Comics on Film: 'The Joker' Movie Is Happening -- Will It Ignore the Comics?

Comics on Film: 'The Joker' Movie Is Happening -- Will It Ignore the Comics?

Jul 13, 2018

Batman: The Killing Joke

We now know with a greater degree of certainty that the proposed origin film for infamous DC Comics villain the Joker will be happening, to star Joaquin Phoenix and to be directed by Todd Phillips. In the past, Comics on Film has speculated at least twice before on the idea of a Joker stand-alone movie that isn’t a part of the fabric of the DC Extended Universe, and we've both questioned the need for its existence, while also celebrating the possibilities it could present for comics-based cinema.

Now that this seems to be on the fast track, everything that’s been released publicly about the movie seems to show a bit of a troubling trend in terms of its adaptive philosophy. Will this movie try to be a solid adaptation of, arguably, comics' greatest villain? Or, will it take a more arrogant approach by trying to contort a character instead of trying to logically adapt him?


The Joker's Origin(s) in the Comics

Batman: The Animated Series

In the original news-breaking story published in THR, Warner Bros. described the intent of the movie by saying it will be an "exploration of a man disregarded by society [that] is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale." While this is, admittedly, some extremely basic insight into what the intent of the movie is going to be, it also seems to be a bit of a departure from previous Joker origin stories that the source material has explored in the past.

The original attempt at giving the Joker an origin story was in the featured story found in 1951's Detective Comics #168, which depicted him as a laboratory worker who became a criminal known as the Red Hood. In that story, he planned to steal $1 million from his employer so that he could eventually retire, but after the robbery, he attempted to escape by swimming through the chemical wastes that ran into the river outside, mistakenly assuming his hood – which, of course, doubled as a gas mask and aqualung – would protect him. He was wrong, since the chemicals discolored his hair and skin. It was then he swore to become the Joker.

Some 37 years later, in 1988, that pretty basic origin was the inspiration for a more mature take on the character’s backstory in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke, which was adapted into an animated movie in 2016. A failing comedian and chemist, the man who becomes the Joker is tasked by some low-level criminals with helping them break into his work facility, the Ace Chemicals plant.

Batman: The Killing Joke

After the score, he and his pregnant wife will be able to retire in comfort. Instead, after his wife and unborn child are killed in a fire, he goes through with the job only to be confronted by the police, and the new vigilante: Batman. The man trips and falls into a vat of chemicals, emerging from the waste, removing his mask, and being driven insane by his new face and the combined horrific trauma he just endured.

Other versions of the character's origin have fluctuated wildly, largely due to the Joker's insanity causing the character himself to be an unreliable source of his own beginning. In 2007's Batman Confidential #7-12, for instance, Joker is shown to be a rather brilliant criminal in the days leading up to his fateful physical transformation, which simply enhanced the evil that was already there. In 2014’s The Brave and the Bold (vol. 3) #31, the Atom actually travels into the Joker's mind and finds a memory of him burning his own parents alive when he's a child.

In 2013, writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo redefined Batman's origin in the story Zero Year, where the pre-Joker is depicted as an already-existing crime-lord who leads an entire gang of "Red Hoods" before he eventually becomes the Harlequin of Hate.

The movie that Todd Phillips will direct seems like it may be inspired by the more "down on his luck" interpretation found in Moore and Bolland’s story, but will try and spin it a bit into something that could serve to admonish society for creating a forgotten man, which leads to the creation of a terrible criminal. There is one notable omission, though, that is very suspect.


Where Is the Batman?

The Killing Joke: Batman vs. Joker

In the majority of the Joker's origin stories, one of the major players has always been Batman himself. This is true in the comics and it's also true in the 1989 film, as well as in Batman: The Animated Series. With this project, it looks as though Warner Bros. is keen to follow the lead of studios like Sony in crafting a villain-centric movie that doesn’t feature that villain's primary opposing force at all.

For fans of the characters, this is a disconcerting trend. While it certainly could work and potentially be a great movie in spite of this noticeable deviation from the source material, the reason that most people like the Joker is because they love Batman. Whether or not Batman ends up being a decisive factor in the Joker's origin is still unclear, because in the case of Warner Bros., they don't have the same kind of entangled web of rights issues that Sony or 20th Century Fox have to deal with (at least right now) because of different entities owning their characters.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Since Time Warner owns DC Comics and DC Entertainment outright, there's nothing but creator intent that would restrict Batman from appearing, even in a cameo capacity, in a potential stand-alone Joker movie. Batman certainly doesn't have to be a major player in an origin story for the Joker, but completely divorcing the Clown Prince of Crime from his greatest destined enemy seems a bit extreme. Of course, though, as in all things, time will tell what role – if any – the Dark Knight could play in his nemesis' upcoming film.

What do you think? Should the movie go in a totally different direction from what's established in comics, or should it be at least partially informed by what we've seen in the source material and/or other adaptations of it? Would you be okay with a Joker film that doesn't include Batman at all, or would you like to see at least a cameo at a pivotal moment?

Sound off below, and we'll see you next week!

Chris Clow is a comics expert/former retailer, and pop culture critic/commentator. He hosts two podcasts: Discovery Debrief: A Star Trek Podcast and Comics on Consoles. Find his column "Comics on Film" weekly at, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

Categories: Features, Geek
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