'Joker' shooting threat inspires legitimate concerns over incel terrorism

The U.S. military warns that there may be a significant threat coming during release weekend.

Warner Bros.

“An incel walks the earth his entire life without even a single women acknowledging his existence, does said incel really exist?” An anonymous incel (involuntarily celibate) blogger wrote this in a 2016 post labeling James Holmes a hero. You might not immediately recognize the name, but James Holmes is the orange-haired man convicted of 24 counts of first-degree murder and 140 counts of attempted murder in 2012 after he attacked a crowd of people in an Aurora, Colorado theater screening of The Dark Knight Rises, all while dressed as the Joker.

This week, the grim memory of Colorado’s most deadly mass shooting ever resurfaced in discussions about the new Joker movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the anarchist clown and long-time Batman villain. It opens on October 4.

The Hollywood Reporter reported on Tuesday that family members of the Aurora shooting victims sent a letter to Warner Bros., the film studio behind both The Dark Knight Rises and Joker.

“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,” they write in the letter, asking the studio to donate to charities involving the support of gun violence victims.

Sandy Phillips, the mother to one of the slain in the Aurora shooting, called Joker ”a slap in the face.”

That same day, a newspaper and website for the U.S. military community called Star and Stripes reported on a memo received by military commanders in Oklahoma on Monday warning that “a Texas law enforcement agency working with the FBI had discovered ‘disturbing and very specific chatter in the dark web’ about the possible targeting of an unknown theater for a mass shooting during the [October] 4 release” of Joker.

Should we all be a little concerned?

Phoenix's Arthur Fleck is an undeniably troubled individual.

Warner Bros. Pictures

In the wake of mass tragedy — or a series of mass tragedies going back decades, like mass shootings in America — the government’s response historically has been to “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Airport security increased drastically in America after 9/11, and flying was made safer than ever. The same can’t be said for security at movie theaters around the country, however. At a popular theater chain in New York City, I was easily able to smuggle in an entire sandwich and three cans of seltzer after a half-hearted bag check. (In Aurora, the shooter left the theater via an exit door he left propped open and re-entered the same way after retrieving weapons from his car.)

Minimal security measures are routine in many theaters, but they feel ineffective and insufficient, particularly in places with higher risk. The fact is, despite the overwhelming number of mass shootings in America, very little is being done about it. Do we need more metal detectors? More thorough baggage check? Maybe just better gun control?

Weapons manufacturer Colt did announce last week that it would stop producing AR-15 rifles for consumers. The preferred gun in mass shootings will now be harder to acquire, but the U.S. government has failed to institute even the most basic forms of gun control as mass shootings continue at an alarming pace. Instead, it’s been companies like Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods that have taken measure to remove handguns and semi-automatic guns from their inventory.

At the government level, President Donald Trump called for action after back-to-back shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio this August, but failed to specify what policies he’d support. By September, a House committee took up legislation aimed at preventing mass shootings limiting access to high-capacity magazines for everyone and preventing those convicted of hate crimes from purchasing firearms. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke has plans to “take” AR-15s from people, but so far, that’s translated to zero actual legislation around how we treat guns in America.

Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker in 'Joker'.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Last week, Joaquin Phoenix walked out of an interview with The Telegraph’s film critic Robbie Collin. In an article about the interview, she wrote that Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck was “an unstable, self-pitying loner with a mass-shooter mindset,” so she asked Phoenix if he was worried the film might inspire the type of people it’s clearly about. Flustered, Phoenix walked out and only returned after an hour of “peace-brokering with a Warner Bros PR.”

Phoenix has proven himself an excellent actor time and time again, but he seems ill-equipped to confront the real-life implications of his own character. Even after returning to the interview, he never offered a direct answer to the question, but he doesn’t have to. The answer is yes, we should all be a little bit worried.

