SALT LAKE CITY — Arthur Fleck covers his face in makeup. He lathers his tongue in white paint. He encircles his eyes with a verdant, venomous green. He becomes a clown, a prankster, an anarchist.

Society made him that way, or so it would seem. The jovial stand-up comedian, who takes care of his ailing mother, slowly breaks down from bullying — from being the butt of the joke. Always the punchline.

In the trailer, his psychologist tells him it’ll be their last appointment. It’s the last time they’ll meet. He says she just doesn’t get it. He says she asks the same question. How’s your job? Are you having negative thoughts?

“All I have are negative thoughts,” he confesses to his psychologist.

He declines from an enthusiastic, excited man who tried to make kids laugh on a bus into a twisted murderer with a spine-tingling, maniacal laugh. And then, Arthur Fleck, now known as Joker, leads riots. Violence breaks out, and he stands at the head of them. A peaceful man who once wanted to make the world laugh now incites mass violence against the innocent.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Fleck’s story is one of many origin stories for the character Joker. It will be seen in the forthcoming movie, “Joker,” a Todd Phillips film starring Joaquin Phoenix. The film received high praise and high criticism alike. Phoenix’s performance, the aesthetic and the story itself led to an eight-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. It has ignited early Oscar and Golden Globe buzz. It’s expected to break box-office records for October with a $90 million opening weekend (surpassing “Venom,” which earned $80.2 million last year). Fans are excited to see this film.

But there is a bigger question: Is this film right for 2019? Is it right to do a glorification story about a mentally ill white man who is so damaged by society that he eventually becomes a killer?

The film will be released next week and the question has been raised throughout the nation — from the “Today Show” to mainstream media outlets — because it is being released in the shadow of the nation’s crippling mass shootings, including in Gilroy, California, El Paso and Odessa, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

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Victims from the Aurora, Colorado, shooting in 2012 — at a midnight screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises,” no less — are concerned. The U.S. military is reportedly worried the film will encourage mass violence. Warner Bros. has apologized for that, saying violence isn’t the film’s charge. There’s been backlash to the film, and backlash to the backlash about the film. And at a time when violent film can be easily canceled — Universal’s “The Hunt” was cut for that very reason — the question becomes: Is “Joker” a good film for right now?

Some experts have an answer to the question, and the answer is no.

There is no easy way to tell the story of the Joker and avoid its motivating backstory — a character who has bathed in mass violence and hysteria since his inception. He isn’t one to play by the rules. He isn’t one to teach moral values. There is never a good time, nor a bad time, to release a Joker film.

His darkness, his thirst for chaos, corruption and craze, are too much to handle. And the film, which will tell his origin story from a realistic and grounded point of view, could inspire violence.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. | Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The backlash and praise for ‘Joker’

“Joker” has been full of intrigue since its inception. It drew heavy intrigue when three-time Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix was attached to the role of the Joker, a character previously played by the late Heath Ledger, who posthumously won an Oscar for his portrayal in “The Dark Knight.” Jared Leto has played Joker since Ledger’s performance, but that was met with more of a shoulder shrug than anything else. Phoenix’s attachment to the role drew immediate buzz.

The film’s picked up steam when the film received an eight-minute standing ovation during the Venice Film Festival. Critics adored the “Joker” upon first watch. Phoenix has been praised for his work.

But “Joker” received an R-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America in August, which cited violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. Critics pointed out that the film, because of those reasons, might not be a good story in modern times, where mass shootings happen consistently and people fear going to movie theaters and attending public events.

It doesn’t help that “Joker” might make viewers sympathize “with a homicidal loner at a time when America and the rest of the world are plagued by gun violence,” according to Brett Lang, a reviewer for Variety.

“That all but guarantees that ‘Joker’ will be a topic of fierce debate ... as critics and audiences grapple over the questions of whether it’s a brilliant piece of art or a danger to society,” he wrote.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. | Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Stephanie Zacharek of Time magazine slammed the film, too, saying it represents “the emptiness of our culture.”

