The movie sparked worry that its antisocial violence might speak to extremists. Radicalization expert Robert Evans tells us why that probably won’t happen.
In the buildup to the release of Joker, the much-discussed new antihero film centered on the main villain of the Batman franchise, the media latched onto one specific narrative: that the film had potential to inspire real-world violence, particularly from incels, who some believed might feel some sort of kinship with the movie’s “angry loner” version of the Joker. Pundits worried that the film could even lead to a repeat of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, mass shooting, which took place at a movie theater showing The Dark Knight Rises. That movie was the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the second of which starred Heath Ledger as the Joker and renewed the character’s status as a cultural icon.
Though rumors that the Aurora shooter was inspired by the character of the Joker turned out to be false, the memory is clearly still strong for many people — including victims of the 2012 shooting, some of whom penned an open letter to Warner Bros. asking the studio to push for stricter gun control alongside Joker’s release. This prompted director Todd Phillips to defend his film, noting that it was unfair to blame either The Dark Knight Rises, Joker, or the Joker character himself for the actions or possible actions of mass shooters.
Writer-director Todd Phillips says it isn’t fair to link his #JokerMovie to real-world violence: “It’s a fictional character in a fictional world that’s been around for 80 years.” pic.twitter.com/NcT4d9fjOQ
— AP Entertainment (@APEntertainment) September 24, 2019
In order to learn more about the factors influencing the media coverage around the film and how those factors compare to the real motives that typically influence this kind of violence, I turned to journalist Robert Evans, a longtime expert on extremist communities and the host of the Behind the Bastards podcast, which examines the lives and cultural contexts of a wide range of “bastards,” including many extremists and radicals throughout history.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why do you think so many people in the press specifically latched onto Joker as an example of media that could potentially inspire dangerous extremism and vigilante justice?
I think there are two chief reasons. One of them is completely unjustified, and one of them is partially justified by things that have happened before. I think the chief reason, and the unjustified reason, that people are focusing on the Joker movie is The Dark Knight Rises and the 2012 mass shooting in Aurora. There’s actually a major misconception: The shooter was not dressing up as the Joker [during the attack on the movie theater]. He was in no way trying to carry out something from the movie. I have never seen any evidence that he was a particular fan of Heath Ledger’s Joker or of that [film] in general. This was misinformation that was put out by a police officer who was interviewed by a couple of newspapers.
But if you actually study what the shooter said in interviews, what he wrote in his notebooks, what he’d been talking about with the therapist, he had this very strange sort of quasi-spiritual belief that his value as a person was low, and he could kill people because their lives would add to his.
Most mass shooters are not mentally ill. He is one of the fairly rare ones who had some significant mental illness, and it had nothing to do with the movie. But because it occurred on that day, because his hair was dyed a garish color and because the pundits didn’t know what they were talking about [when they] spread that misinformation, that belief [that the Joker was an influence] was widespread. So I think that’s a reason people are worried about this movie, and I think it’s the unjustified one.
Now, the one that is a little bit justified is the shooting of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley, Jr. [in 1981], because Hinckley was partly inspired by the  movie Taxi Driver. He was also a very mentally ill man who believed that he would be able to have a relationship with Jodie Foster if he impressed her in that way. It’s a pretty famous story.
I’m not going to say there’s no precedent for a movie hitting someone who has a mental health issue in a way that it causes them to do something inexplicable and terrible, but that’s extremely rare. I can’t think of another case where it’s been that direct other than the case of John Hinckley. I don’t see that as particularly likely.
And again, I think it’s incredibly important to note that of the significant number of mass shooters in American history, virtually none of them had preexisting diagnosed mental illnesses. And when we look at the intellectual problem, you know, people are worried about the Joker movie within the context of incel and white supremacist terror groups. Like people on 8chan, which has been [involved in] carrying out the majority of at least the most publicized mass shootings of the last year or so. But I would say [their actions have] nothing to do with mental illness. Those are people who see themselves as part of a cause and who are taking action to further that cause. Their actions may seem inexplicable to people, but that doesn’t mean that the illness has anything to do with it.
How much of the film’s media coverage do you think is predicated on the character of the Joker himself, who is an anarchistic, violent mayhem spreader?
