Family members of those killed in the July 20, 2012, mass shooting at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, have signed a letter to Warner Bros. sharing concerns about the upcoming Joker film and asking the studio to donate to groups that aid victims of gun violence.
“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,” reads the letter, a copy of which was shared with The Hollywood Reporter.
Seven years have passed since James Holmes, clad in full body armor and armed with multiple guns including an assault rifle, terrorized the Aurora Cinemark theater, murdering 12 people and injuring 70 during a screening of Christopher Nolan’s Batman film.
Now, as Warner Bros. gears up for the Oct. 4 release of Todd Phillips’ R-rated Joker, which is attracting attention for its gritty, realistic violence as well as for its artistry and the performance of star Joaquin Phoenix, some survivors and relatives of the victims are expressing fears about the film.
“I don’t need to see a picture of [Holmes]; I just need to see a Joker promo and I see a picture of the killer,” says Sandy Phillips, whose 24-year-old daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was among the slain.
Sandy Phillips (no relation to the film’s director), who with her husband, Lonnie, created the nonprofit group Survivors Empowered, worked with Igor Volsky of the gun control advocacy group Guns Down America to craft the letter to Warner Bros., which was signed by five family members of victims and sent Tuesday morning.
In an interview, Sandy Phillips says that Joker, which centers on the isolated and mentally ill antihero who becomes Batman’s eventual archnemesis, is “like a slap in the face.” She adds that she’s concerned about audiences connecting to and even emulating the film’s protagonist in a cultural climate where mass shootings have become commonplace.
“My worry is that one person who may be out there — and who knows if it is just one — who is on the edge, who is wanting to be a mass shooter, may be encouraged by this movie. And that terrifies me,” she says.
One theater that apparently will not be showing Joker: Century Aurora and XD, the remodeled venue where the shooting took place.
The theater chain did not respond to a request for comment. But as of Monday night, no showtimes were listed online for Joker at the Aurora multiplex, and a theater employee told THR that advance ticket purchases were not available because the film will not be shown at the venue.
The letter, addressed to new Warner Bros. CEO Ann Sarnoff, does not seek to halt the release of the film nor to rally gun critics to boycott it. Rather, it asks the studio to “end political contributions to candidates who take money from the NRA and vote against gun reform” and “use your political clout and leverage in Congress to actively lobby for gun reform. Keeping everyone safe should be a top corporate priority for Warner Brothers.”
The letter states that the shooting was “perpetrated by a socially isolated individual who felt ‘wronged’ by society.” It continues: “As a result, we have committed ourselves to ensuring that no other family ever has to go through the absolute hell we have experienced and the pain we continue to live with. Trust us, it does not go away.”
Warner Bros. released the following statement on Tuesday afternoon: “Gun violence in our society is a critical issue, and we extend our deepest sympathy to all victims and families impacted by these tragedies. Our company has a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora, and in recent weeks, our parent company joined other business leaders to call on policymakers to enact bipartisan legislation to address this epidemic. At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues. Make no mistake: neither the fictional character Joker, nor the film, is an endorsement of real-world violence of any kind. It is not the intention of the film, the filmmakers or the studio to hold this character up as a hero.”
Those who signed the letter to Warner Bros. are Sandy and Lonnie Phillips; Heather Dearman, whose cousin Ashley Moser was severely wounded and lost her unborn child due to her injuries, and whose 6-year-old daughter Veronica Moser Sullivan was killed; Theresa Hoover, whose 18-year-old son Alexander J. Boik was killed; and Tiina Coon, whose son witnessed the shooting.
Holmes, convicted of 24 counts of first-degree murder and now serving life in prison with no possibility of parole, will be forever linked to the Batman film. In the days following the massacre, he was compared to the Joker character because he sported bright dyed hair and, according to a now-debunked report at the time, called himself “the Joker” as he was being arrested. Daniel Oates, Aurora’s chief of police at the time, maintains “there is no evidence” Holmes ever said that.
Nevertheless, says Oates, “Every time there is a mass shooting or, in the collective media culture, a portrayal of a mass shooting or an evil character who engages in the wanton, random, senseless killing of innocents, we are all traumatized again.” Sandy Phillips expands on that: “For me, it’s the gratuitous violence that this film glorifies and elevates with the Joker character.”