“But it’s not as if we don’t know how this pathology works: In America, there’s a mass shooting or attempted act of violence by a guy like Arthur practically every other week. And yet we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for Arthur, the troubled lamb; he just hasn’t had enough love. Before long, he becomes a vigilante folk hero — his first signature act is to kill a trio of annoying Wall Street spuds while riding the subway, which inspires the masses to don clown masks and march enthusiastically around the city with ‘Kill the Rich!’ placards.”

Those two reviewers weren’t alone. Others weighed in. Social media user Hilary Agro weighed in on the trailer, tweeting, “So I have some thoughts on the new ‘Joker’ trailer with Joaquin Phoenix. In a time of increasing violence perpetrated by disaffected white men, is it really the best thing to keep making movies that portray disaffected white men doing violence as sympathetic?”

Similarly, another social media member wrote, “The new ‘Joker’ movie is starting to look like a sympathetic tale of a ‘wronged by society’ white dude and their entitlement to violence.”

It’s clear that the film’s “most vocal critics thus far are concerned that in the United States’ current climate, giving the spotlight to the character emboldens and galvanizes a type of thinking that can inspire mass shooters,” according to Vox.

More controversy rose with new trailers. The victims of families of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, shooting — which took place during a midnight screening of the Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises” — wrote a letter to Warner Bros., asking them to support better gun control policy. Warner Bros. responded with its own statement, saying the film isn’t meant to encourage violence.

“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.”

The ‘Joker’ is not (and never has been) a moral character

The Joker — despite what Cesar Romero’s portrayal in Adam West’s Batman or Jack Nicholson’s Joker might make you believe — is not a child-friendly villain, nor a villain that’s going to make you feel upbeat. He isn’t a good guy. He’s a psychopath. He has his own vision of the world that the world is not right. He is purely disturbing. Joker often doesn’t have a back story or origin. He forgets where he is from. He doesn’t have any moral values other than anarchy and the thirst to destroy Batman.

Joker first appeared in the first issue of the Batman comics and he did so by committing a mass murder attack. He used a solution to kill people and make them smile during their deaths. In the years after that, Joker still committed attacks. Though there was a brief period of time where Joker didn’t kill anyone, experts said, he soon returned to the comic pages and committed serious acts of violence and assault. He sexually assaulted women. He carved off his own face. He murdered Batman’s sidekick Robin. He shot Sarah Essen, the second wife of Commissioner Jim Gordon, and allowed infants to play in her blood. He verbally and physically abused his sometimes-girlfriend-sometimes-sidekick Harley Quinn.

Despite all the horrific acts, comic book fans have embraced the Joker character and have for decades, for a number of reasons, experts said.

Joker represents a part of life we can’t reach. He is a character who doesn’t play by the rules. He goes against the grain. He doesn’t align with world norms. He represents our fears of rebellion. He is pure chaos in a world full of order, said Steven Leyva, an assistant professor of communication design at the University of Baltimore.

And his story is never the same. His origin story shifts from writer to writer, decade to decade. One origin story says he falls into acid. Another story suggests he was driven crazy by society. He’s named Arthur Fleck in one origin story. In another, he’s named Joe Kerr.

“Joker’s presentations are so malleable,” Leyva said. “That’s partly why we’re interested.”

Dr. Pete Coogan, author of “Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre,” agreed. The Joker has no simple origin story. People want to know about the Joker, Coogan said. People are interested and fascinated with the character because we don’t know his origin story in full. His story is always changing. We want to figure him out, he said.

“We want to fill that blank space,” he said.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Sympathy and violence

Creating sympathy around the Joker character makes him — and this forthcoming “Joker” movie as a whole — potentially dangerous.

Films are often violent. And some violent films portray violent characters in sympathetic ways, which can be dangerous. Creating a movie centered around a violent criminal like the Joker means “you are doing something that has the potential to foster violence,” said Preston Hunter, a comic book fan and creator of the ComicBookReligion.com database.

