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Robert De Niro Is the Key to This Fall’s Biggest Movies

Both ‘Joker’ and ‘The Irishman’ utilize one of our most iconic actors, but to very different ends

Netflix/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Even just on paper, the casting of Robert De Niro in Todd Phillips’s film Joker seemed like not only a smart way to make spectators curious about yet another comic book origin story movie, but also a tactful wink at a famous film about another jokerman. As a host receiving a bad comedian on his talk show, De Niro in Joker now occupies the armchair that he dreamed of facing in 1982’s The King of Comedy, in which he played the iconic Rupert Pupkin, an unfunny stand-up comedian determined to be seen.

But De Niro’s reunion with Martin Scorsese for The Irishman is even more appealing than the actor’s turn in the film about the clown who fights Batman. The two men haven’t collaborated since Scorsese’s bizarre 2015 hotel resort advertising short film The Audition, and The Irishman brings De Niro together with other iconic old friends, too: Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel are also part of this ’70s Hollywood Actors Assemble extravaganza. Yet more than an added touch of prestige, De Niro’s casting in each of these films carries with it a symbolic significance—one that Phillips and Scorsese employ in dramatically different ways.

Countless critics and spectators have pointed out the very obvious echoes between Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker character and, firstly, De Niro’s stubborn and stubbornly unfunny Pupkin, and secondly, his disturbed vigilante Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck combines Pupkin’s constant performativity with the simmering anger living within Bickle. The result is a more exaggerated and bombastic character than each of these De Niro classics—a study in extreme contrasts, between total muteness and witty diatribes, complete vulnerability and brutal cruelty, more suited to the broad strokes of the comic book movie genre.

Scorsese’s influence also imbues Joker’s visual style and brings Arthur’s extreme behavior into contrast with a realistic and analog cinematography. Gotham is as gritty as the scum-filled New York streets that Bickle drives through. Phillips’s focus on Phoenix’s performance also tries very hard to recall the great naturalism of De Niro’s Method acting: cigarette ash falls on Arthur’s suit and the director semi-effortlessly captures his actor brushing it off. The in-between moments and the lonesome reflections of the Joker take center stage, while Phoenix gets to demonstrate his range by not simply pinballing between laughter and tears, but by doing both at once. The Joker’s interactions with the outside world are at first rare and short, but progressively gain in menacing intensity until the film’s climactic pre-ending, where a bloodbath recalls Taxi Driver’s final shoot-out.

De Niro’s presence in Joker indicates how Phillips’s cinephilic references are meant to be easily spotted and perceived as homages to the great Scorsese movies of the past (and of the director’s youth). Not only does Joker aim to be a good superhero movie, it also wants to be a good movie full stop, like those classics they don’t make anymore. But Phillips ascribes De Niro a place that also has a particular resonance. Arthur idolizes the host of Live With Murray Franklin because the man allegedly tells it like it is and offers some solace; in a world that has gone crazy, he argues for the importance of entertainment. But Murray doesn’t find Arthur entertaining: One day, he mocks him in front of millions of spectators by broadcasting a tape of the amateur comedian’s dreadful show from the night before (someone at the comedy club must have been carrying a Super 8 camera around and recognized the viral potential of this awful performance, surely). Humiliated, Arthur then sees his idol in a different light: Murray is in fact an agent of the status quo, and instead of trying to “bring laughter and joy to the world” like Arthur, he promotes intolerance by not tolerating him. The symbolic significance that De Niro had as Murray, but also, and more essentially, as the man behind such rebels as Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, is therefore wiped away—or rather transferred onto the Joker, who after his televised murder of De Niro’s character manages to escape prison and become the face of a rebellious movement setting the streets of Gotham on fire.

