With the much-anticipated release of Todd Phillips’ Joker just around the corner, some of the family members of the victims of the 2012 Aurora theater massacre are stepping forward. They’re being interviewed by media outlets after signing an open letter to Warner Bros. about their concern with the level of violence depicted in the Batman spin-off’s trailers starring Joaquin Phoenix. 

Sandy Phillips lost her 24-year-old daughter, Jessi Ghawi, at the midnight showing of the 2012 Batman film The Dark Knight Rises. The young woman was one of 12 people needlessly and horrifically killed by a mass murderer. Seventy other moviegoers were injured as well. 

“We are calling on you to be a part of the growing chorus of corporate leaders who understand that they have a social responsibility to keep us all safe,” Phillips and four other shooting survivors wrote, asking the studio to donate proceeds to groups supporting victims and urging Congress to pass bipartisan gun-control legislation.

The psychological thriller is being distributed by Warner Bros. and it’s set to launch DC Black, a series of DC-based standalone films. Set in 1981, Joker delves into the dark and chilling backstory of the title character and explores themes of modern-day neglect, mental illness, and violence. The failed stand-up comic Arthur Fleck struggles with rejection and evolves into a killer clown in Gotham City. The film is the first live-action Batman franchise film to be rated R because of its violent content. 

Joker premiered at the 76th Venice International Film Festival in August and was honored with the festival’s highest prize. Phoenix’s gritty and disturbing performance received considerable praise from critics and audiences alike. With the abundance of enthusiasm, the film is projected to debut to as much as $90 million in its opening weekend.

On the other hand, Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek criticized the film, arguing that while Todd Phillips created a film “all about the emptiness of our culture … he’s just offering a prime example of it.”

Similarly, National Review’s Jim Geraghty expressed concern the movie could inspire copycat killers. Indeed, he felt “worried that a certain segment of America’s angry, paranoid, emotionally unstable young men will watch Joaquin Phoenix descending into madness and a desire to get back at society by hurting as many people as possible and exclaim, ‘finally, somebody understands me!’”

Making this concern more real, the United States Army distributed a nationwide email marked “For official use only,” warning American troops to be on the lookout for potential mass shooters at theaters featuring Joker. Looking at alarming social media posts, Federal officials uncovered evidence of possible attacks, particularly stemming from involuntarily celibate males, known as incels, who feel rejected by women and society. The email explained, incels “idolize the Joker character, the violent clown from the Batman series,” and they relate to him as a “man who must pretend to be happy but eventually fights back against the bullies.” Service members who choose to watch the movie in theaters are advised to “identify two escape routes” and to “run, hide, fight,” according to a New York Post article. The email was followed up with a memo from Army officials warning they’d received “credible” and “disturbing and very specific chatter” on the dark Web from Texas law enforcement.

The film will not be shown at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater where the 2012 mass shooting occurred, as requested by Sandy Phillips and the four other shooting survivors.

During an interview with the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, Phoenix was asked, “Aren’t you worried that this film might perversely end up inspiring exactly the kind of people it’s about, with potentially tragic results?” In turn, the star reportedly answered, “Why would you …? No … No,” before abruptly shaking the host’s hand and walking out of the room. 

And in an interview with the AP, Todd Phillips pushed back at the controversy, saying, “This is not the thing that the movie’s trying to represent. The movie still takes place in a fictional world. It can have real-world implications [and] opinions, but it’s a fictional character in a fictional world that’s been around for 80 years.” Indeed, he feels strongly that his film is being unfairly judged, especially considering the tremendous amount of violent movies that have been made, if not revered, over the course of decades.

Joker is scheduled to be released in theaters on Friday, October 4th. Are you among the many fans who are excited to see Phoenix’s performance in the theater? Or does the film’s disturbing themes accompanied by the Army’s cautionary notices have you making other plans?