“Once you start getting into the head of, you know, the sociopath, the anti-social person, the revolutionary, that’s when we suddenly think that this image of violence can be inspiring to the wrong kind of people,” said Kendall Phillips, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures and BRON Creative’s “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in “Joker,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. | Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

And it’s the films that put you in the mind of the character that create risk, Phillips said.

“Historically, it is interesting that many of the films that have caused controversy because of violence — it’s not just because of the acts of violence, but it’s because they sort of go into the mind of the violent person,” Phillips said.

Violent media has had an affect on young viewers, too. Research shows that fictional television and film violence can lead to increase violence among young viewers. Violence in news media and in video games also contributes to increased aggression.

“The relationship between media violence and real-world violence and aggression is moderated by the nature of the media content and characteristics of and social influences on the individual exposed to that content,” according to one study.

Media reports about possible violence — like stories about “Joker” that have come out in recent weeks — could also contribute to the problem, according to Scott Mendelson, a movie reviewer for Forbes.

“At this point, the thing most likely to inspire copycat violence during/after the release of #Joker is the constant media chattering about whether the release of #Joker will inspire copycat violence,” he tweeted.

Of course, violent media isn’t the only risk factor for mass violence, according to Melissa Henson, the program director for the Parents Television Council. But “it certainly is a risk factor and probably in the top 10 risk factors in terms of real world violence,” she said.

“Joker” defenders argue that the film is so horrific that reasonable people would be horrified by it, though, Henson said. “But it’s not the reasonable people that are seeing it that we need to be worried about. Right? it’s the people that are seeing it and saying, ‘Yeah, I’ve been mistreated too.’ ‘Yes, society has been jumping on me my whole life. And, you know, maybe I should follow this example.’ That’s the thing I think that we need to be concerned about.”

Violence in superhero movies

Comic book movies include a lot of violence. There isn’t one Marvel Cinematic Universe film that doesn’t include fights, terrorist attacks and massive casualties. Buildings collapse in major cities. Alien races are completely wiped out. Terrorist plots put people in peril.

Look at “Avengers: Infinity War” as an example. Thanos (Josh Brolin) eliminated trillions of people in a cataclysmic event. He snapped his fingers and half of the universe’s population was killed. That’s massive violence on a galactic scale.

Another example is the “John Wick” series, a trilogy of films starring Keanu Reeves (a white man) who uses machine guns and weapons to seek revenge on his enemies through violence. “Joker” director Todd Phillips said as much this week, asking why critics don’t get upset over that film since it also deals with violence.

Those acts of violence are easier to swallow, though, because they happen on a cosmic scale that doesn’t seem as grounded in reality. “Joker,” though, is heavily grounded in the real world, experts said. Arthur Fleck could be anyone from any time.

“I think it’s interesting choice right now, to take that in a very different direction,” said Phillips, the Syracuse University professor who teaches classes on the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“It seems like this film is going into a much, much darker place. And it’ll be interesting to see if audiences feel like it’s in conversation with this big superhero genre, or if it just feels like an anomaly that doesn’t fit,” Phillips said.

Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The more grounded approach changes how we see the film, Phillips said. We don’t get upset when we know Thanos kills trillions because it’s not realistic to us. The story of Arthur Fleck, though, is a modern day story that hits home, which is why we care more about it.

“To me the decision to make a film using superhero iconography in the Joker, but seemingly grounding in a very real, very intimate sense of violence, as opposed to big cosmic violence. That’s a very intentional choice. And it clearly changes how that violence is meaningful to us,” Phillips said.

Hollywood can fix these problems, said Henson, from the Parents Television Council. She said Hollywood should take responsibility for violent shows, movies and productions and be more open about creating safe content for families and children.

Movies — especially comic book movies — may be intended for an adult crowd but children will still see them, Henson said. Hollywood should be more mindful about what they’re creating, especially when they know children embrace comic book characters in droves.

Niko Tavernise, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.