Despite the concerns and condemnations of certain corners of public opinion, whether Phillips’s film can spark anarchic violence in the real world is of course impossible to judge. Yet it is difficult not to see Joker as chokingly aligned with the perspective of its titular protagonist, perhaps more so than Scorsese’s two films were with their own respective antiheroes. The epilogue of Taxi Driver, which paints Bickle as a hero and sees him back at work and humble, is famously ambiguous and read by many as the death dream of the bloody vigilante sitting on his victim’s couch. Arthur’s elevation to leader of a movement is by contrast presented much more directly. By making Arthur kill—with a bullet to the head, no less—and take the place of Bickle and Pupkin, and then become a representative of the angry populace, Phillips sends a pointed message: The King of Comedy is dead, long live the new King. Where Bickle and Pupkin were just drops in an ocean of injustice, their vengeful actions having small-scale consequences, Arthur is a tidal wave flooding Gotham with violence and changing its history forever. Following in the footsteps of the very dark Dark Knight movies, Joker goes all in on the bad vibes and takes Scorsese’s subversive antiestablishment critique from the implicit to the literal. De Niro’s characters were antiheroes because they could never get the unjust world to align with them, leaving one to use their imagination to picture the results they had hoped for; Arthur, on the other hand, manages to bend reality to his will to blatantly horrifying results.

Phillips seems to imply that he wants a new, worse bad guy because the failed, old ones didn’t prepare us for the horrors of our present. That bullet through De Niro’s skull, presented in a long shot after excruciating minutes of talk-show awkwardness, wants to tell it like it is. Apparently, the movie states, we needed to be told clearly, directly, and not subtly, that society’s intolerance and greed—as well as, seemingly, untreated mental illness—would lead to chaos; the metaphors that Bickle and Pupkin embodied were not clear and loud enough. Looking at the state of the world in 2019 makes this brutal honesty paradoxically tempting, but nevertheless worrying. If we need a movie about a lonely clown killing people to understand that inequality and meanness are bad, we have a problem. We have a failure of imagination.

Scorsese’s use of costly de-ageing technology to make De Niro et al. look decades younger in The Irishman aims to help the spectator’s imagination. If the actor’s presence in Joker aims to first recall, then kill off and update the old antiheroes he symbolizes, his turn in Scorsese’s latest has a somewhat similar but more melancholic and tender purpose. De Niro plays Frank Sheeran, an ex-mobster who, now old, looks back on his life of crime, friendship, and betrayal from his nursing home. Through him, and thus through De Niro, Scorsese questions the relevance and meaning of the iconic gangsters he got the actor to play. Yet the strange shine of De Niro’s eyes in the film’s trailer already suggested that Scorsese’s reassessment of his actor’s allegorical significance in cinema would never be as brutal and, frankly, unforgiving as Phillips’s. Scorsese doesn’t want to erase or rewrite (his) film history, but rather take it into the present and see it from his current perspective, many years and many films later. The uncanny feeling created by this technology—a very modern one that will no doubt be perfected and propagated in the next few years—therefore feels necessary. Reckoning with one’s oeuvre and its impact cannot be comfortable, especially when that work has been full of disturbing yet exciting violence as well as dangerous men getting what they want. The Irishman wants the audience to imagine an old Goodfella—not the young boy who told us that as far back as he could remember, he’d always wanted to be a gangster, but the old man who saw that wish come true and has had to live with its awful consequences.

The irony that The Irishman should be released primarily on Netflix (and not in big American cinema chains) while Joker keeps breaking records at the box office seems too appropriate to be true. Scorsese’s epic reconsideration of the meaning and influence of his films, made possible by the mad spending sprees of a streaming giant, probably won’t be seen by as many people as the film that at once celebrates and viciously condemns Scorsese’s classic movies. Yet these paradoxes again mark the difference between Phillips and Scorsese. The 76-year-old director is humble enough to embrace the present moment, reviewing his impact and giving a chance to new technologies that many deem disrespectful of the art of cinema; Phillips, on the other hand, allows himself to have his cinephilic prestige cake and eat it, too, by making Scorsese’s old cinematic principles his own only to then decry them.

Neither of these two similarly nostalgic yet wildly different takes on the meaning of and use for Scorsese’s cinema would have been possible without Robert De Niro. His talent needn’t be argued for anymore, but his willingness to lend himself to directors’ disturbing visions should be noted once again. In a landscape full of contradictions, he continues to work with not only a respect for the craft of acting, but also a profound understanding of his own place in cinema history.

Manuela Lazic is a French writer based in London who primarily covers film.