Released this October, Joker applies a twisted Chelsea smile to the archetypal comic book movie template.
Directed by The Hangover's Todd Phillips, it's being pitched less as a fantastical blockbuster than a grounded and gritty study of mental illness, couched within a classic super-villain origin story.
The famously intense Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a vulnerable, failed stand-up comic who is beaten down and abused during his life in Gotham City. Events soon reach a critical mass and the disturbed Fleck begins his transformation into the feared antagonist, one capable of bringing Gotham to its knees.
Intriguingly, the movie co-stars Robert De Niro as venal chat show host Murray Franklin, one of many people whose apparent machinations have led to Arthur's downfall.
On the day that we celebrate the legendary De Niro's 76th birthday, we're here to explore the comparisons between his role in Joker and his memorable turn in 1983 Martin Scorsese film The King of Comedy. Never heard of it? Allow us to explain...
What is The King of Comedy?
Arriving in the wake of Scorsese masterpieces Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, The King of Comedy is certainly not, as one might imagine from the title, an amusing and lighthearted experience.
Instead, this is a pitch-black and often uncomfortable study of narcissism and isolation, in which an aspiring yet hopeless stand-up comedian kidnaps his idol in order to secure his place in the limelight.
Released to lukewarm reviews and box office in 1983, the movie has grown in stature over the years to be hailed as one of Scorsese's greatest works. And much of that is down to the typically incendiary work from Robert De Niro in the central role.
Who does Robert De Niro play in The King of Comedy?
By 1983, De Niro had earned a reputation as cinema's finest purveyor of disturbed and damaged souls. The likes of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull exerted the kind of impact that made an entire generation re-think the possibilities of acting.
Even by the standards of his previous roles, De Niro's character in The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin, is one you'd cross the street to avoid. Masking his egocentric mania and single-minded obsessiveness behind a genial smile and bland dress sense, Pupkin is an unforgettable creation.
He also remains an utterly plausible one, De Niro playing brilliantly off co-star Jerry Lewis in this uncompromising study of the cost of fame. Esteemed comedian Lewis plays a thinly veiled version of himself, Jerry Langford, a man whose celebrity status has led to a self-enforced isolation from the world. When he politely rebuffs a fan's request to speak to her ill mother on the phone, he's greeted with a desire that he'll get cancer.
It's this kind of lifestyle towards which Pupkin appears to be headed – that is, if he had any talent whatsoever. In a number of memorably excruciating scenes, we discover how disproportionate Pupkin's talent is in relation to his ambitions.
Whether it's rehearsing his act late at night to the annoyance of his (off-screen) mother (portrayed by Scorsese's mum Catherine), or a series of unfathomably egocentric daydreams in which Langford fawns over his talent, there's no denying Pupkin's monstrous tendencies are recognisable to all of us. This is a movie that holds a mirror up to banal yet ugly human impulses, and forces us to stare deeply back at them.
So where do the comparisons with the new Joker movie come in?
- Why Joker will be the most unique comic book movie yet
- Joaquin Phoenix's Joker and 5 times the Clown Prince of Crime was far from joking
- Joker: 7 films that have influenced director Todd Phillips' gritty-sounding comic book epic
How is Joker influenced by The King of Comedy?
Quite apart from the film's obvious trappings – a story focusing in part on stand-up comedy; a gritty 1980s city-scape a la Scorsese's vision of New York – it's not hard to imagine that De Niro's Joker character is Rupert Pupkin taken to his logical conclusion.
From fame-hungry sociopath to successful schemer with an attentive audience (one who is apparently capable of bringing down Phoenix's character Arthur in the process) – the comparisons between De Niro in The King of Comedy and De Niro in Joker are self-evident.
It's something that De Niro himself has discussed. "There’s a connection, obviously, with the whole thing," he told Indiewire. "But it’s not as a direct connection as the character I’m playing being Rupert many years later as a host."
Arrestingly, there's a brief glimpse in the Joker trailer of Fleck, having seemingly been consumed by his murderous alter-ego, preparing to take his place on-stage in front of a rapt audience. We don't get a clear shot of it – so for all we know this could be a Fleck-induced daydream a la The King of Comedy.
On the other hand, this could be a fusion of Scorsese's film with the iconography of Alan Moore's celebrated 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, in which the Clown Prince of Crime was revealed to have started life as a stand-up comic...
The development of Phoenix's character could also be seen as a more tragic take on Pupkin. In Joker, Fleck pursues his dream of stand-up glory but actively pays the price for it as his sanity collapses and he morphs into a completely different persona.
Of course, one might speculate that Pupkin did in fact go insane in The King of Comedy anyway. The film's conclusion has been interpreted by many as ambiguous – in the scene, we get an unbroken seven-minute sequence of Pupkin performing his act to an off-screen (and audibly appreciative) audience.
Did he achieve his aims, or is this just another pathetic fantasy? Like the rest of the movie, the aim isn't to provide easy answers but to make us question ourselves. And by the looks of it, Joker aims to achieve the same goal, looking at how society's mixture of complacency and brutality breeds unstoppable monsters.