If you actually look at the propaganda these mass shooters spread, the Joker and other fictional vigilantes don’t play into it at all. They’re much more likely to spread videos and writings by, for example, the Columbine shooters, [Eric] Harris and [Dylan] Klebold, Harris in particular. Like, that’s the kind of guy they look to as an idol, not a comic book character.
When they spread fictional stuff and characters that have inspired them, it’s usually stuff like [the 1978 novel about extremist violence] The Turner Diaries or Unintended Consequences, which is a novel about gun culture in the US. There’s a book called Siege by a guy named James Mason, and it’s a guide to carrying out the neo-Nazi insurgency. And the goal is to essentially perpetrate a series of mass shootings and bombings across the country carried out by small cells or individuals, but there’s no centralized organizational structure. The Turner Diaries is essentially the same thing, but rather than it being the work of decentralized individuals carrying out attacks to destabilize governments, it’s a secret terrorist group called [“The Organization”].
For one thing, the Joker is kind of an inherently apolitical figure, and these guys tend to have very political motivations for doing what they’re doing. I’m completely baffled by the fact that so many folks in the media seem to be focusing on the Joker’s ability to inspire incels to terrorism because the Joker is famously in a long-term relationship with somebody. Like, it’s odd that that’s so focused on. [Editor’s note: Though the Joker is in a long-term relationship with Harley Quinn in most portrayals of the character in the DC Comics universe, Joker presents him as a loner who fixates dangerously on women.]
Well, I think there’s a conflation happening there. I think people in the media are inaccurately conflating incel culture with all of alt-right culture and, to some extent, all of Gamergate. There’s a lot of inherently negative stereotypes about geek culture that go into that.
It’s best to see these communities as a bunch of interlocking circles, where you have incels and you have neo-Nazis, then you have Columbiners. You have the “Bowl Patrol” people who obsess over [Charleston shooter] Dylann Roof. You have all these different groups, and they have sometimes considerable overlap. A lot of incel culture has been very infected by weird, more esoteric, national socialist racial theory.
But I don’t see nerd culture feeding into it as much as [the fact that] the kind of people who get into radical extremism are often the kind of people who spend most of their time online. [They] tend to be insular people, and so they’re also interested in that stuff. It’s like, just because most of them are, or were, at some point gamers. that doesn’t mean that video games made them do this or made it more likely that they would do this.
It’s just that the kind of people who are going to be in these radicalized communities also tend to have obsessive personalities and [aren’t] super social. So they wind up in these online communities, where more explicit and ideological members of these movements are trying to recruit and draw people in.
That’s part of why I think it’s a big mistake to focus on this movie as a driver of radicalization. The stuff that convinces these people to act is so much deeper than a movie about a failed clown who murders a bunch of people.
I mean, look at the content they’re sharing. It’s very explicitly racist, very explicitly, um, [genocidal] and includes — [it] is a thousand times more violent and hateful than anything that a mainstream movie would come out [with].
Like a lot of the things that are shared most often [on places] like 8chan, you’re going to see pictures from the Oklahoma City bombing, from the victims of mass shootings. That sort of thing. It’s celebrating the violence. One of the most popular pieces of media circulated among these groups on that front [is the video from] the terrorist shooting in Christchurch, which is worse than anything you’re ever going to see in a movie.
From trying to understand where the media is coming from regarding the film and its surrounding cultural context, I think that a lot of the concern might be motivated by the Christchurch shooting and the fact that the shooter left behind that meme-filled manifesto. People who are less familiar with the actual granular planning and structures of these communities, they look at the alt-right movement and they see it proliferating with memes, and then they look at the Joker.
I think that critics see the Joker as this villain who frames violence within this context of nihilistic anarchy where nothing matters. And some also see that as fully aligned with the alt-right approach, and the alt-right milieu of benefiting from mass hysteria by claiming that everybody else is too serious. They see those things as being very culturally aligned. And you look at things like the Christchurch shooter saying “subscribe to PewDiePie” before opening fire, and that seems like a very Joker-like thing to do.
I see why people might conflate that. I think there’s a number of errors in that thinking and it’s the people kind of failing to grasp what’s going on in these people’s heads.
