches what a lot of the profiles of mass shooters have been, and so those things together have caused people a little bit of concern.

CORNISH: Now, is it fair to look at the film in this way? And I know that's a broad question. But if you think, going back to "The Matrix" or even go - you know, way back to "The Last Temptation Of Christ," people get concerned that movies can inspire violence. How have you come to think about this?

WILKINSON: Sure. So there's no evidence that movies directly cause people to become violent. I think about it a little bit differently. I think that, for some people, a movie that has violent acts in it is something that kind of shapes the way they're thinking about what they want to do or feel in the world.

So a film like "Joker," for instance, might - you know, isn't going to cause someone to suddenly become violent, but it gives an excuse, perhaps, to some people. It may also not give that excuse to people. But I can imagine a world in which someone tries to commit a violent act and then wants to blame it on this easy pop culture reference. And, you know, that's tricky because it's not the filmmaker's fault, but it's also not like that goes away just because the filmmakers didn't intend it that way.

CORNISH: Can you talk more about that? Because you do write in a way that says you're not exactly letting the filmmakers off the hook.

WILKINSON: Right. What we don't want to do is suggest that filmmakers get to make a movie, say what they think it's about and then not take responsibility in the sense of acknowledging that other people may see it in different ways. And what we have to be willing to do, I think, as artists is to take criticism when it is provided and, you know, when people have it, while also acknowledging that, you know, no filmmaker creates the violence.

CORNISH: To that end, let's hear about Todd Phillips. He's the director. He's behind previous movies like "The Hangover," right? So this is a departure. What's he been saying about "Joker?"

WILKINSON: Well, he's been kind of out on the press circuit trying to defend the film by saying, you know, hey, why aren't these criticisms coming up with, for instance, the "John Wick" movies? And also saying things like, we don't condone violence; we don't think there's any way that this movie glorifies violence or wants you to be sympathetic to violence.

CORNISH: And the difference being, in something like "John Wick," you have a kind of martial arts-style assassin movie. He does kill a lot of people, and in this movie you have someone who kills a lot of people. Why - he's saying, why don't people see it the same way?

WILKINSON: Right. And, you know, some people do. I think the difference is the "John Wick" movies are kind of working within a genre where there's a very clear sort of moral sensibility to them. Whether or not we agree with that moral sensibility, that's up for grabs. But the "Joker" movie, by contrast, is basically depicting a world where there's nothing like that. Violence is basically the only reasonable response to the worlds that the Joker encounters.

CORNISH: In the end, do you think your headline maybe is a little bit beside the point - the idea of, is it art?

WILKINSON: I think that thinking about it as art helps us to think about it better maybe than as a piece of entertainment. So I would never say that "Joker" shouldn't exist or that people shouldn't go see it; I definitely think people should go see it. But I think we have to be willing to say, you know, this matters; this gives us a place to discuss things that are going on in our society. And we need to be willing and open to having those conversations, rather than trying to shut them down.

CORNISH: That's Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson.

Thanks so much.

WILKINSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.