A Joker Origin Story is a Terrible Idea: One Man’s Opinion
I’m a fan of the superhero genre, and I like all kinds of heroes and villains. When they’re written well, few mediums can compare to them, and the visuals of the artwork can say things that no words ever could. I love comics and I love comic book adaptations – even Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Wonder Woman was not only an amazing superhero film but an amazing war film as it showed the real horrors of war from the perspective of those affected by it but powerless against it. But there is such a thing as oversaturation.
The rumors of a Martin Scorsese-produced film starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role depicting a Joker origin story have me worried. DC has an issue with doing their characters justice on the big screen. Both Superman and Batman have been shown to kill in recent films, and although killing is something that Superman does with great reluctance and only as a last resort, it is something that Batman utterly refuses to do. It’s his one rule; he will never kill, not matter what. Comic fans were up in arms with the betrayal of the very thing the character has preached for nearly eight decades. Yes, I know that early on in the comics Batman did kill and even carried a gun, but that was very early on when they were still struggling to figure out the true identity of who this hero was going to be; not in the Bruce Wayne sense, but in the sense of what he will stand for and how he will be different and distinct.
The Joker has been there for nearly this whole time, appearing in Batman #1 in the spring of 1940. He was supposed to be killed off at the end of the story (and apparently is, but this being comics, he survived) but the writers understood the potential of a character like the Joker and decided to keep him around, which was a stroke of brilliance. The Joker is one of the most iconic characters in all of comicdom. Poll a group of non-comic book fans and ask them to name some characters that they know and you’ll probably end up with the “Trinity” of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Incredible Hulk and that would be about it, although maybe they’d mention Captain America. But they would definitely also mention the Joker. He is the only true villain that is so ingrained in popular culture that people who don’t follow comics can look at a picture and identify him.
The Joker is a character who is shrouded in mystery. His past is unknown even to the character himself, saying, “If I’m going to have a past I prefer to be multiple choice!” which is something we get a glimpse of in the Oscar-winning portrayal of the character by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. He asks several people if they would like to know the origin of his scars (known as either a “Glasgow Smile” or a “Chelsea Grin”) but giving drastically different stories that sound equally plausible and are delivered in such a way that the emotion behind them seems genuine. As it stands the only “real” origin is the one given by “The Killing Joke” graphic novel written by Alan Moore (he of “Watchmen” and “V for Vendetta” fame) in which the Joker is revealed to have been a normal guy who was a failed comedian who gets roped into working for a gang in order to get money to support himself and his pregnant wife. I won’t get into the details because the story is one of the greatest in the history of comics and was recently adapted into an animated full-length feature and I do not want to ruin it for you. But even this is not considered strictly canonical.
Origin stories can be a tricky thing even for characters without the extensive history the Joker has. Think of when the origin story for Leatherface of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” films came out. It humanized him and made him a sympathetic figure. He was a young boy who was bullied for the fact that he was developmentally disabled and so was easy prey for those who didn’t understand his condition and ruthlessly and brutally tormented him for it. When the book and subsequent film “Hannibal” author Thomas Harris showed us the softer side of Hannibal Lecter, who became a cannibal because he was exacting revenge on the soldiers who cannibalized his sister during the winter months of World War II after casting him aside because he was not meaty enough. He believed that he could achieve a means of resurrecting his sister through Clarice Starling. Again, this showed that he was not simply a terrifying character who was an unstoppable force once he set his mind to something. In both cases, the characters were lessened and muted a bit. When you watch the movies or read the novels for the second time this new knowledge made your emotional response to the atrocities committed by these monsters much different; it’s like seeing something coming at your head and you’re expecting a rock but you get hit with a balloon instead. You still feel it, but it’s nothing near as impactful as you were expecting.
In the “Dark Knight Returns” graphic novel (written by Frank Miller and every bit as well-written as “The Killing Joke”) Batman has been retired for roughly a decade and in that time the Joker has been catatonic. Bruce Wayne sees what is happening in the absence of the Batman’s presence and decides to don the cape and cowl once again and when the catatonic Joker happens to be in the same room as a news report on television declaring the Batman to have returned from his absence he awakens from his vegetative state once more as well. The point is that the Joker is the literal antithesis of Batman. Where Batman is dark and brooding the Joker is brightly colored and obnoxious. Where Batman refuses to kill, the Joker takes lives with reckless abandon. Where Batman has a specifically laid out backstory that serves as his motivation that everyone knows (but for some reason is rehashed in every single Batman film), the Joker should remain shrouded in mystery. I don’t want to know why he does the things he does. I don’t want to find out anything that gives the Joker some semblance of humanity. I don’t want to learn something that makes me sympathize with him and understand his motivations. The Joker is a force of nature, his motives malleable and as ever-changing as the weather in New England. He’s unpredictable, terrifying, and eternal. He’s Chaotic Evil where Batman is Lawful Good. While one exists so does the other. They are but two sides of the same coin. They are bizarre, fun house mirror reflections of one another. I don’t want to see anyone tell the story of how the Joker came to be. I want him to continue to be the nightmare from which Batman cannot escape. I don’t want to know his real name, I don’t want to know where he comes from or what his childhood was like.
Think about a horror movie or a scary novel. The monster is always scariest when there is no distinct shape given to it. It remains amorphous and capable of taking the form of whatever is the most frightening. Your imagination is different from mine, and you’re going to be scared of things that do not scare me and vice versa. Once the shape takes a form it loses its power. When the monstrous shadow reaching through your window turns out to be nothing but the shadow of a tree branch and can be defeated by closing the curtains there is no threat.
That’s what a Joker origin would be. But hey, that’s just like, my opinion man. You may feel differently, or you may agree. It doesn’t affect me either way, just as my opinion need not affect yours. If you would like to, leave your thoughts in the comments section below and we can discuss it.
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