Tom Jolliffe takes a look at Joker and its clear love letter to Martin Scorsese…
As with any comic book property, any adaptation is met with a degree of buzz. When the character in question happens to be the Clown Prince himself, then that buzz goes through the roof. That in itself has only increased since the performance and subsequent passing of Heath Ledger. Since Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix jumped on board Joker, a lot of anticipation has been brewing.
From the off it was made pretty clear this exists outside the extended DC universe. There had been rumours, as is the internet wont, that Batfleck might appear, etc, etc. This is not going to be the next big comic book film though. What Phillips is going for has been fairly heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese. He’s admitted that in any case, it’s no grand secret (and indeed, why not tip cap to a master?).
This approach will undoubtedly alienate some. The film, if made right (and the trailer is promising) will deconstruct what comic book fans may deem undeconstructable. ‘You can’t show the Jokers back story!’ The beauty of pulling the character entirely away from the DC universe, is that you can. I’m not alone, but when I watch the film, I won’t be watching it as a comic book entity. Stylistically and thematically, Phillips isn’t going for that. Okay, title and central character will be problematic because it offers natural association. However, cinema has the gift for diversion. As long as you have the permission to do so, you can pull characters out of worlds and put them into new ones.
In no small part due to what Heath Ledger did in making his version so dark, complex and disturbed, was to almost ground the character from theatrical ham, to psychologically pulverised sociopath. He was showy, he was deeply villainous, but we bought the insanity totally. Whereas for a counter point you would look at Nicholson in Batman, a great performance in his own right but one which is pure comic book. It’s genre movie, hiss-worthy villainy. Phoenix, via Phillips (and Scott Silvers) script will probably delve into even darker, more frightening corners but with the same kind of grounded believability as Nolan did.
If there are films that Joker will evoke, it will not be anything Bat related. The key influences, quite obviously appear to be Taxi Driver and even more so, The King of Comedy. We have an outsider (Joker was never going to be thought of in any way but of course) who has become isolated and slowly beaten by society, in a delusional quest to give the world laughter. This reference point is a good thing. For a variety of reasons but one in particular. The King of Comedy, one of Scorsese’s most inventive, intriguing and enjoyable films (with an absolutely exceptional De Niro), has been perennially seen of as second tier and a little unfairly.
That’s the problem if you’re a genius like Scorsese, you bat out of the park homers like Raging Bull (Joker has a nod or two to this too), Taxi Driver and Goodfellas, and some of your less iconic work kind of gets forgotten. One of the best ever examples of this was Francis Ford Coppolla’s amazing paranoia thriller The Conversation. It’s an exquisite, masterful piece of work but where did it release in his CV? Between the first two Godfather films. Much of Scorsese’s 80’s work gets unfairly forgotten, as comedically laced also-rans. A shift away from the intensity of his opening films. Cape Fear was great. It was pulpy fun, and stylistically excessive, an immensely watchable remake and it quickly became iconic. Spoofed across TV and film media. It’s more well known than The King of Comedy and for arguments sake, say After Hours. It’s not as good. For whatever reason, some films just don’t gain the same iconic status as others. Time is changing it though, pulling in more and more appreciation for The King of Comedy (and if Joker takes off, may encourage even more people to discover this key source material).
Whilst De Niro’s turn as Rupert Pupkin, a failed standup, outsider and oddball is clearly the most definable reference point to Joker, Taxi Driver’s, Travis Bickle, a more sociopathically extreme character, and more aware of his and the worlds own hopelessness, is also very important. Somewhere between the two is Phoenix’s version. He’s got the delusion of Pupkin, the intense disconnect of both Pupkin and Bickle, and the physicality of Bickle. Phoenix rarely doesn’t knock it out the park. We can have some assurance that he’ll be great (and the trailer only emphasised this). By shifting away from comic book formula, he’s also allowed a platform and a level of psychologically intense deconstruction that Jared Leto would not have had in Suicide Squad for example.
There are dangers by so clearly marking the most key influences, particularly when you pull a comic book entity outside of formula. Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are high benchmarks. They’re also not hampered with certain expectations. Many will watch Joker because they’re fascinated to see it. There will also be many comic book fans seeing it too. As we have seen with The Last Jedi, fans can act possessively over characters they’ve grown up with. It’s almost like they feel as if they own the rights and any deviation from what they expect can be met negatively (and on occasions with utter vitriol). So with what Phillips and Phoenix are pitching for, they’ve got to hit this out the park so convincingly that the ball appears in the parking lot with icicles on it. ‘It was pretty good’ just won’t cut it as far as maintaining lasting legacy, because if even The King of Comedy has struggled to attain the status it deserves, a film owing so heavily to that will undoubtedly face similar mountains.
This association with comic property is, in terms of legacy, the biggest blessing and the biggest curse. For the reasons already laid out, it of course brings the expectation of spectacle but indeed, if audiences go with the flow and connect with the story and characterisation, then this has lasting impact. Comic fans have accepted dark detours and interesting asides in the comic book world (The Killing Joke notably, if we’re talking Clown Prince) and they’d certainly accept films. It needs to nail the landing from a quintuple backflipping pirouette, and this also requires a new level from Todd Phillips. He needs to reach a level Scorsese is capable of, and as a director whose best works have been in comedic japes, it’ll be a task and a half. Still, having Phoenix to direct, and having De Niro on board in a key role (almost evoking a mix of his turns as La Motta, with a dash of Pupkin) will help enormously.
Let us know in the comments below. Are you excited to see Joker? Are you happy to see intense character study over comic book spectacle for such a character? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has three features due out on DVD/VOD in 2019 and a number of shorts hitting festivals. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/