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Illustration above is from Before Watchmen by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo.
Travis Bickle is a superhero.
More accurately, Travis Bickle is Rorschach. Or more accuratey than that, Rorschach is Travis Bickle.
The link between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's antihero in Watchmen(1986-7) and Martin Scorsese's antihero in Taxi Driver(1976) is almost certainly intentional. Moore is a compulsive artistic magpie, and he had to be aware of the echoes of Bickle in Rorschach's journal.
Bickle: All the animals come out at night - whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick, venal. Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.
Rorschach: The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout "Save us!"... and I'll look down and whisper "No."
Rorschach's soliloquy is more baroque and poetic, but the basic imagery—the variegated, sexualized urban scum being cleansed by an apocalyptic rain—is the same.
Moore uses Bickle as a way to critique the lonely obsessed vigilante archetype; the ultra-competent, ultra-focused Batman is replaced by Scorsese's insomniac, lonely, loser. Moore's goal was to make Rorschach repulsive, like Bickle—to show that Batman would be a brutal, frightening, jerk, with mental health problems and poor hygiene. The guy who takes his horrified date to X-rated movies and gives himself terrible haircuts is a good prototype for the guy who eats beans cold out of a can.
Critics of Watchmen, including Moore himself, have argued that something went wrong with the Bickle-ization of the superhero, though. Readers were supposed to be repulsed by Rorschach. But instead, as Moore said, many of them ended up being fans.
“I had forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans smelling, not having a girlfriend — these are actually kind of heroic. So actually, sort of, Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I meant him to be a bad example, but I have people come up to me in the street saying, ‘I am Rorschach! That is my story!’ And I’ll be thinking, ‘Yeah, great, can you just keep away from me and never come anywhere near me again for as long as I live?’”
Moore distances himself from Rorschach's fanbase. But that fanbase is still to some extent his fault. As Jeet Heer argues, "Moore's proficiency at using genre tropes overwhelms the critique of genre that he wants to have." Rorschach takes out a SWAT team with household supplies; he murders his way through a prison gang using only his shirt and a toilet, without ever changing his facial expression. He's a bad ass. Bad asses are cool. They provide exciting genre pleasures; they give viewers an adrenalin high. You identify with them and feel powerful. Moore gave his readers what they wanted, presumably because, as a pulp fan, part of him wanted it too.
So Moore is responsible in part for his fan's use of Rorschach. Is Scorsese then responsible for Moore's use of Bickle?
I think the answer is "yes." Bickle, like Rorschach, is meant to challenge standard narratives of heroism and masculine cool. But his grungy ugliness has the contradictory effect of making him in many ways more badass. Scorsese's filthy New York, caked in semen and blood, with sex workers on every corner, is authentic, provocative, exciting. It makes Bickle authentic, provocative and exciting too. The director's proficiency at using genre tropes overwhelms his critique of genre.
It's true that in the first part of the film, Bickle is a very unappealing character. An ex-Marine, he appears to suffer from PTSD, insomnia, and an inability to function in the civilian world (he may well have been inspired by the character of John Rambo in the novel First Blood, which was well known, though not yet filmed.) Bickle works obsessively, driving his cab for 12 hour shifts. In his downtime he stalks a presidential campaign worker named Betsy (Cybil Shepherd). Betsy agrees to go out with him on a date, and he takes her to an X-rated film. She is predictably repulsed, and refuses to see him again at which point he becomes even more obsessed and crosses over the line into threatening her and her coworkers. Out of confused revenge and general awfulness, he makes vague plans to assassinate the candidate Betsy was working for, Charles Palatine (Leonard Harris), but he's thwarted with minimal fuss by Palatine's security detail.
If that was the whole story, there'd be almost nothing to like about Travis; he'd just be an ineffectual creep, who fails even at being a scumbag. But of course there's more.
The surest way to confer an aura of heroism on a man is to have him rescue a white woman or girl in the sex trade, and sure enough, Travis is provided with a trafficking victim to redeem him. While driving his cab, Travis encountered Iris (Jodie Foster), a 12-year-old prostitute. He decides that he is going to help her escape from exploitation. First he hires her for 15 minutes and instead of having sex with her tries to talk her into running away from her pimp (Harvey Keitel). When that fails, he goes in with guns blazing, murdering the pimp and several other people, before collapsing in his own blood.
