Todd Phillips’ Joker is a conflation of ‘Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupnick’: What David Fincher’s comments on Joker reveal about the film industry today

Director of 1999 cult classic Fight Club unapologetically shared his views on Todd Phillips’ 21st-century adaptation of one of the most recognised villains in fiction, which was released over a year ago.

As part of a promotion for his newest film Mank, Fincher reflects on the massive success Joker enjoyed at the box office followed by a generally warm critical reception, in an interview with The Telegraph. Had it not been for Nolan’s massive success in adapting Ledger’s compelling performance to The Dark Knight, Fincher finds it hard to believe that the 2019 film Joker would have been received as well as it was. “Nobody would have thought they had a shot at a giant hit with Joker had The Dark Knight not been as massive as it was”. He goes on “I don’t think anyone would have looked at that material and thought, ‘Yeah, let’s take [Taxi Driver’s] Travis Bickle and [The King of Comedy’s] Rupert Pupkin and conflate them, then trap him in a betrayal of the mentally ill, and trot it out for a billion dollars.’”

Fincher highlights the film’s undeniable allusions to 1970s and 1980s classics Taxi Driver, which follows the disorientated quest for redemption of unbalanced New York taxi driver, and The King of Comedy, a dark humour film centred around the delusions of an aspiring stand-up comedian whose eccentricities, and even attire, are noticeably emulated in Joker. Both films were directed by Martin Scorsese, and star Robert De Niro as lead role who also appeared alongside Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. With the emulation and re-emulation of previously successful and popular tropes in film, it is perhaps not unreasonable to say that some directors may be tempted to recycle aspects of older films which, at some level, secure a degree of success, or at the least, attention for their ‘new’ projects. 

Whilst Phillips’ direction of colour and camerawork alongside Phoenix’s stunning performance hold up as a remarkable piece of art, the adaption of the comic book villain was not a challenging or revolutionary one; its success was at least partly owed to the legacy of Ledger’s performance in 2008, which had already developed and established the Joker as an alluring character. However, that is not to suggest that Phillips did not offer an alternative, enlightening perspective to his adaptation of the villain; revealing a developed backstory is what developed the Joker character in a way other films had not. But at the same time, constructing a history for the Joker defeats the significance of the obscure meaning behind his actions, which is what made his character both elusive and compelling in previous performances. 

Image Credit: The King of Comedy, Medium

Fincher highlights the lack of challenging new material in the film industry today, whose studios “don’t want to make anything that can’t make them a billion dollars”. The reproduction of a character whose success had already been established, no doubt assured film studios of its success; Joker profited over $1 billion at the box office.  

However, before criticising filmmakers for the lack of challenging and new material, we should be considerate of their restriction of free movement in actualising their ideas. Whilst some “challenging content” does manage to make it to the big screen Fincher says, directors still face many obstacles to achieving this, which is something he has experienced first-hand; after a 30-year long struggle, Fincher was only recently able to bring his father’s script for Mank to the big screen. So, can we legitimately chastise directors for failing to present viewers with challenging material, when they are compelled to produce films centred around subjects which have already proven to be commercially lucrative? Nonetheless, conceptualizing an idea and adapting an idea for commercial production are evidently two very different things in the film industry. 

Fincher’s new film Mank has already received outstanding reviews from critics and will be available for viewing on Netflix from December 4, 2020.

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