Sociology, Department of


Date of this Version



Bosch, Brandon, and Lisa Kort-Butler. 2023. "The Joker Controversy: An Origin Story." Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture 23(2): 1-28.


The Joker has been in the Batman comics for over 80 years and appeared on small and large screen as Batman’s violent arch-nemesis. In the month prior to its theatrical release, commentary about the 2019 film Joker spurred a viral media reaction with concerns about the film inciting violence. To understand this phenomenon, we used Google Trends to trace a timeline of online media reactions mapped to events. Then, we analyzed over 200 news stories, commentary articles, and film reviews for explanatory narratives. We noted four key moments: the Venice Film Festival; an open letter by family members of victims of the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado theater playing The Dark Knight Rises; the reaction of the film’s star to questions about inspiring violence; and military warnings about possible violence at theaters. We also discovered that a handful of influential movie reviews facilitated the framing of the wider media narrative around socio-political hot topics, particularly mass shootings and “incels.” The individual events, wedged into this narrative, gave the story legs. This fueled a short-burst media frenzy about the so-called controversy surrounding the film, which abated shortly after the film’s release. We argue that pop cultural beliefs about the Joker character, media environments, social context, and the parceling of sensational storylines contributed to the viral reaction.