Warner Bros.’ standalone movie about the Batman villain has become a lightning rod for controversy
With a respected director – Todd Phillips – at the helm, one of today’s most respected working actors – Joaquin Phoenix – in the title role and a story of one of the most iconic pop culture villains, Joker should have been a relatively easy movie to sell to moviegoers. Instead, Warner Bros. has found the movie has become a symbol for societal violence and other problems.
Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, an aspiring but failing stand-up comedian in Gotham City circa 1981. Unable to fulfill his dreams and seemingly held down by a society that refuses to accept him for who he is, he makes a meager living standing on the sidewalk dressed as a clown and promoting a local business. When the injustice he feels he’s subjected to finally causes him to crack he becomes Joker, inspiring others who feel like him to rise up against the powerful in Gotham.
While tracking predicts an $82 million or higher opening weekend and early festival reviews praised Phoenix’s performance. Throughout the campaign, though, critics have taken issue with how it seems to glorify the kind of violence-prone male that has, in the real world, been at the center of countless hate-filled mass shootings.
Joker is shown at the bottom of the photo on the first poster (by marketing agency BOND), released in early April along with the teaser trailer, laughing up toward the sky. The paint on his face is still fresh but crude, not the more stylized look the character sports in other incarnations while his expression is one like joy, as if he’s finally free. Dingy walls and dark backgrounds filling the rest of the image communicate the dark tone and aesthetic of the film.
Three more posters came out in early August, just as the film started making waves on the festival circuit. The first shows Joker dancing on a stairway, a scene familiar from the trailers. The second has the character in profile as he stretches his mouth in a faux smile. The third (by marketing agency WORKS ADV) shows him with his face half-obscured, glaring at the camera.
Another set of three came in September, just before the movie opened. One (by BOND) takes a very literal approach by showing Arthur and Joker as opposite faces on a Joker playing card while another shows Arthur’s face with clown paint smudged on it in the shape of a hand, but the way the paint drips from his face it’s apparent that clown paint is underneath the mask he wears. A third, from Fandango, simply shows Joker looking over his shoulder at something off-camera.
Joker gleefully walks away from a burning car on the IMAX poster, apparently amused by the violence happening around him. The Dolby Cinema poster shows a more contemplative Fleck in Joker garb, a shot pulled from his appearance on the late night talk show. A special poster for Regal Cinemas works to establish the urban setting of the film as Joker walks down a residential city street.
We meet Arthur in the teaser (62.1 million views on YouTube) trailer from April as he’s in therapy for some issue. Narration explains how his mother always knew he’d bring joy to the world and that he should put on a happy face. Along with that we’re shown he’s working as a sidewalk promotions guy, dressed as a clown but being ignored or beaten up by local toughs. The themes of a forced smile – painted on, created by pulling the corners of his mouth up with his fingers – and a world gone mad – the violence he suffers and the intolerance of strangers – are hit repeatedly throughout the trailer. At the end he’s dressed more like the traditional Joker, with more exact makeup and an intentionally colorful outfit as he dances down a staircase.
The official trailer (44.1 million views on YouTube) – released in August just about the time the film was premiering at the Venice Film Festival – was teased with a series of Instagram videos that had white letters etched into the “film” to herald the spot’s arrival. In the trailer, Arthur is shown as a deeply unhappy man, though he’s presented as someone who’s simply misunderstood and unappreciated. “All I have are negative thoughts,” he says to his therapist. An aspiring standup comic, he’s mocked by a late-night talk show host, something that sets him on a path to change his life. He becomes fixated on clown masks and paint until he appears on that same talk show and insists on being referred to as “Joker.”
The movie’s official website is pretty boring and standard with just the usual content being wrapped in a DCComics.com site header.
Advertising and Publicity
Exhibitors and others got a first look at the teaser trailer and other footage when WB made it a key element in their CinemaCon presentation back in April. It also played a large role in the studio’s CineEurope showcase two months later.
DC Comics announced in July that legendary director John Carpenter would write a one-off Joker issue as part of the publisher’s “Year of the Villain” focus. While not tied to or related to the movie, the issue was scheduled to be released this week in conjunction with the film.
Announcements came in late July the film would screen at both this year’s Toronto and Venice film festivals, the latter of which featured what was reported to be an eight-minute standing ovation from audiences at one presentation. News came in mid-August that Phoenix would receive the TIFF Tribute Actor Award while at Toronto. The movie went on to win the Golden Lion at Venice while accumulating numerous very positive reviews out of both festivals. A screening at the New York Film Festival was announced in August that would include a Q&A with Phillips.
Outdoor and online ads used elements of the key art, including an image of Joker with his arms outstretched, seemingly taking in all he’s created or is about to destroy. Preroll video ads were placed on YouTube that used cut down versions of the trailer.
Just a week before the movie’s release date, a group of survivors and family members of victims of the 2012 shooting in Aurora, CO. at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises sent Warner Bros. a letter asking the studio to join other companies in actively working to curb gun violence. James Holmes, the shooter in that incident, was reportedly inspired by Joker (though those reports have been subsequently debunked) and the group was concerned others would seek to emulate that violent, anti-social behavior. Those fears were rooted in how the campaign has shown Joker doing just that, inspiring masses to rise up in protest and violence as well as the neverending string of mass shootings in the U.S.
[Disclosure: In 2012 I led an agency team managing social media marketing for DC Entertainment and was involved in the response to that shooting.]
That issue had come up before. Days before the letter was sent, Phoenix walked away from an interview when asked if the movie could inspire real-world violence.