One of those errors would be … anarchism doesn’t appeal. By and large, there are people who believe very strict hierarchy: biological hierarchy, racial hierarchy, and social hierarchy. One of the reasons that there’s been some misconceptions in the media is the “clown world” meme, which is a very common white nationalist meme that popped up earlier this year. The idea is that they have like a Pepe figure [Pepe the Frog is a famous internet meme that’s notoriously been appropriated by the alt-right] that’s wearing clown makeup and a clown wig and stuff. And I think people who don’t understand what the meme is about think it ties in somehow to the Joker.
It doesn’t. When the extremists are calling something the “clown world,” what they’re saying is that the fact that women are able to work [in important jobs], or the fact that women are in positions of power, the fact that we have multiculturalism, the fact that we have a multi-ethnic society — that’s all inherently absurd and wrong.
And so, because the world is so broken by the fact that women are going to get jobs and that people of different races can now live among each other, because that’s so fundamentally broken in their minds, our world is a “clown world.” That’s what they’re saying.
I mean, I’m sure plenty of [these people] enjoyed watching the second Christopher Nolan Batman movie, and Heath Ledger’s Joker. Maybe some of them enjoy [Joker]. But they’re fundamentally not interested in violent extremism for reasons of just causing chaos. [For instance,] people who are fans of that book Siege or The Turner Diaries, [they want] to destabilize society to such an extent that a fascist dictatorship is able to take hold and the white supremacist state can arise and exterminate the nonwhite. That’s the goal of an extremist like that. Online, in communities like 8chan and other groups, people who are fans of that are referred to by other white nationalists as “Siege-heads.” There are different sort of communities within the white nationalist scene online.
Again, these aren’t anarchists. They see themselves as soldiers fighting for a cause. I just don’t think they’re going to find much to appeal to them in a movie like Joker or in that character. The people who are already on that path [don’t need a movie to tip the scale].
They just arrested that young woman in Florida. And she had a copy of The Turner Diaries with her. I’m sure she had other white nationalist literature. She wasn’t influenced or inspired by any Hollywood movie. She was obsessed with the Columbine shooters and [Oklahoma City bomber] Timothy McVeigh. It’s the same thing with [the Christchurch shooter, who] didn’t really cite any fiction as an influence in his radicalization path. It was the online community and these esoteric works of Nazi racial theory, and the sort of attitudes expressed in these communities about white genocide.
Members of these groups have been pushing for white genocide [for] 40, 50 years. The idea that a 90-minute Hollywood movie that just has a character who looks like a generic young male terrorist — the idea that that would be what tips anybody into violence? That’s absurd to me.
I don’t think it’s impossible that somebody would pick a showing of that movie to go shoot up. But if that happens, it’s not been inspired by the Joker. It’s because they saw a bunch of media coverage talking about how everyone’s worried that the movie is going to inspire a mass shooting, and they were like, Okay, well, maybe if I do it there. I’ll get a bunch of media attention.
But I think that happening is unlikely, just because of how much security there’s going to be in a lot of showings. That’s one of the big stories — there’s all these people issuing warnings [to theatergoers about the movie and possible dangers they fear it could pose].
These [potential shooters] don’t want a hard target. They want to be able to rack up a huge death toll and then ideally be taken alive, which is one of the big wrinkles introduced by [the Christchurch shooter].
I think it’s not been reported on enough, but this idea that [shooters] don’t have to die carrying out an attack is one of the major new things that’s changed about this sort of violence this year.
If you were going to give advice to members of the media reporting on these — I almost don’t want to say reporting on these stories, because in some cases the media are creating the stories, aren’t they? But when we’re reporting on what seems like the nexus of internet culture, geek culture, and the anarchistic upheaval in these types of antihero films — how would you suggest we do it without perpetuating misinformation and conflating rational fear about real-world consequences with irrational panic over dangerous fiction?
I mean, I hate to say it, because I like your work and I tend to like Vox, but I’m not sure it’s even a good idea to write about [the film], unless what you’re writing about is just the fact that this culture of hysteria has crept up around the movie.
I am not aware of any actual experts [who research methods for] countering violent extremism, people who are regarded within that community, who consider this [movie] a particular cause for worry or source of radicalization. And I don’t have any worries about this film [inciting any violence, either].
Author: Aja Romano