The letter from Aurora victims comes at a sensitive time for Warner Bros., which is marketing the hard R-rated crime drama differently from typical all-audience superhero pictures. While early tracking suggests the $75 million film will open to more than $80 million domestically, Phoenix briefly excused himself from a recent interview to consult with Warners’ PR when he was asked if he felt the performance might inspire actual acts of violence.
In a piece published Monday, Phoenix told IGN, “Well, I think that, for most of us, you’re able to tell the difference between right and wrong. 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.”
And Todd Phillips told IGN, “The movie makes statements about a lack of love, childhood trauma, lack of compassion in the world. I think people can handle that message.” He added: “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, Do the Right Thing, they said that about [that movie, too].”
Phoenix’s complex portrayal of Arthur Fleck, who eventually becomes the Joker, is very different from the cartoonish supporting character played by Jared Leto in the 2016 PG-13-rated Suicide Squad. Todd Phillips’ hyper-realistic Joker roots the villain’s origin story in a dark tale, and the violence, at times with a gun, is brutal and jarring.
The film won raves at its Venice International Film Festival premiere this year, taking the top prize and generating Oscar buzz for Phoenix. (THR critic David Rooney called the actor’s portrayal “riveting … both unsettling and weirdly affecting.”)
Oates, who retired in June after nearly 39 years in law enforcement, says he believes the timing of Joker is poor, noting three mass shootings in the past three months: at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California, where three people were killed on July 28; the massacre in El Paso, Texas, where 22 people were killed on Aug. 3; and then the following day the shootings in Dayton, Ohio, where nine people were killed.
Fears of being retraumatized by Joker are legitimate, explains Dr. Debra Kaysen, a professor in Stanford University’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
“During a trauma, there are so many cues that are happening around the trauma itself. It could be your heart racing. It could be the sounds or the smell or what’s happening in the space,” says Kaysen, who specializes in PTSD. “So, that certainly happens when people go through truly horrifying events, like the Aurora shooting, both for the people who were there, but also the people who lost loved ones.”
Joker could “trigger” victims’ PTSD for multiple reasons, she says. “It’s topically related. It’s in the same comic book universe. [The trauma] is also movie-associated. And it is a violence storyline. So, you have a compounding of those networks, or those cues.”
Aurora survivor Pierce O’Farrill, who was shot multiple times and still has a bullet lodged in his arm, says he suffered his first panic attack since the massacre about eight months ago. It occurred in a movie theater.
“It had nothing to do with the movie,” O’Farrill explains. “I just — I don’t know what it was, but I had a PTSD attack and all those memories came flooding back, and I had to get myself out of the theater. You just never know what can trigger it, and I sympathize with those folks who are concerned about this film.”
But not all family members of Aurora victims are against the film. Tom Sullivan, whose 27-year-old son Alex was killed in the massacre, says he does not believe Joker will “jump-start somebody” to commit acts of violence.
“I don’t think that seeing something is the catalyst to, ‘OK, that is what I am going to start to do,'” says Sullivan, now a Democratic state representative in Colorado. He also says that he still enjoys Batman films, but the Joker character is his least favorite, so he has no interested in the Phoenix-led movie.
Sullivan introduced presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke at a town hall last week in Aurora, where the Democratic politician again called for rounding up high-powered assault weapons amid his platform of stronger gun control.
Sullivan says he would support Warner Bros. adding “a blurb at the end or beginning of the movie about directing people to organizations for mental health.”
O’Farrill says he supports the idea of Warner Bros. donating to relevant causes. Still, the self-described “comic book nerd” says he thinks Joker looks entertaining.
“I do want to see it,” he says. “I think it looks interesting. I don’t know that I’ll see it in the theater, but I’ll definitely see the film.”
Continues O’Farrill, “If people were trying to shut down the film, I would have a strong opinion against that because I am kind of an old-school constitutionalist. I think Warner Bros. has the right to make any kind of film they want.”
Sept. 24, 1:10 p.m. Updated with statement from Warner Bros.