If I can step away from my platform as a film critic for just a second, I want to acknowledge that America today has some issues. Regardless of your perspective on the current political climate, all you need to do is to turn on the news and see just how depressing it is living in America today. It’s almost a pitch-black comedy seeing how many mass shootings there are on a monthly, if not weekly, basis here in the United States except actual lives are being lost. The how and why are irrelevant: people are dying and something needs to be done to stop it.
I bring this up because yesterday was 9/11, the worst act of terrorism that has taken place on American soil not just in the 21st century, but in all of America’s history. It’s a day of quiet contemplation and remembrance for those that have died and is one of the few times where there is somewhat of a sense of unity for the country, if only for a day. Due to this need of trying to put an end to the mindless suffering, the question comes down to what needs to be done. Should there be stricter regulations on who can buy guns? Should some guns even be up for purchase in the first place? Do we need more police officers to prevent future tragedies or bulletproof backpacks for kids? These are all questions with no easy answers, but a recent trend in online discussion is worth dissecting and looking into, specifically about the content that the upcoming Joker movie and HBO’s Watchmen series.
Both trailers for each show can be viewed by clicking on them, so if you quickly give them a watch you should be able to piece together a couple of themes. Each trailer shows off a white man, or group of white men in Watchmen’s case, being portrayed as the downtrodden and disgruntled dark side of society. Arthur Fleck has a clear mental illness while the Rorschach cult is modeling themselves off of a psychotic, hard right, borderline fascist vigilante. In both cases, according to the trailers, they show these people instigating senseless acts of violence like murder, assault, destruction of private property, inciting mass riots, and are painted as being incredibly dangerous. Place both of these products in an environment like today, where domestic terrorism is a normal, almost every day occurrence and you can see why some people think that they’ll spark a new surge of violence upon release.
So let’s talk about it.
I’m not going to lie and say that my knee jerk reaction upon the idea that both Joker and Watchmen could cause an increase in domestic terrorism was a simple “no.” We may live in tumultuous times, but the average person is able to distinguish between reality and fiction and see that these are two stories about broken people rising up and taking action. They’re portrayed as the villains of these stories, so audiences will be able to identify that these are not people to aspire to be like, but people to be admonished. Yeah people like the Joker, but no one who has ever read the Batman comic “Death in the Family” has gone out and tried and beat a person to death with a crowbar. Since The Dark Knight, he’s been a symbol for edgelords that want to act cool and tough, but realize that they could never be him because they still are normal people underneath all the bluster that don’t want to cause harm to others.
But then I thought that we’re not dealing with the average, normal person here. The arguments centered on the fact that a possible, damaged person may be inspired by what they see on screen and cause future violence towards innocent civilians around them. Just going by the trailer for Joker, Todd Philips is portraying that Joker as an outcast that no one understands and is barely surviving until he gives in to his inner monster and finally comes alive. And the prospect of that can be scary towards people that are living in a world post Parkland, post Pulse, post-Charlotte.
In the case of Watchmen, the people that the Rorschach cult is targeting are police officers, but the only people we are shown to be the good guys are African Americans while the cult has some not at all subtle nods to the KKK. A group of white people wearing white masks that are targeting African Americans hits a little too close to home for some audiences. Could Joker and Watchmen cause a rise in violence and hate crimes? It’s certainly possible. It’s also certainly possible that Rambo: Last Blood could cause the same thing due to its excessive amount of violence, but violent films aren’t the main issue here.
The fact of the matter is, if someone deranged enough was going to commit a crime, they weren’t going to do it because they saw Joker or Watchmen. They would have done it regardless. If someone was exposed to a violent movie and that incited them to commit an act of violence, it doesn’t matter what the movie is. They just needed an excuse to do it, but like how the links to Doom and Columbine were tenuous at best, so are the links to violent films today causing future acts of violence. Most of us are able to distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality. We have a setting in our brain that knows when we’re meant to be entertained and when we’re not. There’s Hans Gruber and then there’s Budd Dwyer.
