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U.S. Military Sends Formal Warning About New Joker Movie

The U.S. military believes that Joker presents a public health hazard.

The Army has issued a warning to service members who intend to see the film when it's released next week, one which states that screenings may be targeted for mass shootings by troubled individuals informally known as "incels." (via io9)

The Army confirmed that the warning was composed and widely distributed following a tip from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has uncovered a number of social media posts related to potential threats of terrorism during screenings of Joker. Here, it should be made plain that the FBI has not become aware of any specific plots or threats, and that its bulletin was forwarded to the Army strictly as a precautionary measure.

Nevertheless, the Army took the bulletin very seriously. In an email which was sent out to all active duty personnel on September 18, the Army advised its members to basically keep their heads on a swivel if they were buy a ticket to Joker; they were urged to "identify two escape routes" in their venue, and to follow a "run, hide, fight" protocol in the event that a shooting takes place.

"Run if you can," the email read in part. "If you're stuck, hide (also known as 'sheltering in place'), and stay quiet. If a shooter finds you, fight with whatever you can." The email further advised that Joker was a particularly troublesome picture because incels "idolize the Joker character, the violent clown from the Batman series, admiring his depiction as a man who must pretend to be happy, but eventually fights back against bullies."

In case this is all sounding... well, completely insane to you, here's a little bit of background. "Incel" is a portmanteau of the words "involuntarily celibate" and the term is used by a radicalized subset of young men who believe, basically, that they are owed an attractive mate as long as they play by society's rules and are nice enough to women. The term has been around since the late '90s, but has grown in the public consciousness in recent years, as a number of men who subscribe to the philosophy have perpetrated acts of violence. 

In particular, one young man who identified himself as an incel shot and killed six people in Santa Barbara, California, in 2014; this man (whom we will refrain from naming) has become something of a hero to the online incel community, and his name is often invoked online when some target deemed to be worthy of violent retribution surfaces.

The notion that incels identify with the Joker likely stems from a deadly incident which occurred in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, when a young man opened fire in a crowded theater which happened to be screening The Dark Knight Rises. It was widely reported in the media at the time that the man had identified himself to responding police officers as "the Joker," although it has recently come to light that there is no evidence that the man ever said anything of the sort.

This, however, hasn't stopped the families of the victims from expressing concern over the new Joker movie, which is completely understandable. The Army's missive to its service members is certain to only cause this concern to snowball, but according to one Department of Defense official — who spoke with io9 on the condition of anonymity — notices of this type are more routine than one might think. The more credible ones are often accompanied by advisories from commanding officers; the notice pertaining to Joker was not.

"Frankly, beyond the email, I've heard little about it," the official said. "A few folks said they'd avoid opening night, or passed it on to their family members for consideration, but I haven't heard much else in conversation beyond that."

Well, we're not psyched about having to say any of the things we're about to say, but here goes. Dear reader, we're living in a strange and dangerous time; mass shooting are not only increasing in number, they're claiming more lives per incident on average. Those with the ability to enact common sense gun legislation of the type which has caused the number of such incidents to plummet in other countries resolutely refuse to do so, and it's become an unfortunate fact of American life that there aren't really any safe places; you can be at school, at your church or mosque, shopping for groceries, or taking in a Batman movie when chaos descends. It's scary, and being vigilant — especially when there's even the hint of an actual threat — is the only sensible reaction.

But we here at Looper stand firmly behind the comments made by Joker's director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix, which we reported on yesterday. What they boil down to is this: movies, music, and video games do not make anybody do anything. Troubled individuals with warped views of the world will validate those views using whatever they have at hand, whether it's a movie about the Joker, a song about unrequited love, or a toilet paper commercial. As Phoenix succinctly pointed out, it is not and shouldn't be the responsibility of the artist to teach his or her audience right from wrong; it's assumed that this is not necessary, for obvious reasons.

Yes, for a certain (very small) portion of its audience, Joker might serve to reinforce some troublesome views. This was not Phillips' or Phoenix's intent, and the same could be said about any number of Hollywood pictures — for example, Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, which was a strong influence on Joker and is widely considered to be among the best films ever made.

Hopefully, one day, we will live in a world where it won't cross anybody's mind to mull over every possible effect that every complicated piece of art might have on those who will seize on any reason to feel slighted, and to respond to those perceived slights with violence. But unfortunately, this is not that world, and it's completely understandable to feel fear and hopelessness when reading reports like this one.

So, we feel compelled to close with two thoughts. First, Joker is by all accounts an excellent and provocative film, one which will almost certainly land Phoenix an Oscar nomination, and which upends the popular notion of what a comic book-inspired movie can be. It opens on October 4, and we're going to be first in line. Yes, we'll probably be keeping that U.S. Army bulletin the backs of our minds when we plop our butts down in the theater seats, but the reality is that such vigilance is simply par for the course in this day and age.

Second: the film is also said to be a devastating portrait of mental illness, and while Joker is first and foremost entertainment, mental illness is no laughing matter. If you're struggling, there is help available. Look online for local resources, or text CONNECT to 741741 to be connected live to a trained crisis counselor through the national Crisis Text Line.