Travis is still supposed to be dangerous and unpleasant during the climactic shoot-out. When the police arrive, he's sitting on a couch, and he raises a blood soaked hand to his disastrously ugly Mohawk hairdo, makes a finger gun, and mimes shooting himself. He comes across as a feral, mentally ill supervillain, not a hero. If any one image in Taxi Driverinspired the The Joker, this is probably it.
But that bloody final image is counterbalanced by a slew of genre markers. Earlier in the film we watch Travis buy an armory of guns, and then set himself rigorously to train with them.
I gotta get in shape. Too much sitting has ruined my body. Too much abuse has gone on for too long. From now on there will be 50 pushups each morning, 50 pullups. There will be no more pills, no more bad food, no more destroyers of my body. From now there will be total organization. Every muscle must be tight.
What follows is one of the first training montage's in cinema history, as Travis works out in his small room, manufactures a spring-loaded concealed arm holster, and shoots on the firing range. The sequence shows his obsession, perhaps, but it also signals masculine purification, and foreshadows action sequences to come. Travis shortly thereafter shoots a black convenience store robber, in the kind of white-guy-foils-urban-crime scene that was already a cliché in 1976 (Dirty Harry came out in 1971.) The shoot out at the film's end shows Travis using all his skills, guns, and specialized weaponry in a ballet of competence and catharsis. The sequence is filmed like a wild west shoot out, complete with one of the villains being blasted backwards through a door. Travis may be odd and unpleasant, but like Rorschach he's also dangerous and deadly in ways familiar to movie fans. Whatever Scorsese's intention, that makes him cool.
Scorsese seems to have convinced himself that Travis is cool by the end of the movie as well. The taxi driver is treated by the press as a hero, and—more tellingly—Travis does actually save Iris. Her parents come find her, and take her back to school. In real life, kids who run away from home generally have very good reasons for doing so; Iris tells Travis at one point that her family doesn't love her, and she'd be in a position to know. But the film offers no hint that Iris might be returning, not to middle-class safety, but to abuse and neglect. She is a damsel-in-distress to be rescued through ultraviolence; that's the narrative default, and Scorsese sticks to it.
Travis is so redeemed that even Betsy reconciles with him. She happens to get into his cab while going home one night. You'd think that if you found out your stalker had killed multiple people, you'd run as soon as you saw him. But instead (as per action genre rules) she treats his capacity for violence as validating. The two talk briefly, she is complimentary and a little wistful. When she gets out of the cab he gallantly refuses to let her pay, shifting him subtly from dangerous stalker misogynist to stoic, rueful, but sympathetic spurned lover.
One possible message of Taxi Driver is the one Alan Moore intended as the message of Rorschach: our brutal antiheroes are terrible people, and our love of them shows a basic moral failure in our culture. But you could also read Taxi Driver as telling us something more congruent with genre pleasures. Travis Bickle, as a hero, shows us not that our model of heroism is flawed, but rather that heroes are difficult complicated people, and that the line between hero and villain is thin and sharp as a knife-edge. Travis could have been a monster, but instead, mostly from sheer luck, he ended up turning his powers to good, like Dirty Harry or Batman.
In this sense, Watchmen, and the execrableThe Joker aren't misreading Taxi Driver. They're faithfully following through on Scorsese's blueprint. All offer a critique of heroic vigilante violence which makes that violence nastier, more grimily realistic, and therefore awesomer.
Scorsese recently lambasted MCU films. He argued for a "cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being." The irony is that Taxi Driver conveys the same emotional psychological experience as a lot of MCU films: specifically, the experience of a beaten down, unsavory schlub who achieves empowerment through sexualized rescue fantasies and an orgy of violence. The MCU hasn't abandoned cinema as Taxi Driver meant it to be. On the contrary, if stunted, violent boy-men rule our cineplexes, it's at least in part Scorsese's fault.