As prevalent as the issues may be, it’s important to note that the people that do commit these acts of domestic terrorism are in the vast, vast, vast minority of people that live in America. Not even .000001% of people could relate to those monsters. However, the fact that it’s not zero percent still means that it could happen. Improbably, but not impossible. But that isn’t Joker or Watchmen’s fault.
Actually, I tell a lie. While it isn’t their fault that they exist in a world with these monsters, it is their fault that they’re portrayed in a way that glorifies them. That’s exactly the point. They were framed and marketed in such a way to create discussion and to increase brand awareness among the casual consumer. Instead of being lost in the shuffle, all of the trailers for both properties have shown how close to real life it is. How the events that may or may not transpire in them aren’t so far off from our own and you better believe that Warner Bros. and HBO fully intended them to be marketed that way. What can we do to make your movie about the Joker stand out? Why not pair it with triggering phrases and imagery that would remind people of real-world psychopaths? That’s not accidental. That was intentional. And why wouldn’t HBO debut Watchmen with a group of cloaked people preparing for an apocalyptic crusade when real-world groups are calling for the same thing?
But with all of the frenzy that’s been created over these two releases, there’s one gargantuan asterisk that looms over the potential controversy and outcry being generated. Everything we know about Joker and Watchmen was all from trailers. Only a select few have seen Joker and I’m fairly certain no one has seen Watchmen yet. People are in a panic over things that they have not seen yet. They only have the implication, the possibility, that they could set someone off over the edge.
For many, that’s enough. The simple idea that there is a threat of danger is enough to paralyze a person with fear that another tragedy could erupt. As terrible as it is to have those thoughts, they’re not irrational. However, that’s a problem with society today and that is not the fault of Joker or Watchmen. In fact, I applaud that we’re getting new movies and shows that have such unconventional and dangerous ideas. The best art is created in reaction to current events or the political climate. Some of the best rock and roll eve made came out of the discourse surrounding America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Video games like the Metal Gear Solid series hold up a mirror to society today and examine the faults to a scary degree (hi Sons of Liberty).
Of course, movies are no different. When Adolf Hitler rose to power, Charlie Chaplin offered a speech pleading for peace and togetherness. When Senator Joe McCarthy led a witch hunt against his enemies and labeled them Communists, Senator John Iselin showed how idiotic a villain like that truly was. The racial tensions greatly influenced Do The Right Thing to the point where people feared that race riots would break out over the subject matter of the film. Now, with the rise of white supremacists and more frequent instances of domestic terrorism, Joker and Watchmen could offer commentary on American society today as so many other movies have done in the past. Could.
It’s entirely possible that both Watchmen and Joker could be deconstructions of society and how hatred can create chaos and what we can do to prevent it. It could also be completely tone deaf and serve as a power fantasy for future wannabe mass shooters. It’s a Schrodinger’s Cat scenario. Both realities exist simultaneously, but once we’ve seen Joker and Watchmen we’ll know if they offer a compelling take on the current political culture or if they’re inept at having a serious discussion. It’s also entirely possible that people may miss the point what the creators were trying to achieve and make Arthur Fleck and the Rorschach cult into an anti-establishment symbol like Tyler Durden was/is.
But we don’t know, and that lack of knowledge means we only have so little to judge here. Critics praised Joker upon release, but also regarded how controversial it is going to be. So while we can sit here and worry about what could happen, we instead need to focus on what the real issue is. Are you afraid that another mass shooter could emerge due to the charged imagery on display? Don’t turn to movies as an easy out. If these movies are restricted or censored in order to protect people, will that make the problem go away? Did cancelling The Hunt stop the Odessa-Midland shooting in late August? No. Are people afraid? Yes, and understandably so. However, the problems and the solutions lie elsewhere. Controversial movies have and will continue to exist, and we can either focus on trying to remedy potential problems, or make sure that “Never Again” actually means never again.