'Joker' director Todd Phillips pushes back against 'outrage,' 'far-left' criticism

"What's outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far-left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda," the director said in a newly published interview.

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By Daniel Arkin

The director of "Joker," an upcoming film that has drawn criticism for its violent and lurid take on the supervillain, is forcefully pushing back against detractors.

Todd Phillips, best known for directing raunchy comedies like "The Hangover" trilogy, said in a newly published interview with The Wrap that complaints about his R-rated comic book drama are driven by people looking for reasons to feel aggrieved.

"I think it's because outrage is a commodity. I think it's something that has been a commodity for a while," Phillips told the entertainment news website in a Sept. 20 interview published Wednesday. "What's outstanding to me in this discourse in this movie is how easily the far-left can sound like the far right when it suits their agenda."

"It's been really eye-opening for me," Phillips added.

"Joker," starring Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled stand-up comedian who descends into madness in Gotham City, made headlines this week after relatives of people killed in the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, sent a letter to the film's distributor, Warner Bros., expressing unease.

"When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie ... that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause," the five family members say in the letter, according to a copy shared with NBC News by the group Guns Down America.

The families pressed the AT&T-owned film studio to donate to funds that support victims of gun violence and lobby for gun reforms in Congress. They stopped short of calling on the company to cancel plans to release the film nationwide Oct. 4.

In a statement to NBC News, Warner Bros. said it believed gun violence is a major issue and extended condolences to families touched by tragedy. The company said it had "a long history of donating to victims of violence, including Aurora."

"At the same time, Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues," the studio said in the statement.

"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 studio added.

In an email Sept. 18, a U.S. Army base in Oklahoma warned service members that threats had been made against an unspecific movie theater amid the "Joker" release, according to a Gizmodo report. The Army sent another memo Monday, but spokesman Christopher Grey said there was not "any information indicating a specific, credible threat to a particular location or venue."

The warnings were distributed, Grey said, "out of an abundance of caution to help keep our soldiers and their families safe."

"Joker" stirred debate after it won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival in August, drawing plaudits for Phoenix's performance as sadistic antihero Arthur Fleck and denunciation for its gritty depiction of his psychological unraveling.

Some critics have said they are unnerved by the film's real-world implications — and the way it could be interpreted by alienated, radicalized young men.

"He could easily be adopted as the patron saint of incels," Time magazine film critic Stephanie Zacharek wrote, using shorthand for the online community of misogynists who identify as involuntary celibates.

"Arthur inspires chaos and anarchy, but the movie makes it look like he's starting a revolution, where the rich are taken down, the poor get everything they need and deserve, and the sad guys who can't get a date become killer heroes," Zacharek wrote.

Phillips, for his part, said in the interview with the Wrap that he was "surprised" by the concerns about the film's power to provoke.

"Isn't it good to have these discussions? Isn't it good to have these discussions about these movies, about violence? Why is that a bad thing if the movie does lead to a discourse about it?"

"We didn't make the movie to push buttons," said Phillips, who has previously described the project as an attempt to capture the gritty, hard-edged spirit of 1970s character dramas — especially Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy" — inside a comic book adaptation tied to a mass-market franchise.

"I literally described to Joaquin [Phoenix] at one point in those three months as like, 'Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film,'" Phillips told The Wrap. "It wasn't, 'We want to glorify this behavior.' It was literally like, 'Let's make a real movie with a real budget and we'll call it [expletive] Joker'. That's what it was."