6 Movies You Need to Watch Before You See ‘Joker’

After a commercially successful opening weekend amid controversy, filmmaker Todd Phillips’ Joker, a creepy character study of one of the most infamous fictional villains of all time, broke major ground at the box office. The film broke box office records by grossing over $93 million in domestic ticket sales, earning Joker the special distinction of being the hugest October film debut in the United States.

Joaquin Phoenix, who portrays the crazed criminal clown himself, has received major praise for his unique, unsettling performance. If you’re a major film fanatic, you will probably notice some of the many films that Joker paid homage to. Even if you aren’t a serious movie buff, you might feel like one after you finish this article and you will still appreciate the wide array of psychological thrillers that inspired Joker to begin with.

Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix | Warner Bros.

So, before you book your ticket for the next showing of Joker, check out this list of films that either played a direct role in the movie’s initial development or received a special nod in Joker. Either way, you have an especially exciting and viciously visceral movie marathon ahead of you.

‘The Man Who Laughs’

Directed by German Expressionist filmmaker, Paul Leni, the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs is an adaptation of French novelist, Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. Film critic Roger Ebert describes the film as “a melodrama, at times even a swashbuckler, but so steeped in Expressionist gloom that it plays like a horror film.” The Man Who Laughs is famous for the creepy, wide grin on the face of the lead character Gwynplaine played by Conrad Veidt. The disturbing smile often leads viewers to mistake the romantic drama for a horror film.

In fact, it was that famous freakish smile that originally inspired The Joker’s appearance. In 2005, a graphic novel called Batman: The Man Who Laughs revolves around the very first time the caped crusader met his archnemesis The Joker. The novel’s title is clearly a nod to the original silent film that initially inspired the creation of the comic book villain.

‘Taxi Driver’

The famous 1976 neo-noir psychological drama, Taxi Driver revolves around the life of a war veteran named Travis Bickle, played by a young Robert De Niro, who suffers from insomnia and gradually loses his grasp on reality as he dreams of saving a morally-backward world by assassinating a presidential candidate and rescuing a young prostitute, played by Jodie Foster.

Like Bickle, Arthur is often treated as an outcast from society because of his mental health conditions. Both characters dream of saving the world in one way or another at the cost of their sanity and morality. Just like Joker, Taxi Driver stirred up a lot of controversies for its graphic depiction of violence as well as for the film’s casting of a preteen Jodie Foster as a prostitute. To this day, Taxi Driver is considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.

Taxi Driver star Robert De Niro also plays Arthur Fleck’s idol, the television personality Murray Franklin in Joker.

‘The King of Comedy’

Robert De Niro’s influence on Joker continues with director Martin Scorsese’s 1983 psychological black comedy, The King of Comedy. The film revolves around a mentally-disturbed, unsuccessful stand-up comedian named Rupert, played by De Niro, who develops an obsession with a successful entertainer and television personality named Jerry, played by Jerry Lewis. The film revolves around the dangers of celebrity worship with Rupert eventually going as far as to kidnap Jerry and hold him for ransom.

In Joker, the roles are reversed with Phoenix playing the role of the dangerously obsessed fan, Arthur, and De Niro acting as the subject of Phoenix’s obsession, Murray. Like Rupert in The King of Comedy, Arthur is also a failing stand-up comedian with a history of mental health issues.

‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

In this chilling, psychological horror film, Michael Rooker plays Henry, a recently released convict who makes a living as an assassin, committing a series of brutal murders during his reign of terror and violence. Directed by John McNaughton, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is based on the true story of the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who was deemed responsible for hundreds of unsolved murders. The film contains so much graphic material, both sexual and violent in nature, that it had a large role in the development of the NC-17 rating.

Like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a primary theme of Joker is the struggle to contain the inner darkness hidden within each and every individual. Both films are chilling character studies of unstable minds. In Joker, Arthur believes that his purpose in life is to spread laughter and happiness until a series of traumatic events send him spiraling into insanity.

Be forewarned before you check out this film, though. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is considered to be one of the most gruesome, disturbing films ever released. The film took four years to have a theatrical release because it took the filmmakers so long to find a studio willing to distribute such a hair-raising film.

‘The Dark Knight’

When The Dark Knight was released, audiences and critics praised the late Heath Ledger for his unforgettable, chilling performance as The Joker. In a time where comic book movies were often identified as children’s films, The Dark Knight shocked audiences with its gritty, dark tone and genuinely terrifying villain.

The performances of Ledger and Phoenix are incomparable, nor should they be compared because they are not even remotely similar to one another, yet each performance is brilliant in its own way. Heath Ledger’s Joker thrives on creating chaos and carnage wherever he goes, purely for his own sadistic entertainment. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker seems to only act violently when pushed to do so when he feels wronged or harmed by his future victims.

Joker featured an interesting homage to Heath Ledger’s method acting style. Ledger would carry around a character journal full of creepy drawings and eerie messages in order to get into character. In Joker, Arthur carries around a similar journal, full of sketches, dark jokes, and heartbreaking sentiments about his suffering.

‘You Were Never Really Here’

Joaquin Pheonix’s character in director Lynne Ramsay’s action-thriller is like a warped reflection of Phoenix’s character in Joker. The film revolves around a jaded veteran named Joe, played by Phoenix, who embarks on a violent rescue mission to save a teenage girl, often resorting to brutally violent measures to do so.

Both Joe and Arthur have suffered from life-changing traumatic events that have forever altered them as people but in very different ways. Joe uses his violent, brutish nature for good intentions, while Arthur’s intentions are more… morally questionable, to say the least.

After checking out these films, you will be able to view and admire Todd Phillips’ Joker in a whole new light.