Comics on Film: Does the Joker Need an Origin Story?

Comics on Film: Does the Joker Need an Origin Story?

Aug 25, 2017

If you're a regular observer of movie news in the realm of superheroes, chances are you may have been a bit surprised by the news that Warner Bros. is now actively developing two separate film projects featuring, perhaps, the most infamous comic book villain ever created: the Joker. A proposed origin story film is said to have screenwriters Todd Phillips (The Hangover) and Scott Silver (8 Mile) attached, with Phillips directing himself and producing alongside...Martin Scorsese?! This film is said to take place during the 1980's, and will not feature incumbent DC Extended Universe Joker actor Jared Leto.

Also breaking this week is a proposed second Joker-related project that will team him with Harley Quinn, and that project will apparently reunite Jared Leto and Margot Robbie from last year's Suicide Squad. While this film seems to have vibes related to Mad Love, the infamous comic book later adapted into an animated episode that detailed how the two villains first got together, the origin story is the more flabbergasting of the two proposed films.
 
Does the Joker need an origin story? Stories featuring the purported beginning of the Clown Prince of Crime have been attempted in animation as well as in comics for almost the entirety of the Joker's existence, and only one or two of those efforts have actually managed to catch on with any notoriety. Can the medium of film do any better?
 
 
Why Does the Joker Work?
 
Having been around since 1940, the Joker has been through a number of permutations and reinventions in virtually every medium he's made an appearance in. When you go beyond all of the fascinating stories, psychological underpinnings and mutliple design iterations to try and get to the core of what makes the Joker continue to work as a great villain on mere concept, part of the reason can likely be explained the same way that Batman's own fundamental appeal can be. Like the Dark Knight, the Joker conveys the opposite image of what he actually is: just as Batman is a virtuous man who appears and operates as a creature of darkness, the Joker appears lighthearted and happy when he is, in fact, vicious, psychotic and sadistic.
 
Of course, there's much more to him than that. A definitive and eternally creepy, resonant aesthetic provided by Jerry Robinson, inspired by a 1928 German silent film, simply served as the jumping-off point for generations of storytellers to bring their absolute best to a character that demanded substantive written material to go along with his look.
 
Still, even though the Joker has attracted some of the best storytellers in any medium, no one Joker story that aimed to tell how he might've become the enigmatic force of nature that he is has risen above the pack. While Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's unforgettable The Killing Joke provides a lot of the details we now ascribe to the Joker's earliest days, the Harlequin of Hate himself is far from a reliable narrator. As he says in that story, "If I have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"
 
 
Other comics have endeavored to tell some kind of origin story for the Joker, but not a lot of them really seem to catch on as definitive chapters in the canon of the comics character's history, regardless of DC choosing to "relaunch" or "reboot" their continuity from time to time. All people can seem to really agree on is that the man who ultimately became the Joker did so by posing as a criminal named the Red Hood in a heist at the Ace Chemicals building, before a fateful encounter with Batman caused him to fall into a vat of chemicals that bleached his skin, colored his hair and stretched his smile into a terrifying rictus grin.
 
However, it's exactly because you don't know exactly where he came from that makes him all the more terrifying. In stories taking place in the early days of Batman's career, the hero makes clear that he trained to fight a very particular kind of war during his 10-12 years abroad, cultivating the skills needed to wage his war on crime. Sure, Batman's extraordinarily adaptable, but the arrival of the Joker in Gotham completely caught the Dark Knight off guard, forcing him to step up his game in ways he couldn't have anticipated in order to meet the needs of Gotham in combating the walking calamity that is the Joker (for greater context on this, check out Batman: The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke, taking place immediately after Frank Miller's Batman: Year One).
 
Without the fullest context of what makes the villain exactly what he is, it forces us in the audience to try and fill in the gaps for ourselves. Much like the murder scene in the shower in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, what we imagine happening off-screen is likely far more terrifying and intricate than any horror a storyteller can actually try to show us. Our imaginations do the heavy lifting, and in an instance like this, it fills our minds with dread.
 
 
 
Case in Point
 
When examining the Joker's most highly critically-acclaimed cinematic appearance in the form of Heath Ledger's defintive performance in 2008's The Dark Knight, the film's use of Batman's most infamous adversary follows a couple of specific rules that also serve the character well in the comics. First off, the Joker views Batman as something of a kindred spirit. Perhaps even more than Batman himself, the Joker understands that there's some kind of intrinsic bond that the two share, and once the Joker fails in trying to kill Batman, he's only interested in something that's consumed the Joker in many of his best comic book stories: proving some kind of larger point.
 
Most pivotal to the idea of creating a cinematic origin story for him, though, is the second rule The Dark Knight follows: he appears as a force of nature, coming out of nowhere and tearing through the film. When examined in comparison with some other blockbuster films of the ages, the Joker likely has the most in common with the eponymous shark in Jaws: he cuts through the film with no other purpose than to cause havoc, making the lives of the heroes hell from beginning to end. As the Joker himself says, "I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it! I just...do things."
 
The fact of the matter is that with a character like that, establishing an origin story for him would likely make the character lose a significant amount of his mystique, which would make him less threatening as an enigmatic force of villainy. Just as people had issues with learning the full origin story of Darth Vader, or seeing resolved questions that not many people wanted answers for in The Hobbit films, over-explaining the Joker's origins could actually be counter-productive to the larger cause of the character's existence. If a Joker origin movie does end up going forward, like many comic book fans, I just hope that it doesn't lose sight of everything that makes the Joker the definitive character that he is.
 
While the prospect of a DCEU-based Joker/Harley Quinn team-up seems like a perfectly serviceable idea, it would likely take a very strong showing from a Joker origin film — regardless of Hollywood superpowers that may be attached to it — to fully abate the fears of the character's fans.
 
Nevertheless, if it ends up being an unstoppable inevitability, let's just hope they don't screw it up.

Chris Clow is a comic book expert and former retailer, and a writer with work having appeared in the Huffington Post, Fandango and others. He also hosts the podcasts GeekPulse Radio and Comics on Consoles. You can find his weekly Comics on Film column every week here at Movies.com, and you can follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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