Todd Phillips’s Joker Captures all the Artifice of Scorsese’s Movies Without Any of The Soul

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Back in 2017, long before Todd Phillips’s Joker became a contentious media fiasco, Deadline announced that the DC villain origin film would be produced by Martin Scorsese. The idea that Scorsese would be bringing his signature brand of auteur legitimacy and emotionally-relentless storytelling to the comic book genre felt like a welcome breath of fresh air for an industry fraught with predictable, commercialized superhero franchises. Deadline reported that Joker would take place in an early-1980s Gotham City, a gritty and grounded character study, resembling fan-favorite Scorsese films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and even the director’s lesser-known 1983 dark comedy, The King of Comedy. Though the early reports were eventually proven to be misleading (the legendary director allegedly turned down the gig in favor of the Irishman production) Joker does end up resembling those three films in some very blunt and overt ways.

But just because Joker succeeds in looking like these films, it doesn’t mean that Phillips also managed to convey their original meaning. Whereas Scorsese always reveals himself to be a empathetic filmmaker first and foremost, Phillips has shown in his first foray into dark, character-centric storytelling that his disposition as a filmmaker is much more cynical and cold than the famous Italian-American screen giant. By presenting us with a narrative bereft of comedy, without a clear voice of reason, in a world that is as un-ironic as it is disturbing, Joker functions as a Scorsese movie devoid of Scorsese’s most important quality: humanity. Phillips manages to capture Scorsese’s spirit without its soul, making Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the villain feel less like the Clown Prince of Crime and more like a Frankenstein monster of 1970s and 80s Scorsese movie references.

Taxi Driver

From the outset, Joker most noticeably resembles Taxi Driver. Phillips’s film has a grainy, brown-red-yellow color palette. The characters feel trapped in their dingy and inhumane low-income apartments. The film takes place around a seedy pre-Giuliani-esque Times Square, and like Manhattan in Taxi Driver, Phillips’s Gotham City is scum-infested and absolutely merciless. Fleck even hangs out in a working-class locker room full of other loners and Times Square-types. One of these men in Fleck’s circle is played by Glenn Fleshler, and resembles the towering presence of the character Wizard in Taxi Driver. But, where Wizard provided the voice of reason in Taxi Driver, Fleshler’s similar character is inexplicably malicious—and is brutally murdered in Joker. Wizard’s speech in Taxi Driver is often pointed to as a strikingly human moment of the story—one that is iconic for outlining the moral soul that’s possible within the fiction of the movie. But, in Joker’s attempt to pay homage to this character type, the film misses the point. It’s hard to say why Phillips chose to drain that character of his humanity. But it certainly makes Joker a chilling response to the already thoroughly upsetting world of Taxi Driver.

Although, unlike Robert De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, Joaquin Phoenix does not provide narration in Joker, the film puts Arthur Fleck’s journal front and center. The image of the protagonist’s notebook, which is also routinely shown in Taxi Driver, is a Robert Bresson-inspired Scorsese trademark, an unmistakable point of reference that both Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader would return to throughout their careers. Schrader even used it just last year in his fantastic Ethan Hawke-starring film, First Reformed.

But, where Taxi Driver explored the emotional complexities of a fictionalized character—the nuances of evil—Joker fails in its writing of Arthur Fleck. What’s worse is that Joker, as a known character in cinema, is beloved by comic book and movie fans. Because of softer portrayals in the past, there’s a certain amount of pre-conditioned sympathy for the character that doesn’t belong in a story of this nature. Travis Bickle, was of course, a misunderstood character in cinema who existed in a very different time and place, and whose portrayal has vastly different connotations in 2019. These nuances are important for a film that delves into such controversial, real world subject matter—Scorsese’s heart and moral focal point is what makes Taxi Driver a unique and valuable character study.

The King of Comedy

When The King of Comedy debuted in 1982, fans expected a triumphant return to form for Scorsese. The director had been recovering from health complications and had been hospitalized leading up to the production. Scorsese was coming back to shoot the place he knew best–New York City–and with him was his longtime mainstay Robert De Niro. But, what audiences got in King of Comedy was something much darker, weirder, and lonelier than they expected. The film, which starred Jerry Lewis as a talk show host who is kidnapped and tortured by Rupert Pupkin—a sad, unsuccessful, and psychopathic comedian played by Robert De Niro—was not loved in its time. Shot in long, still compositions without any of Scorsese’s trademark handheld photography, King of Comedy was misunderstood in its time. But it has since garnered a sizable fanbase who see the pitch-black comedy of the film as vastly influential and important for cinema–a fanbase that happens to include Todd Phillips.

Phillips’s concept for Joker seems to be something of a spiritual successor to King of Comedy. Robert De Niro, instead of playing the sad loner type, has now become the powerful talk show host with whom the main character is infatuated. Like in King of Comedy, Arthur Fleck vividly fantasizes about being on the Carson-esque talk show. Fleck’s mother, like Pupkin’s, is oppressive and disapproving–but also stands as the one tether to reality that the protagonist has in the film. And, like Pupkin, Fleck is truly atrocious as a comedian. He lacks a basic understanding of how jokes function, partly because comedy is based on an understanding of human empathy–of which sociopathic characters like Fleck and Pupkin are almost wholly deprived.

In both films, the sad clowns manage to become massively successful as comedians, offering a commentary on how the American media landscape both oppresses and idealizes outsiders. But what makes King of Comedy so effective–and human–in its commentary, is that, well, the film is hilarious. Not in a laugh-out-loud, knee-slapping way. But in a darkly acerbic and ironic sense that makes it impossible to take seriously. One look at Pupkin–a character whose name is constantly mistaken for Pumpkin, Pipkin, etc–will have you chuckling at the sheer stupidity of it all. He has a tiny mustache, a glitzy show-biz mentality, believing himself to be a comic genius despite his unavoidably pathetic reality. He wears bright red jackets, he cracks shitty one-liners. Scorsese’s presentation of the character is not unlike the buffoons in The Three Stooges: though Pupkin may take himself seriously, he is undeniably a twit. We can’t say the same for Mr. Fleck in Joker. His plight as a mentally-ill loner is so tragic, yet also so repulsive, that when he succeeds in the end, it’s unclear if the audience is supposed to be disgusted or happy with him.

Phillips’s reliance on Frank Sinatra soundtrack cues is also something that brings Scorsese to mind. The Italian-American director is known for using show stopping big band music in his films, and in Joker, Phillips frequently plays the 1966 Sinatra recording of “That’s Life.” The song tells the simple story of a man who continually gets knocked down in life, but always gets back on his horse. By playing it so much–and by having Joaquin Phoenix even mouth the words of the song in the film’s ending–we’re left with the idea that this song seems to represent the message that Phillips is seeking to send to audiences in his film. Sure, Fleck is knocked down a whole lot in Joker. And he certainly manages to bounce back too. But after seeing all the shooting, stabbing, killing, carnage, crying, and laughing presented without morals in Phillips’s film, Joker doesn’t feel like a story of redemption or of warning at all. It feels like a gradual loss of humanity. And for Scorsese, the filmmaker who once called movies “An act of faith,” all the references in Phillips’s film don’t feel like they’re homages–they feel like blasphemy.

Dom Nero is a staff video editor at Esquire, where he also writes about film, comedy, and video games.