'Joker' and the 'The King of Comedy' Are Different in One Sinister Way

The trailers heavily suggest 'Joker' is a modern retelling of 'The King of Comedy'. But there's a big differing factor in the Martin Scorsese picture.

The punchline of Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy is that Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin, a fame-obsessed huckster who kidnaps his idol for a spot on a late night show, is actually pretty good at stand-up. Until the end, you don’t know if he’s any good at telling jokes or can even hold a crowd. But after five minutes on primetime, he falls upward and earns his “King of Comedy” title after building buzz behind bars.

In what is one of Martin Scorsese’s weaker movies, the master director doesn’t quite nail the social satire Sidney Lumet hammered down in his 1976 movie Network. But in the closing moments of The King of Comedy, Scorsese is more than aware of our perverse attachment to fame and how easy we forgive and forget the worst behaviors of terrible people so long as we find them entertaining. De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin is no Woody Allen, but he claims to be good friends with him.

The King of Comedy is in the conversation again because of Joker, a wildly different movie that, based on its trailers, appears to tell a similar story. The exception is that there is a sinister change at the heart of Joker, while in The King of Comedy, the “hero” changes in no way at all.

Joker, from Todd Phillips, is an upcoming standalone origin of Batman’s (yes, that Batman) greatest nemesis. It also just so happens to star Robert De Niro, this time in the shoes of a late-night host who buffs and mocks Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a man who snaps and becomes the Clown Prince of Crime.

In 'Joker,' Joaquin Phoenix stars as Arthur Fleck, a failing comedian who becomes the famed "Joker" of Batman lore. Through its promotional materials, the film has inspired comparisons to the 1983 Martin Scorsese picture, 'The King of Comedy.'

Warner Bros. Pictures

The final Joker trailer was released this week, emphasizing the central character’s journey. Arthur, a struggling comic with a kind, playful soul in a menacing world — 1981 Gotham City, modeled heavily after New York — turns to a life of crime as a terrorist known as “The Joker.” And he’s free to do so, because Bruce Wayne, played by Dante Pereira-Olson, is a mere child who has yet to see his parents killed in Crime Alley and go on a journey into becoming Batman.

The big question is whether Joker will be a DC Comics-ified reboot of The King of Comedy or something else entirely. Though comparisons are fair and even intentional, the true test will be how Joker ends its story.

Will Arthur Fleck be rewarded, winning the fame and respect he desires just like Rupert in The King of Comedy? Or will he gain infamy not as a comedian who brings the laughs, but as a terrorist who instills fear?

But this is the Joker! This guy has to one day maul a teenager in a red bird costume with a crowbar. But until the film’s release, we can only speculate how Joker will sell the transformation of Arthur into Joker, and what implicit ideas are imbued in that metamorphosis.

Robert De Niro, who will star in 'Joker' as a famous comic, previously played an Arthur Fleck-like protagonist in 'The King of Comedy,' another movie about an ambitious comedian who turns to crime.

20th Century Fox

There’s no such “metamorphosis” in The King of Comedy. Rupert is just as relentless, just as insufferable, and just as delusional in the beginning of the movie as he is in the end. As a character, he experiences no tangible change or growth. The only difference between Rupert in Act 1 and Act 3 is applause and a time slot. There is no mask or alter ego (or in the Joker’s case, clown make-up) to solidify his transformation.

The Joker trailer clues us that that will happen. Toward the end of the trailer, events transpire that lead Arthur/Joker backstage to Murray Franklin’s (De Niro’s character) show. He asks the veteran comic: “When you bring me out, can you introduce me as ‘Joker’?”

On the surface, Joker does look like a supervillain inversion of The King of Comedy, but at its core, what Joker does to its protagonist is what will ultimately decide how much the film is like the Scorsese picture or just another clown on a bad day.

Joker will be released in theaters on October 4.

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