While watching Todd Phillips’ Joker, the gritty drama and pseudo origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime, you get the odd sense you’ve seen much of this before. But unlike most superhero movies, its point of reference isn’t Richard Donner, Christopher Nolan, or the Marvel Studios boilerplate; it’s a synthesis of downbeat 1970s feel-bad pieces, many of which are directed by Martin Scorsese. In fact, it specifically resembles Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy so much that it would charitable to call it an “homage.” It certainly is almost a Scorsese movie… and according to the legendary auteur, it almost was.
When Joker was first announced, Scorsese was famously listed as a producer on the project, even before Joaquin Phoenix was cast as the killer clown. However, his name was eventually taken off the movie as he pursued his own muses, leading to the elegiac and masterful The Irishman. Yet Scorsese now reveals he considered for years making the film, although while being vague as to whether it was as a hands-on producer or as even the director, which some current rumors now suggest. He also reveals why he didn’t end up making it.
Speaking to BBC’s Sam Asi, Scorsese said, “I thought about it a lot over the past four years, the Joker, and I decided that I didn’t have the time for it.” He went on to add though that he was very familiar with the script and Joaquin’s transformation in the process. “You had remarkable work, but for me, ultimately, I don’t know if I make the next step, which is this character developing into a comic book character. Do you follow? Develops into an abstraction. That doesn’t mean it’s bad art, it could be, but it’s not for me.”
Scorsese also volunteered a contrast of Joker with what what he previously said about superhero films, and Marvel Studios ones in particular, when he said they aren’t cinema.
“It’s very different,” Scorsese said. “The superhero films, as I said, are like another art form. They’re not easy to make; they’re a lot of talented people doing very good work; and a lot of young people really, really enjoy them. But I think it’s more of an extension of the amusement park.” He goes on to compare what is happening now to the beginning of the 1970s—before that decade in Hollywood would be defined by the adult-oriented, and often cynical fare that Scorsese was a pioneer in—when studio heads dreamed of having their own amusement parks like Disneyland (with Universal being the first, and so far only, to succeed at that game).
“So they’ve always been aiming in that direction and then it came together,” Scorsese said. He just hopes that theaters can find a space for filmmakers who want to challenge or push the medium forward with personal work, or else it’ll only be on streaming like The Irishman. “This is what has to happen; there has to be a consciousness changing, I think, in this industry because we’re wiped out.”
The full interview is below. Meanwhile Scorsese’s The Irishman is in select theaters right now. If you can see it in a theater near you, you really should take the time to do so.