Tom Sullivan still leaves an open seat next to him for his son Alex when he goes to the Century Aurora and XD movie theater, formerly known as Century 16

“That’s where Alex is,” says Sullivan, who was elected as a state representative in 2018 (D-Centennial). “You can feel that, and you can still share that with him, whether he’s physically sitting next to you or not.” 

Alex was murdered inside the Aurora theater on July 20, 2012, during the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises, and although Sullivan still feels comfortable seeing a movie in the same theater where Alex was killed seven years ago, he has no plans to see the newly released Joker film. 

“The Joker is my least favorite Batman villain, and I just have no interest in that,” Sullivan says, noting that he’s always been a fan of the Batman series—both the books and the movies. “I’m not criticizing their movie, I’m not criticizing their right to make the movie, and I’m not criticizing anybody else for going to the movie. It’s just not something I would choose to do.”

The Warner Bros. and DC Comics film centers on a mentally ill loner, played by Joaquin Phoenix, whose isolation from society leads him to commit acts of violence—a character that, to some, seems eerily similar to many recent American mass shooters. It’s a brand new iteration of the villain’s origin story—the original being a transformation after falling into a vat of acid—and one that’s received backlash. Critics have called it “potentially toxic,” one movie theater chain released a PSA warning younger moviegoers about the film’s content, and the FBI, U.S. military, and venues placed themselves on alert for violence at the film’s screenings after receiving tips about threats on social media. Police have even been spotted outside the theaters at various showings. 

James Farnsworth, owner of All C’s Collectibles, a comic book store a block away from the Century Aurora and XD theater, has seen the film and agrees with the critics. He believes the movie took advantage of the beloved Batman series.

“If you were to call that movie anything else, I think it would’ve been a great movie,” Farnsworth says. “I think they tied the Joker in just for publicity. It’s more of a portrayal of a mass shooter than the character from the comic book series.” 

Director Todd Phillips and Phoenix have adamantly defended the film and questioned why people are associating the movie with mass shootings. “Aurora is obviously a horrible, horrible, situation,” Phillips told the AP. “But even that is not something you blame on the movie.”

The Aurora theater, where 12 people were killed and 70 more were injured seven years ago, is not screening Joker, but Cinemark didn’t respond to our request for comment as to why. Farnsworth believes it’s out of respect to the families who lost their loved ones. “Everyone in Aurora understands why they didn’t play the movie, but people outside may not get it,” he says. 

Initial press reports suggested that the 2012 shooter told authorities he wanted to portray the Joker, and although prosecutors and psychiatrists who evaluated him have since discounted this rumor, the potency of this idea has made the release of this film troubling for critics

“As a comic book fan, this story is misrepresentative of the film it calls itself,” Farnsworth says. “I think this film is taking advantage of the gun conversation going on right now as well as the character of the Joker. It’s fear mongering in a way.”

Upon the film’s release, five family members and friends of those who were killed or injured in the tragedy—including Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, who lost their daughter Jessica; Tina Coon, whose son witnessed the shooting; Theresa Hoover, whose son A.J. was killed; and Heather Dearman, the cousin of Ashley Moser, who is the mom of the youngest victim—sent a letter to Ann Sarnoff, the CEO Warner Bros., voicing their concerns about the film. They asked the studio to lobby Congress for gun control, support survivor programs, and end any contributions of politicians backed by the National Rifle Association.

“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,” read the letter. “Since the federal government has failed to pass reforms that raise the standard for gun ownership in America, large companies like Warner Brothers have a responsibility to act. We certainly hope that you do.”

Although Sullivan says he wasn’t aware of the letter’s creation until immediately prior to its release and thus didn’t sign it, he agrees that it’s important to reach out to corporations for a change rather than relying on politicians or laws to bring awareness to gun control. 

“They’re not asking for a boycott; they’re not chastising anybody for talking about controversial subjects; they’re just saying to corporations out there: ‘Hey don’t give money to the NRA and don’t support candidates who are against gun violence prevention,’” Sullivan says. 

Warner Bros. issued a statement the following day defending that the studio has always supported victims of gun violence and calling on policymakers to address this gun epidemic with legislation.

“Warner Bros. believes that one of the functions of storytelling is to provoke difficult conversations around complex issues,” the letter read. “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.”

Farnsworth wonders why DC hasn’t released a statement as well considering the protective actions the company took to delay the release of a new Batman comic following the shooting. 

“All C’s is part of a comic book legal defense fund because there’s still a big threat in this country of people suing us as comic book stores or for certain comics we sell,” he says. “So when the theater shooting happened, DC called us right away because the theatre is a block away from our store. They were really concerned that the media would come after us for selling comic books like the Joker then, so it’s really weird to me that DC is glorifying what they were scared of seven years ago.”

Many have shared concerns that the film may result in copycat killers or more shootings across the country. But Sullivan, who co-sponsored the red flag bill, which allows a family member or law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily remove someone’s gun for up to a year, thinks about it another way. He believes the Joker is a conversation-starter for gun law reform.

“It’s art, and art is supposed to create emotion, and then emotion creates conversation, and conversation creates solutions,” Sullivan says. “Not everybody’s listening to me or other parents of kids who have been murdered, and if it takes something on a bigger scale to bring attention, so be it.”