It’s hard to tell whether superhero cinema is yet to reach its peak or if it has already enjoyed its heyday, with Avengers: Endgame having seemingly bookended the subgenre in 2019, before Spider-Man: No Way Home revitalised it once more in 2021. Dominated by Marvel studios, it’s easy to forget that the films of DC comics also play a part in the makeup of the subgenre, with the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy forming a strong basis on which such films have thrived.
Ever since the completion of Nolan’s trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, however, DC and Warner Bros have been unsure about how to take their brand of superheroes further, stumbling with the releases of Man of Steel in 2013 and Suicide Squad in 2016. Despite the releases of Wonder Woman in 2017 and Aquaman in 2018 that both garnered good box-office returns, DC wouldn’t thrive in the same way until Todd Phillips’ Joker in 2019.
Grim and authentic, Phillips’ take on the origins of the iconic Batman villain was a welcome treat in amongst the CGI-fuelled action orgies of previous DC instalments, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the fragile titular character. Dreaming of becoming a standup comedian, Phoenix’s psychopathic Joker, known as Arthur Fleck, worms his way onto a late-night talk show hosted by Robert De Niro’s Murray Franklin, to prove his worth.
Sharing a visual and narrative identity with the films of Martin Scorsese, namely the 1982 movie The King of Comedy starring Robert De Niro, many have alluded to the potential that the actor could indeed be playing the same character in both films. The iconic film star discussed this in an interview with IndieWire in 2019, confirming that the appearance in Joker was an ode to his King of Comedy character.
Linked in spirit, De Niro told the publication, “There’s a connection, obviously, with the whole thing,” though continuing, he further clarifies, “It’s not as a direct connection as the character I’m playing being Rupert many years later as a host”. Despite this, the actor also highlighted that he would willing to reprise the role of his King of Comedy in a direct sequel, stating, “If they would’ve proposed that to me, I would’ve said, ‘That’s interesting, maybe we’ll try to do that…But by making this type of film, it is connected in a way, as you’ll see”.
De Niro’s character of Murray Franklin in Todd Phillip’s film is certainly a nastier piece of work in comparison with his somewhat sociopathic character in King of Comedy, goading Phoenix’s character with provocative bravado. The character would become part of the Joker’s most iconic scene that sees Arthur Fleck shoot the TV host in front of a live audience before all hell breaks loose on the streets of the fictional Gotham City.
Take a look at the trailer for the influential 2019 film, which picked up two Academy Awards including Best Leading Actor for Joaquin Phoenix, below.