Set photo hints at another possible De Niro/Scorsese inspiration.
While The King of Comedy is a widely reported inspiration for the Joker origin movie, new clues from the set hint that another Martin Scorsese/Robert De Niro classic — Taxi Driver — could also be an influence.
The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver are both profiles of deranged and broken men, delusional urban loners who criminally lash out at those they feel have rejected them, and the Joker movie — penned by director Todd Phillips (the Hangover trilogy) and co-screenwriter Scott Silver (8 Mile, The Fighter) — certainly sounds like it’s in a similar vein. The official plot synopsis for Joker describes Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck as “a man disregarded by society” and the DC film as “not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.”
Set photos that recently appeared online lend some credence to my Taxi Driver theory. One photo shows a Gotham City subway map and its layout of different neighborhoods, one of which is called Hinckley. That stands out because Hinckley is also the surname of the would-be assassin of President Ronald Reagan. John Hinckley Jr. said that he was inspired to shoot Reagan back in 1981 because of Taxi Driver. Hinckley was obsessed with that 1976 film’s young star, Jodie Foster, and shot Reagan in order to impress her. Hinckley’s obsession with Foster mirrored the obsession that Taxi Driver’s title character had with a woman in that story.
In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro’s deranged cabbie Travis Bickle is obsessed with Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd), a beautiful campaign worker for presidential candidate Senator Charles Palantine. Travis even happens to meet Palantine when the candidate hops in his cab. Travis proclaims himself Palantine’s biggest fan, saying that he tells all his fares to vote for him, even though he doesn’t even follow political issues closely.
Travis wants Palantine to clean up what he deems to be the sewer that is New York City. But Travis is only enthusiastic about Palantine because he’s fixated on Betsy, so after she rejects him, Travis transforms himself into Palantine’s would-be assassin. Betsy’s a believer in Palantine and, to hurt her for rejecting him, Travis seeks to destroy something she cares about. He cuts his hair into a mohawk and rigs himself a weapon, going so far as to show up at a Palantine event to try to kill him.
Set photos also revealed that the movie’s version of Thomas Wayne (played by Brett Cullen) is running for mayor of Gotham City. This would make him the film’s stand-in for Charles Palantine, while Joker’s surrogate for Betsy could easily be Zazie Beetz’s character, who has been described as a single mother who captures the interest of the future clown prince of crime. Could she be a supporter of or even a staffer for Wayne? Whether it’s that Beetz’s character rejects Arthur Fleck — or, perhaps, she meets a more grim, Killing Joke-style end — losing her would push Arthur down a dark path.
As The Dark Knight showed, the Joker can be as interested in destroying the idea of what a person or an institution stands for — to show how “good” people are full of it and can be corrupted — as he is in literally destroying someone. Set photos have shown Phoenix’s Joker riling up the masses at what appear to be an anti-Thomas Wayne protest. While we can’t post those photos for legal reasons, we can say they reveal deep resentment among everyday Gothamites toward the wealthy and powerful, and Thomas Wayne in particular.
Earlier reports claim the movie will depict Thomas Wayne in a less than flattering light, as a cheesy, tanned businessman in the vein of a younger Donald Trump. Set photos have shown Joker rousing the rabble, with protestors (mixed in with others in clown masks, possibly Joker’s goons) holding signs that read “Wayne is to Blame,” “Eat the Rich,” and “Tax the Wealthy to Feed the Needy.” These clown masks are as much of a political statement as V’s Guy Fawkes mask is in V for Vendetta in his crusade to bring down the powers that be. Like Travis Bickle adopting a warrior look with his mohawk and fatigue jacket, it makes sense (in its own deranged way) that Arthur Fleck would transform himself into a killer clown to point out the joke that Thomas Wayne, his candidacy and rich and powerful people like him represent.
As one of the first families of Gotham, the obscenely wealthy Waynes are the face of the powerful and elite in a city where there clearly are plenty of less fortunate people suffering and in need. Dire economic straits are nothing new when it comes to depictions of Gotham City, and even the idea of the Waynes being the victims of an economically desperate citizenry was something Ra’s Al Ghul alluded to in Batman Begins. The Joker doesn’t even have to be the one to pull the trigger and actually kill Thomas Wayne — as Jack Nicholson’s incarnation did in 1989’s Batman movie — but he could inspire that one lone gunman to do it. The Joker is a great corrupter, after all (as seen in Joker’s campaign to tarnish white knight Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight.)
Robert De Niro is believed to play a talk show host in Joker and while the influence of The King of Comedy on this movie would suggest Arthur Fleck kidnaps him because the failed funnyman wants to become famous, maybe Arthur’s agenda is to make a larger political statement. The Joker has used the media to help spread fear and to communicate his crimes since making his radio proclamations in his first appearance in Batman #1. The Joker using a famous talk show host to amplify either his message or to help foster terror or misinformation would be an apt commentary on our era of “fake news” and media manipulation (and manipulation of the media).
So if Joker is a “cautionary tale” then what precisely is it warning us about? If Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are our guides then perhaps the movie will chronicle how the media can elevate the violent and deranged into celebrity status, how, at least in America, the lone wolf can become a figure of notoriety, even if they’re a killer, or deemed worthy of heroic status if they’re an outlaw or vigilante operating outside of the system, as Taxi Driver depicts happening to Travis Bickle. The old adage that the villain is just the hero of his own story might likely prove to be the case with Joker. We’ll know for sure when the movie opens next October.