Director Todd Phillips has called Joker, his grimy reinterpretation of Batman’s iconic nemesis, “a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.” That’s a pretty accurate description. Joker is a comic book story channeling the narratives and aesthetics of several critically acclaimed “real” movies — particularly Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film The King of Comedy and David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club.
Like Joker, King of Comedy and Fight Club are about men who violently rebel against a society they feel has cheated them. Joker builds directly on The King of Comedy’s plot and setting, in which a struggling comedian becomes obsessed with a famous talk show host in 1980s New York City. It also draws on Fincher’s famously sickly cinematic style, and like Fight Club, its protagonist unwittingly inspires an anarchic countercultural movement.
But while Joker borrows a lot from these films, the comparison ultimately feels hollow. That isn’t because Joker is bad. It’s just a deeply introspective project paying homage to some of cinema’s most effective cultural snapshots — and it isn’t designed to carry that weight.
Spoilers follow for Fight Club, King of Comedy, and Joker.
King of Comedy and Fight Club both capture a particular American zeitgeist: the former is about celebrity worship in the 1980s, while the latter is about the backlash against consumerism in the 1990s. Both feature protagonists who are preoccupied with that cultural moment. King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin wants to be a star comedian who hangs out with celebrities. Fight Club’s unnamed narrator rattles off mass-market brand names and muses about corporations colonizing the galaxy.
They’re also films about relationships. King of Comedy is driven by a mutual antagonism between Pupkin, TV comedian Jerry Langford, and a terrifyingly intense fellow stalker named Masha. Fight Club is a struggle between the narrator and his anarchic foil Tyler Durden; it’s also full of vignettes about emotional support groups and meetings of the eponymous Fight Club. The characters are alienated and violent, but at the end of the day, they live in a society.
Joker, meanwhile, is an uncomfortably effective portrait of an isolated man whose very existence unsettles people. His journal contains the occasional vague observation about society, but his desires are modest and insular. At one point in King of Comedy, Pupkin fantasizes about being so rich and famous that Langford begs to hand over his TV show. Joker mirrors this scene with its own Langford surrogate, but Arthur Fleck (the Joker) just wants the guy to be his supportive father figure.
In his real life, though, Fleck fails spectacularly at connecting with anyone at all. Some viewers have speculated that most of Joker’s events are just Arthur’s hallucinatory delusions after a mental health crisis, and that’s an understandable reaction because the film is set in a dream-logic universe that basically exists to torment Fleck. (Yes, his standup routine is bad, but is it really “devote a national TV segment to mocking it” bad?) Long, mostly silent scenes are spent showcasing Joaquin Phoenix’s strangely graceful creepiness, while his conversations are short, awkward, and sometimes imaginary. His most intense screen partner is just himself in a mirror.
All this makes our window into Joker’s world necessarily narrow, and the film relies a lot on simple aesthetic shorthand to heighten its sense of fear and claustrophobia. It evokes an old, dangerous New York that was immortalized in countless ‘70s and ‘80s films. Fleck’s first murders mirror the 1984 vigilante subway shooting by Bernhard Goetz. Clown-masked populist protestors raise the specter of hacktivist group Anonymous and the Occupy Wall Street movement. But these are all broad, symbolic renderings of real events. After all, this isn’t New York; it’s Gotham City.
Fight Club and King of Comedy poke at the highly specific oddities of their time. Joker sketches scenes from the great slow-moving tragedies of the last 50 years: stark economic inequality, the dismantling of social services, the marginalization of mentally ill people, and the injustices of low-wage employment. (Also, if you’re a New Yorker: rats.) It’s a 2019 movie set in a pastiche of the 1980s, but it isn’t really about either of those decades — at least, not specifically.
Some reviewers have criticized this decision as a cop-out, especially because Joker strips out the fraught, complicated racial tensions that permeated the real 1980s New York. That’s a fair assessment, and director Todd Phillips hasn’t done the film any favors by touting its gritty realism. But Joker’s vagueness can also seem timeless. It’s a melodramatic, darkly compelling persecution fantasy. As my colleague Tasha Robinson writes, it plays “not just to its most put-upon, angry, repressed viewers, but to the entire audience’s darkest hearts.”
Despite the widely expressed fears that Joker will inspire angry men to violence, it’s not even particularly a film about masculinity. Fight Club is about being part of “a generation of men raised by women.” King of Comedy contrasts Pupkin with his female counterpart: Masha wants to sleep with Langford, and Pupkin wants to be him. Joker does feature a fantasy romantic relationship between Fleck and a female neighbor. It’s a tiny thread of the narrative, though, and she’s one of the few people who isn’t treated as a source of rage. Many critics have interpreted Fleck’s entire breakdown as aggrieved male entitlement, but you can just as easily frame it as a universal human response to abuse because there’s a long history of using white male characters as unmarked, “neutral” human beings.
Joker could be aiming for a detailed statement about politics and fame and masculinity, and just failing to deliver. It feels more like a movie in conflict with itself — paying homage to films built around cultural systems while putting a close-up lens on a single person falling apart.
That’s an intriguing tension, but it doesn’t hold. The last act tries to bring together commentary and character study: after descending into desperate violence, Fleck appears on TV and delivers a manifesto about class and society writ large, then he suddenly finds he’s the inspirational hero of a clown-based violent protest movement. Instead of seeming like a moment of catharsis or character development, though, it feels like a forced attempt to make the film feel contemporary. When Fight Club and King of Comedy’s characters spell out their philosophies about society or politics, it’s a natural extension of their narrative arc. Fleck’s speech, with its complaints about how “everybody just yells and screams at each other” and “nobody’s civil anymore,” just seems cribbed from political think pieces.
Phillips’ definition of “real movie” seems like a very specific type of movie: the kind that brutally dissects and examines its own social milieu. That’s a goal Fight Club and King of Comedy both share, even as they approach the idea in extremely different ways. But with Joker, Phillips spends more time looking inward at Arthur than outward at the world he’s trying to analyze and find wanting. He’s more interested in portraying his protagonist as a victim of the world than in taking a larger look at what that world has become. He sees the strengths of the movies he’s emulating, and he takes plot points and images from them. He just can’t commit to their greatest areas of strength.