Joker is directed by Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover trilogy that broadcasts a rather different brand of toxic masculinity, the sex-crazed and drug-laden kind full of debauchery that makes plenty of normal men feel emasculated, incels included. Phillips told IGN’s Jim Vejvoda that before passing harsh judgment on Joker, people should “watch it with an open mind.”

Are Warner Bros. and Todd Phillips capitalizing on the outspoken frustrations of a depraved group of people who claim they’re being deprived of basic human need? Incels will often, in implicit and explicit language, refer to sex as perhaps the most necessary of human needs. This specific deprivation is what drives them to violence as a means to be noticed by a culture that they perceive as oppressive and uncaring. Arthur Fleck in Joker may not be overly concerned with sex (we’re not sure, we haven’t seen the movie), but the parallels between both ways of thinking are readily apparent.

And so, barely over a week before its October 4 release date, Joker is already one of the most polarizing films of 2019. One review published by Refinery29 is titled “Joker Is A Dangerous Film — & It’s Bringing Out The Worst In The Internet.” Vanity Fair calls it “deeply troubling.” Plenty of liberal-leaning people are concerned about how Joker might empower troubled individuals, and if internal military memos are any indication, then we should all be a little scared.

Incels and incel-adjacent people on the internet who prefer white male power fantasies seem to love what Joker is going for. When the first trailer was released, the Overlord DVD YouTube channel published a video calling it “brilliant, haunting, and evocative” and openly wondered if it might be the “best film of 2019.” A self-described pop culture critic, many of his videos rage against the rise of non-white, non-male heroes like Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel or Daisy Ridley’s Rey in Star Wars.

When reports emerged that Warner Bros. considered casting Michael B. Jordan, a black man, as the replacement for Henry Cavill as Superman, he called it a “fucking disgrace” in a video saying, “do we want to live in a world … where all our modern myths have been defiled, and our cultural heritage lies in ruins?”

Whether or not Overlord DVD is an incel or not doesn’t matter, but the fact retmains that he empowers the type of person who feels attacked by growing diversity of heroes in entertainment while simultaneously worshiping villains like the Joker. A huge swath of the internet feels threatened by what they perceive as a decrease in the number of white male power fantasies. Is Joker their rallying cry at a turbulent time in the internet’s history?



An excellent, cheeky blog called Angry White Man originally drew my attention to the anonymous incel blogger who called James Holmes a hero, the same who wagered his very existence on whether or not women would notice him.

“How about if said incel gets frustrated, since not only did you deny him sex, a basic need, but you lied to him, you ridiculed him, you pushed him out, you bullied him, you got him fired from his job,” the blog post goes on, stretching the analogy to its horrifying breaking point. “So, since you took away everything said incel has to live for, as well as any investment in society, he goes and shoots up a theater for revenge. Does said incel exist then?”

This twisted perversion on the philosophical thought experiment of a tree falling in the woods broadcasts the exact same language that Joker uses when characterizing Arthur Fleck’s transformation into the violent Clown Prince of Crime.

“All I have are negative thoughts,” Arthur says in the final Joker trailer. “For my whole life, I didn’t even know if I really existed, but I do — and people are starting to notice.” He literally uses the same metaphors and language as real-life incels who view mass murderers as heroes.

For people that feel invisible and undervalued, who are part of the generation constantly told of their specialness as children before growing up into normal people like everyone else, the Joker is an icon, a hero, the type of self-possessed man you can emulate to become special. The Joker feels powerless and oppressed by the world, so he strikes back against the people and society that wronged him, exerts violent control over it all to prove to everyone, including himself, that he exists.

Everyone notices when a person commits violent atrocities. Is that better than being invisible? Not all incels would say so, but enough of them do that we have every right to be concerned and watchful when Joker comes to theaters.

When people put a mask on to say and do hateful things, and they worship violent Batman villains and real-life mass-murderers alike as heroes, we should all be a little bit more careful. Maybe metal detectors in movie theaters aren’t such a bad idea after all.

Joker will be released in theaters October 4, 2019.

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