In response, WB issued a statement reiterating its belief lawmakers should find bipartisan gun control solutions while making it clear the studio sees the movie as an artistic statement meant to spur conversation, not an endorsement of violence. Phillips offered similar comments, wondering why it was bad that the movie might lead to conversations. In a later interview he asked why Joker was being held to a different standard than action films like John Wick, seemingly unaware of the difference between a covert assassin and a disaffected loner who, in the story itself, is held up as an icon for those who feel violence is the only way they can be seen or heard by society.
Meanwhile the LAPD issued a statement reminding people to “vigilant” and saying it would maintain a more significant presence around theaters to deter potential violence. Costumes were banned by Landmark Theaters in an effort to ensure everyone felt comfortable at showings.
Just days before the movie’s scheduled red carpet premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre, Warner Bros. disinvited print and television journalists, allowing only photographers access to the stars and filmmakers. The move seemed designed to limit the potential for Phoenix, Phillips and others to be bombarded by more questions about the film’s message, tacitly admitting the answers provided to date had been problematic.
Media and Press
News and rumors had circulated for a while, including how this was just one of a number of Joker-related projects in the works. When it was finally officially announced Phoenix spoke almost immediately about how excited and nervous he was to take on the role. In mid-September of last year Phillips shared a look at Phoenix as “Arthur” sans makeup or costume.
That was followed by a short video posted online showing the transformation of Arthur into a malevolent clown. The video was labeled a “camera test” and it remained unclear whether this was Joker’s final look or something else. A good shot of Beetz came out a few days later as Phillips sought to counter the crappy pics taken by paparazzi. Beetz commented on the movie while she was at Sundance promoting other projects.
At about the same time De Niro commented on the perception that Phoenix’s Arthur shares some spiritual connection with the character he played in King of Comedy decades ago.
Many of the profiles of Beetz, even short ones like this, pointed out the sheer number of upcoming projects she was working on, including this movie. While he was promoting other things, Henry offered his interpretation of the main character’s motivations.
Comments from Phillips in mid-June confirmed he was crafting an R-rated movie, something rare in the comic book world. He later commented on how the movie’s story would not only not feature anything specific to the comics but also barely be about anything audiences would recognize as The Joker but be more about a guy *like* Joker.
Maron talked about working with De Niro on the movie while promoting other things in August. Around the same time, Phoenix shared how he approached the role and how it kind of intimidated him while Phillips talked about his love of working with Phoenix and how excited he was for the film.
When the trailer dropped the director spoke more about why he set the story in a vague, ill-defined time period and the struggles he had with the WB marketing department over what to show when. In a separate interview Phillips explained why he finally gave in and took on one of the comic-based projects he’s been offered over the years and what tone he was trying to strike. That one was notable for including mention of how much goodwill he has at the studio because of past success and how much leeway that bought him while making this movie.
During the Venice Film Festival both Phoenix and Phillips were interviewed about how they used every day of filming to learn more about the character and what they hoped to achieve with the story. Phillips also shot down any speculation the Joker from this movie would meet Batman as played by Robert Pattinson in Matt Reeves’ upcoming film. He later clarified one of the reasons for the story’s 1980s setting is to clearly disconnect it from any other films or characters.
A profile of Phoenix that ran while Toronto was winding down took pains to call this movie out as a “character study” in an attempt to make it fit in with the rest of the mercurial actor’s filmography.
The movie’s premiere included more comments from Phillips about how he now wanted to let the film “speak for itself” though the cast seemed to remain conspicuously silent. Another cover story profile of Phoenix had him doing his usual “I don’t know why I’m doing this interview” schtick while also including questionable comments from Phillips about how he no longer feels able comedies are a viable genre because of “woke” culture where everyone wants to find offense and no one thinks anything is funny anymore. That kind of statement is exactly what wasn’t needed at the moment, and does more to show he’s uninterested in how comedy has evolved from being solely from the white, horny male’s point of view.
A much friendlier reception was given to Phoenix when he appeared on “Kimmel” to have some fun with the host.
Warner Bros.’ campaign works hard to sell the movie as a throwback to the kind of gritty urban anti-hero films of the 70s, the kind made by William Friedkin, Martin Scorsese and others. The trailers, posters and more all come together to present a movie rooted in urban and societal decay. In the absence of any chance at redemption, then, the protagonist chooses nihilistic chaos and violence.
What’s missing from the marketing is any sense that the nihilistic chaos and violence embraced by Arthur Fleck as he descends into madness as Joker is a commentary on anything in particular. Instead it appears to hold that chaos and violence up as a reasonable reaction to feeling like the world is holding you back. That’s a worldview eerily similar to what’s ascribed to many of the white men in the wake of mass shootings at schools, mosques, churches, homes and elsewhere.
That Phillips and Phoenix didn’t have a reasonable, constructive response to concerns along those lines is in and of itself a response. The decision to bar members of the press who would ask questions from the premiere reinforces that conclusion.
The controversy around the movie’s story is rooted in a separate question that’s been asked by comics fans and others for years: Does Joker even need an origin story? While Tim Burton’s 1989 movie and the “Gotham” TV series have given him a clear one, the comics have been more vague. Even Frank Miller’s “Year One” storyline didn’t make his origin explicit and Scott Snyder’s 2013/14 “Zero Year” arc danced around the villain’s beginnings. The incarnation in 2008’s The Dark Knight, as memorably played by Heath Ledger, purposefully muddied the waters as the character gave several contradictory variations on how he got those scars.
In short, the origins of the Joker have always been in doubt, and the uncertainty only adds to the character’s unpredictability. Giving him a backstory is not just unnecessary but can take away from the impact he has. Making Joker human and relatable diminishes him.
That gets to the crux of the problem: If there’s no real reason to tell this story, then why did it have to be *this* version of the story? The studio’s campaign offers no real answer.