In the months leading up to its much-anticipated release, Warner Bros.’ villainous character study “Joker” has proved — perhaps, a little too successfully — that it is no joke.
From its Oscar-buzzy debut at the Venice Film Festival in August to recent concerns surrounding moviegoers’ safety on opening weekend, Hollywood, law enforcement and the public have taken “Joker” nothing but seriously.
Ahead of the film, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix, opening wide Friday (with select screenings starting Thursday), here’s a roundup of all the drama it has stirred up.
A SUPERVILLAIN WOWS CRITICS AND AUDIENCES
Comic-book adaptations are not typical awards season fare, but the character-driven “Joker” is not a typical comic-book adaptation. The film practically aced the preliminary awards season test, playing to overwhelming acclaim from critics and audiences alike at top film festivals.
Despite ongoing concern in the industry that franchises are overcrowding the theatrical market, “Joker” had the last laugh, nabbing top prize with its debut at the Venice Film Festival.
In addition to scoring the Golden Lion — and a whopping eight-minute standing ovation — the drama also secured a spot at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it garnered more praise for Phoenix’s off-kilter performance.
FAMILIES OF AURORA SHOOTING VICTIMS PEN A LETTER TO WARNER BROS.
Shortly after its successful festival outings, “Joker” was forced to confront a tragic period in the franchise’s past. Late last month, family members of victims of the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater reached out to Warner Bros. to express fears that a movie centering on a murderous man in clown makeup might lead to a repeat incident.
Loved ones of the victims, 12 of which died in a screening of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” urged the studio to donate to gun-victim organizations and advocate for gun reform.
“When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called ‘Joker’ that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause,” read the letter, which was obtained by Variety. “As anyone who has ever seen a comic book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility.”
WARNER BROS. DEFENDS THE FILM
The studio provided a statement to The Times in response to the letter, which was addressed to its new CEO, Ann Sarnoff, the day the note went public. The company offered its condolences to the families and victims of mass shootings and pointed out its history of donating to victims of violence, as well as its support for bipartisan legislation to prevent more loss.
“At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues,” the statement continued. “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.”
LAPD PLEDGES TO MONITOR ‘JOKER’ SCREENINGS
Though Warner Bros. tried to allay anxieties leading up to the film’s release, the LAPD, later, essentially validated them by promising to increase its “visibility” around theaters showing the movie on opening weekend.
“The Los Angeles Police Department is aware of public concerns and the historical significance associated with the premiere of ‘Joker,’” the LAPD said in a statement last week. “While there are no credible threats in the Los Angeles area, the department will maintain high visibility around theaters when it opens.”
The LAPD’s announcement came after both the FBI and the U.S. Army issued internal warnings about possible threats related to the movie. One of the warnings from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command field office at Ft. Sill, Okla., which went public after a memo circulated online, flagged a “credible potential mass shooting” at an unknown movie theater during “Joker’s” Friday release.
Other cities have made similar announcements.
Chicago police on Tuesday said officers would monitor large theater screenings of the film “Joker” when it opens this week instead of increasing police presence as New York City’s department has promised.
WARNER BROS. BANS PRESS INTERVIEWS AT ‘JOKER’ PREMIERE
Amid building controversy surrounding its fall tentpole, Warner Bros. rescinded access for reporters planning to cover “Joker’s” L.A. premiere last week, alerting them that the cast and creatives would not stop for interviews on the red carpet.
“A lot has been said about ‘Joker,’ and we just feel it’s time for people to see the film,” a Warner Bros. spokesperson confirmed to The Times the day before the event.
Journalists were still allowed inside the screening and after-party following the press-proofed carpet.
THEATERS CRACK DOWN ON COSPLAY
Exhibitors also pledged to do their part to create safe spaces for the public to view the film by prohibiting moviegoers from attending screenings dressed as the pic’s titular villain. AMC Theatres bans face paint, masks and toy weapons, while Landmark Theatres simply won’t allow costumes, period.
One theater chain known for welcoming costumed fans, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, said it does not plan to make an exception for “Joker,” but noted that “guests in costume are always subject to search at the discretion of theater staff at any time, and may be asked to leave for any reason.”
ALAMO DRAFTHOUSE CAUTIONS PARENTS ABOUT ‘OVERALL BAD VIBES’
Though Alamo Drafthouse hasn’t followed suit with a dress code for ticket buyers, the company did take to social media to remind people of “Joker’s” R rating. A Facebook post discouraged parents from bringing their children to the film, assuring them there would be “no Batman” to save the day.
“Parental warning (this is not a joke),” the PSA read. “Joker is Rated R and for good reason. There’s lots of very, very rough language, brutal violence, and overall bad vibes … It’s a gritty, dark, and realistic Taxi Driver-esque depiction of one man’s descent into madness. It’s not for kids, and they won’t like it, anyway.”
PHOENIX GETS (FAKE?) AMBUSHED BY AN ‘EMBARRASSING’ OUTTAKE
Meanwhile, it was still business as somewhat usual for Phoenix, who carried out at least one press tour duty by appearing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” Tuesday night. But his relatively light conversation with the late-night host turned awkward when Kimmel played a supposedly never-before-seen outtake of the actor unleashing a nasty, expletive-ridden rant on “Joker” cinematographer Lawrence Sher.
“The constant whispering, just shut the … up, dude,” Phoenix tells Sher in the viral clip. “I’m trying to, like, find something real.”
Later in the outtake, the star accuses Sher of starting a rumor comparing Phoenix to Cher and “making fun” of him for being a “diva.” When the video — provided by the director — ended, a visibly stunned Phoenix attempted to explain his behavior, which was “supposed to be private.”
“This is so embarrassing,” he told Kimmel. “Look, sometimes movies get intense because you’re a lot of people in a small space, and you’re trying to find something, so it can feel intense, but … I’m a little embarrassed. I’m sorry about that.”
By mid-afternoon Wednesday, the “Kimmel” clip had amassed more than a million views on YouTube, and a rep for Phoenix told media outlets the whole segment was a charade — the outtake was a “joke,” as was Phoenix’s feigned real-time reaction.
A joker, indeed.