Comics on Film: Why the 'Joker' Origin Film Will Lead to Alternate Cinematic DC Universes

Comics on Film: Why the 'Joker' Origin Film Will Lead to Alternate Cinematic DC Universes

Mar 09, 2018

Superhero comics are the homes of some of the most fantastic and engaging fictional characters ever created. While the heroes have legions of fans all over the world, arguably — and seemingly as with any genre or franchise that's appeared in movies — people seem to be just as, or perhaps even more enamored with the chaotic personalities of the villains bold enough to face these heroes. Perhaps no greater comic book villain fascination exists than with Batman's arch nemesis, the Joker.

Of every major comic book supervillain, the Joker is the one that seems to engender the most passion, the most discussion, and the most amazement. It's easy to see why. In his best stories, he's an absolute enigma: unchained from the inhibitions that come with rational thought, the Joker's psychosis is often shown to give way to extraordinary creativity, biting wit, and undeniable charisma. Of course, those traits usually tend to manifest themselves in extraordinarily horrific, wince-inducing ways, but for nearly 80 years, readers and viewers alike have just not been able to look away.

Making a movie about the Joker is a bit of a no-brainer for Warner Bros., as long as the movie delivers on the horrific promises of the character in the source material. While Jared Leto is — at least as far as we know — still the incumbent Joker for the DC Extended Universe, a new vision of the Joker may also mean that WB is about to fully embrace one of the things that comics characters and their universes already do so well on the page: take us to alternate realities, unbound by any continuity and only concerned with telling us something new about an old face we already know so well.


The Joker Movie: What We Know

This week, an exclusive report emerged from The Wrap that seemed to offer up some surprisingly specific details about the upcoming Joker film being developed by Todd Phillips, and to be produced by Martin Scorsese. While the report correctly points out that Scorsese's involvement seems surprising because of his apparently dubious attitude towards comics-based films, his involvement becomes a little more understandable.

The story of the film will reportedly take place in the 1980s and position the Joker as a failed comedian in the time before he becomes the villain we're all familiar with. Other than the time period, this concept should sound very familiar to readers of the seminal 1988 Alan Moore/Brian Bolland graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke, which explored a very similar possible origin for the Dark Knight's greatest enemy.

See, in 1982, Martin Scorsese shepherded a movie that dealt with a deranged comedian who had a pretty difficult time making it in the comedy game. The King of Comedy, starring Robert De Niro and directed by Scorsese, was a satirical black comedy that, according to The Wrap's sources, will serve as something of an inspiration on this movie's take on DC Comics' Harlequin of Hate. That at least partially explains where Scorsese could see the appeal (well, besides the obvious payday his name combined with the Joker will bring), but more interestingly to this comic book fan, it also shows that Warner Bros. is ready to start taking some greater risks with their catalog of comic book icons.

In a previous edition of this column, we openly wondered what exactly the need was for a Joker origin film, particularly one that didn't seem to have any real connection to the ongoing shared universe first spawned by the 2013 release of Man of Steel, and because the Joker is usually a character who works best when you just don't know where the hell he came from.

That being said, the act of making a movie that's disconnected from the wider shared universe is actually the most exciting thing about this project, because it could mean that Warner Bros. is ready to embrace one of DC Comics' best long-running storytelling imprints: Elseworlds.


The Benefit of Elseworlds: Alternate Realities Unbound by Continuity

This isn't the first time that Comics on Film has mentioned Elseworlds stories from the comics. Last summer, we wrote about the rumor that Warner Bros. had allegedly been taking pitches regarding a film adaptation of Superman: Red Son, a DC Comics Elseworlds story that saw the young Kal-El's Kryptonian rocket ship land in Soviet-controlled Ukraine instead of Smallville, Kansas. The result? Superman grew up with the ideals and beliefs of a Soviet patriot, a world power that shunned democracy and individual liberty in favor of centralized control and dictatorial rule.

With Superman on the side of the USSR, America struggled in the 20th Century, looking to the brilliance of Dr. Lex Luthor to potentially help us stand a chance against the titular Red Son.

That is the brilliance of the Elseworlds format. Everyone knows Superman, but when you tweak his legend a bit for a one-off story, it can lead to extraordinarily creative results. Why should the movies be any different? Establishing a different cinematic Joker doesn't mean that Jared Leto won't face off one day against Ben Affleck's Batman, it's just a cinematic effort that will try and tell a solid Joker story on the character's own merits, without necessarily concerning itself with connecting to the stories of other movies from different creative teams.

While the Joker story as laid out in The Wrap's original article doesn't necessarily sound like a radical departure from what we've seen established about the Joker's origin story before, telling a solid film about arguably the most iconic villain in popular culture likely doesn't require much deviation from the concept. If it's the Joker, then people will definitely show up for it.

The untitled Joker origin film could begin active production later this year, barring delays for rewrites. As of right now, Joaquin Phoenix is attached to star, but nothing's been as-yet confirmed. For more on this movie as it (hopefully) continues to take shape, keep checking and Fandango. We'll be back with an all-new Comics on Film next week. In the meantime, what do you think about the possibilities of a Joker film? What kind of Elseworlds movie would you like to see? Sound off below!

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, Editorials
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