Todd Phillips’ “Joker” has dominated cinema buzz ever since world premiering in competition at the Venice Film Festival last month. The comic book film, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the infamous Batman villain, went on to shock the world by winning Venice’s top prize, the Golden Lion, before heading to the Toronto International Film Festival where it picked up equal amounts rave reviews and outrage. What’s become clear is that superhero movies might never be the same after the movie’s release next month. IndieWire’s David Ehrlich observed as much in his review, writing the film is “the boldest and most exciting superhero movie since ‘The Dark Knight,” for better and for worse.
With Warner Bros. gearing up to release “Joker” in theaters nationwide October 4, now is as good a time as ever to start getting ready for the movie by watching the 1970s crime classics, contemporary superhero movies, and silent films that helped shape Phillips’ unnerving vision. If one good thing comes out of “Joker,” it’s that mainstream audiences will be interested in checking out some of film history’s boldest films. Start preparing for “Joker” with the 17 films below.
“Taxi Driver” (1976)
Todd Phillips has been quite clear about Martin Scorsese being the major influence behind “Joker.” Scorsese was originally considering being a producer on the project but could not give up enough free time with post-production on “The Irishman” in full swing. Travis Bickle, the protagonist of Scorsese’s Palme d’Or winner “Taxi Driver,” is one of the major inspirations for Arthur Fleck. Both men are downtrodden souls who become driven to assassinate a popular media figure while harboring desires for a beautiful woman who could never love him. The “Taxi Driver” influence in “Joker” is so strong that Phillips even has Zazie Beetz’s character do a shooting gun-to-the-head motion with her hand, a direct reference to Travis Bickle.
“The King of Comedy” (1982)
Another Martin Scorsese-Robert De Niro effort that Phillips has made clear inspired “Joker” is the 1982 satirical black comedy “The King Of Comedy.” De Niro stars in the movie as Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comedian who becomes darkly obsessed with a popular late night talk show host played by Jerry Lewis. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck has been designed as a Rupert Pupkin for a new era, as Arthur is also a stand-up comedian obsessed with a popular talk show. To make the connection between “Joker” and “King of Comedy” clear, Phillips cast De Niro in the Jerry Lewis-style role of Murray Franklin.
“The Dark Knight” (2008)
Should Joaquin Phoenix land an Oscar nomination for his performance as the notorious Batman villain he’ll follow in the footsteps of Heath Ledger, who was nominated for and won the Best Supporting Actor trophy for his turn as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” With their respective films, Nolan and Phillips have radically deconstructed the comic book genre as moviegoers know it. Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” was more Michael Mann’s “Heat” than Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man,” and the script injected themes of post-9/11 terrorism that most comic book movies wouldn’t dare touch. Phillips is attempting the same when it comes to giving “Joker” an edge of societal and political commentary, but he’s gone even further in stripping the comic book movie down. “Joker” has no action set pieces that define the genre and is a character drama through and through.
Sidney Lumet’s 1973 crime drama “Serpico” stars Al Pacino as New York Police Department officer Frank Serpico, whose undercover mission to expose corruption within the NYPD made him a whistleblower with a target on his back. Pacino was Oscar nominated for the role, while Lumet’s grounded realism was championed for giving the film a lived-in, visceral tone. The latter of which is a top priority for Phillips in “Joker.” The director said part of his pitch for “Joker” was telling Warner Bros. that he was making a 1970s character study like “Serpico,” but dressed up as a 2019 comic book movie.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975)
Miloš Forman’s Oscar-winning “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is the kind of unhinged character story Phillips was attempting to emulate in the writing and directing of “Joker.” The filmmaker told /Film that “Cuckoo’s Nest” was one of the films he used to help sell his idea of making a character-driven comic book movie to Warner Bros. “The movies that I grew up loving, these character studies from the ’70s, you couldn’t get those movies made in this climate,” Phillips said. “I said to myself, ‘What if you did a movie in that vein, but made it about [comic book] characters?’” “Cuckoo’s Nest” stars Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy, a new patient at a mental institution who rebels against authority.
“You Were Never Really Here” (2017)
“Joker” is far from the only movie to star Joaquin Phoenix as a psychologically damaged male drawn to violent outbursts. Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” provides a perfect foundation for Phoenix’s work in “Joker.” The psychological drama stars Phoenix as Joe, a war veteran and hitman plagued by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ramsay’s movie also earned comparisons to Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” as Joe’s soulless existence is rattled after he meets a young girl he is tasked with saving from a child prostitution ring. Phoenix won Best Actor at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for his performance.
“The Master” (2012)
In some ways, “Joker” caps off a Phoenix trilogy that started with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” and continued with “You Were Never Really Here.” All three movies star Phoenix as psychologically damaged men who are drawn to the dark side through circumstance. For Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in “The Master,” it’s an unexpected encounter with a charismatic cult leader named Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman in a performance that IndieWire named the best of the decade). Phoenix earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor with his performance, his second after “Walk the Line” and his third overall after a Best Supporting Actor bid for “Gladiator.”
Similar to “The Dark Knight,” James Mangold’s “Logan” predates “Joker” as a comic book movie that aimed to revolutionize the norms of the genre. Phillips has made it clear “Joker” is a 1970s character study dressed up as a superhero film, so in those terms “Logan” would be a Western disguised in comic book spectacle clothing. In prioritizing the mournful and elegiac tone of the American Western, Mangold and star Hugh Jackman were able to create a superhero tentpole that felt excitingly fresh. Jackman played Wolverine many times before “Logan,” but it wasn’t until the Western approach to the genre that his dramatic acting skills in the role became so clearly defined. Jackman’s “Logan” performance is often cited as one of the best in the superhero genre.
