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Todd Phillips gives blunt response to Joker critics who think the film is 'dangerous'

Is Joker a dangerous movie?

Even though it hasn't been released yet, the Joaquin Phoenix starrer has already riled up segments of the internet who think that the flick may be glamorizing troubled and violent individuals such as the one at its center. In a recent conversation with IGN, Phoenix and director Todd Phillips weighed in on the controversy surrounding the flick.

First, a little background. While it can certainly be argued that Joker is a product of the time in which it was made — as are all films, really — the flick drew its primary inspiration from the works of Martin Scorsese, in particular the 1976 classic Taxi Driver and the underrated 1983 psychodrama The King of Comedy. These films (which both happen to star Robert De Niro, who appears in Joker) are bleak, unflinching portraits of very troubled men, men who eventually resort to violence as a way of coping with slights, real and perceived, they have endured from the world at large.

It should be noted that Taxi Driver is often regarded as being among the very best films ever made. When it was released, there wasn't exactly a thunderous chorus of voices wondering whether it was going to inspire a wave of psychotic loners in the vein of De Niro's Travis Bickle, who in the film is seen stalking multiple women, nearly following through with a plan to assassinate a presidential candidate, and finally engaging in what could only be termed a mass shooting.

Yes, the issues at play are necessarily viewed through a different lens today than they were four decades ago. We live in an era when isolated, potentially violent people can find kinship, support, and encouragement online; when those who occupy the highest offices in the land use incendiary language to demonize those not deemed to be "American enough"; when troubled, angry individuals much like Phoenix's Arthur Fleck engage in acts of domestic terrorism seemingly every other day, and the debate about how to stem the tide of the violence rages on in perpetuity.

It's easy to see, then, why the question would be asked: could Joker be a film that actually incites violence, if seen by the wrong people? There is certainly a subset of film critics who think so. Take this excerpt from Stephanie Zacharek's review of the film in Time magazine: "It's not as if we don't know how this pathology works: In America, there's a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week. And yet we're supposed to feel some sympathy for Arthur, the troubled lamb; he just hasn't had enough love... the movie lionizes and glamorizes Arthur even as it shakes its head, faux-sorrowfully, over his violent behavior… He could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels."

In our humble opinion, there are a lot of things wrong with a point of view that concludes that it's possible, even likely, for a form of popular entertainment to actually cause a certain type of antisocial behavior. (The comedian Dennis Miller has devolved into little more than a right-wing mouthpiece in recent years, but during his glory days, he issued perhaps the definitive statement on this notion: "If your kid is capable of being pushed over the edge by anything Gene Simmons has to say, you're just not doing your job as a f***in' parent.")

But in defending his film, Phillips argued that there is a distinct difference between asking an audience to identify with a character, and asking them to understand that character. 

The director opened his remarks by taking a not-so-subtle shot at critics who have demonized the film without even having seen it. "I really think there have been a lot of think pieces written by people who proudly state they haven't even seen the movie and they don't need to," he said. "I would just argue that you might want to watch the movie, you might want to watch it with an open mind."

He then continued, "The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message… It's so, to me, bizarre when people say, 'Oh, well I could handle it. But imagine if you can't.' It's making judgments for other people, and I don't even want to bring up the movies in the past that they've said this about, because it's shocking and embarrassing when you go, oh my God, [some critics said the same things about Spike Lee's] Do the Right Thing."

Phillips also made the excellent point that complicated artworks will necessarily provoke complicated responses, and that this isn't a bad thing. To Joker's critics who wanted a more black-and-white, unambiguous take on the iconic DC villain, Phillips had some simple advice: "If you want uncomplicated art, you might want to take up calligraphy, but filmmaking will always be a complicated art."

Phoenix then chimed in to take issue with the notion that any artwork could be directly blamed for the behavior of an individual, an argument that is painfully familiar to anybody who has ever been a fan of rap music or video games. "I think that, for most of us, you're able to tell the difference between right and wrong," Phoenix said. "And those that aren't are capable of interpreting anything in the way that they may want to. People misinterpret lyrics from songs. They misinterpret passages from books. So I don't think it's the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong. I mean, to me, I think that that's obvious."

The star then questioned whether it should be the burden of the artist — be they filmmaker, video game programmer, or musician — to take into consideration every possible effect that their work might have on any given individual. "I think if you have somebody that has that level of emotional disturbance, they can find fuel anywhere. I just don't think that you can function that way," he said. "The truth is [that] you don't know what is going to be the fuel for somebody. And it might very well be your question. It might be this moment, right? But you can't function in life saying, 'Well, I can't ask that question for the small chance that somebody might be affected'… I wouldn't ask you to do that."

It should be noted that this exchange occurred mere days before Phoenix walked out of an interview after a very similar question was posed; perhaps he had just grown tired of hearing it by that point. But to IGN, he expressed his understanding as to what might prompt a journalist to ask the question — and even drew a parallel to his own profession, wherein he's often called upon to "ask hard questions" of his audience.

"It's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable for all of us. I think we all are aware of these issues and we're concerned, and I think that's why we talk about it," he said. "I don't think that we can be afraid to talk about it. So I understand why you asked that question. But I think the same way that you feel that you need to ask that question and engage in the conversation this way, I think that's how I feel as an actor. And that's all I have to say."

Dear reader, it is a strange time in which we live, when a film about the Joker can prompt more questions about the direction of our society than the latest mass shooting. Phillips and Phoenix defended their film thoughtfully, but we can't help but feel that they shouldn't have had to. If Travis Bickle, Jason Voorhees, 2 Live Crew, and every other target of moral crusaders over the decades weren't able to erode our collective morals, then we find it unlikely that Phoenix's Joker will.

But, like all works of art, there's really only one way to properly assess Joker's merits: see it for yourself. The movie hits theaters on October 4, and tickets are currently on sale.