Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Joker.
Robert De Niro’s Joker character was inspired by a famous Martin Scorsese movie, not the Batman comics as is the case for most of the other characters in the film. The iconic actor portrays Murray Franklin, a talk show host who both inspires and angers Arthur Fleck, portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker captures a grimy big city aesthetic that Scorsese depicts in the 1976 film Taxi Driver. Phoenix’s character, of course, is based on the DC Comics supervillain Joker, Batman’s arch enemy who lives in Gotham. Joker chronicles Arthur Fleck’s origin story, most notably how public humiliation and mental illness pushed him over the edge, and serves as the psychological foundation for a life of crime. Taxi Driver similarly follows a social outcast, Travis Bickle (De Niro), who feels misunderstood and turns to violence in New York City to resolve immediate problems. In Joker, however, De Niro’s character doesn’t reference Taxi Driver and doesn’t have a comic parallel.
De Niro’s Joker character references the 1982 film The King of Comedy. Two decades before social media created new forms of celebrities and cultural influencers, Scorsese’s black comedy foreshadowed what would become a new normal. De Niro portrays aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin, who admires talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and hopes to perform live on national television. Like Joker’s Arthur Fleck, Rupert Pupkin takes a few short cuts along the way, which doesn’t go unnoticed by New York City police officers.
Joker flips the script, in terms of the comedian-talk show host relationship. Phoenix portrays a mentally unstable man, a tragicomic figure with a warped self-image. Whereas De Niro’s Murray Franklin parallels Lewis’ character from The King of Comedy (both characters are men who fulfilled their comedic potential), Phoenix’ Arthur Fleck is a cinematic cousin of De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin - men who shift their immediate goals to fulfill their potential as being familiar names in pop culture, if only briefly.
In Joker, De Niro’s Murray Franklin parallels what might’ve happened if The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin sustained a lasting career in comedy. The irony, it seems, is that Phillips draws inspiration from Scorsese films but ultimately settles on William Faulkner's “kill your darlings” storytelling concept, thus allowing for various Scorsese comparisons while simultaneously establishing, or acknowledging, the groundwork for an in-universe storyline (Joker was intended to be a standalone movie). Much Like The King of Comedy, Joker offers a scathing commentary on society and celebrity culture, but also raises important questions about education, abuse of power, and dismissal by default. De Niro’s Joker character symbolizes all the glory and public admiration that both Arthur Fleck and Rupert Pupkin once dreamed of.
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