By James Hibberd
September 24, 2019 at 11:03 AM EDT
10/04/19
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Family members of theatergoers killed in a mass shooting during a 2012 screening of The Dark Knight Rises have signed a letter to Warner Bros. expressing concerns about the new film Joker.

The family members say they remain haunted by “absolute hell and pain” over the shooting in Aurora, Colo. — when a gunman wearing body armor and armed with multiple weapons killed 12 and injured scores of others — and say the storyline of Todd Phillips’ Joker is worrisome. In the film, the DC Comics villain played by Joaquin Phoenix is presented as a mistreated outcast who goes on a killing spree.

“[The Aurora shooting], perpetrated by a socially isolated individual who felt ‘wronged’ by society, has changed the course of our lives,” reads the letter obtained by EW. “When we learned that Warner Bros. was releasing a movie called Joker that presents the character as a protagonist with a sympathetic origin story, it gave us pause.”

Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros.

The group isn’t asking the studio to halt the film’s release, however, or urging a boycott. Instead, they’re asking the studio donate to groups that help victims of gun violence, as well as “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.”

“We want to be clear that we support your right to free speech and free expression,” the letter adds. “But as anybody who has seen a comic book movie can tell you: with great power comes great responsibility. That’s why we’re calling on you to use your massive platform and influence to join us in our fight to build safer communities … keeping everyone safe should be a top corporate priority for Warner Brothers.”

The letter goes on to note that other companies such as Walmart and CVS have recently announced they’re taking gun safety steps. “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,” they wrote.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, one of the signers of the letter, Sandy Phillips, called the film “a slap in the face” and noted, “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.”

The Aurora theater where the shooting took place is reportedly not screening the film.

Joker, which opens Oct. 5, took the top prize at the Venice Film Festival this year and has resulted in Oscar buzz for Phoenix. The film currently has a 76 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though several critics (including at EW) have expressed concerns about the film.

Both director Phillips and Phoenix have defended the movie, IGN reported.

“Well, I think that, for most of us, you’re able to tell the difference between right and wrong,” Phoenix has said. “And those that aren’t are capable of interpreting anything in the way that they may want to. People misinterpret lyrics from songs. They misinterpret passages from books. 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.”

“To me, art can be complicated and oftentimes art is meant to be complicated,” Phillips added. “If you want uncomplicated art, you might want to take up calligraphy, but filmmaking will always be a complicated art.”

The Aurora shooting has long been associated with the Batman universe with many speculating the shooter was inspired by the Joker or the villain Bane. But a Denver Post story in 2015 concluded the shooter “was never ‘the Joker'” and such speculation was due to “erroneous early reports.” The case’s prosecutor George Brauchler called those reports, “completely unfounded … It had nothing to do that we can find with Batman.”

EW has reached out to Warner Bros with a request for comment.

Related content:

Director Todd Phillips and star Joaquin Phoenix put a new spin on Batman's arch-nemesis.
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