“Mean Streets” (1973)
News broke that Warner Bros. was interested in making a Joker origin story movie in September 2017. The first reports claimed the studio was eyeing Leonardo DiCaprio for the title role, a possibility because Martin Scorsese was attached as a producer. Scorsese’s involvement was key because from the start “Joker” was imagined as a 1970s Scorsese drama (hence the heavy “Taxi Driver” influence). Phillips wanted to capture the seedy and grimy New York underworld that Scorsese so perfectly put on screen in such crime movies as “Mean Streets.” Both of Scorsese’s classics in the 1970s served as visual inspiration for the director and cinematographer Lawrence Sher.
Another 1970s directorial effort from filmmaker Sidney Lumet that makes up the DNA of “Joker” is “Network.” Phillips and co-screenwriter Scott Silver show they are fans of Paddy Chayefsky’s Oscar-winning original screenplay in the way they use the “Joker” story to comment on media consumption and the role television plays in affecting the American psyche. “Network” stars Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a television anchor whose psychological breakdown is used by his network to gain bigger profits and higher ratings. The “Joker” story has Joaquin Phoenix’s character greatly admiring a television personality, but it’s precisely this obsession and the role television plays in the spread of information that factor into Arthur Fleck becoming Joker.
“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1919)
The Joker character was created in 1940 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson. One of the big visual inspirations for the look of the Batman villain was the character Gwynplaine in the 1928 silent movie “The Man Who Laughs.” Actor Conrad Veidt starred in the role, but it’s a different and more iconic Veidt role that comes to mind when watching Phoenix in “Joker.” As IndieWire chief critic Eric Kohn wrote in his reaction to “Joker,” Phoenix’s look in the movie channels that of Veidt in the 1920 German Expressionism classic “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” With their bone-thin limbs and spidery movements, the two performers create menace from their physicality alone.
“Death Wish” (1974)
Phillips has cited “Death Wish” as another 1970s classic that helped inspire his approach to “Joker.” The Michael Winner-directed crime drama made a star out of Charles Bronson, who stars as an architect turned vigilante after his wife is murdered and his daughter sexually assaulted during a home invasion. Paramount Pictures’ domestic release of “Death Wish” was met with an uproar from critics and moviegoers who felt the movie would incite violence and encourage vigilantism, which is some of the same fears “Joker” is causing in the lead-up to its release. Like “Death Wish,” “Joker” makes an attempt to comment on the state of violence in the current American culture.
“A Clockwork Orange” (1971)
Phillips lifts some shots in “Joker” directly from Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” and RogerEbert.com critic Glenn Kenny reports that the director and his production team got Warner Bros. to sign off on letting them use the Saul Bass-inspired studio logo at the start of the film that was also featured in “Clockwork.” Warner Bros. released Kubrick’s meditation on violence in 1971 to extreme backlash from critics who feared the movie condoned the reprehensible behavior of its protagonist, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell). Alex, created by author Anthony Burgess, takes joy in instigating violence and chaos and his disturbed psyche becomes a test subject for a new procedure that aims to rid the mind of violent urges. Phoenix’s interpretation of Joker owes a lot to Alex and “A Clockwork Orange.”
Numerous critics have compared Phoenix’s Joker to Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the split personality psychopath at the center of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic “Psycho.” As Variety critic Owen Gleiberman writes in his rave review of the movie, “‘Joker’ tells the story of Arthur’s descent (and, in a way, his rise), but it’s clear from the outset that he’s a basket case, a kind of maestro of his own misery. He would like, on some level, to connect, but he can’t. He’s too far out there, like Norman Bates; he’s a self-conscious, postmodern head case — a person who spends every moment trying to twist himself into a normal shape, but he knows the effort is doomed, so he turns it all into a ‘joke’ that only he gets.”
“Shall We Dance” (1937)
If you want the “Joker” soundtrack to come alive, then start with a watch of the 1937 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical comedy “Shall We Dance.” As Phoenix’s Arthur begins killing, he mentally rehabilitates from the violence by dancing shirtless alone. One of the these unnerving sequences is set to “Slap That Bass,” a song composed by George Gershwin and written by Ira Gershwin for the Astaire-Rogers movie. The musical centers around a relationship between a ballet dancer and a tap dancer that gets complicated when rumors surface they already married. This theme of the present being rattled by rumors from the past is a central component of the “Joker” script.
“Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)
Another character-driven touchstone of 1970s cinema that Phillips used as inspiration was Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” starring Al Pacino as a man who decides to rob a bank only to become a media celebrity when the hostage situation gains national attention. The Oscar-winning script from Frank Pierson does a remarkable job telling a character-focused story but shading it with social commentary, a staple in many of the best movies of the 1970s. “Joker” writers Phillips and Scott Silvers’ top priority was making a movie in the same vein as “Dog Day Afternoon” and other Lumet and Scorsese classics, only doing it as a comic book film would give them greater resources in today’s Hollywood landscape.
“Modern Times” (1936)
Anyone who has seen the “Joker” trailer knows that one of the film’s set pieces takes place at a gala screening of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 comedy “Modern Times.” The film stars Chaplin as his famous Tramp character, here a factory worker who struggles to survive during the industrialism boom. “Joker” takes a loosely similar structure in painting Arthur Fleck as a figure shaped and rattled by societal changes. With “Modern Times,” Chaplin was critical of industrialism because he felt it was one of the main reasons for the Great Depression. With “Joker,” there’s no shortage of contemporary social, economic, and political issues Phillips is tackling in his story of an isolated men driven to commit violent acts.
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