In August of 2017, Deadline reported that two writers had been assigned to work on a DC Films movie that would tell the origin story of the Joker in a gritty, hard-boiled ’80s setting. Naturally, fans got riled.
In more recent news, Variety reports that Jared Leto “is set to star and exec produce an untitled standalone [Joker] film, paving the way for future movies branching from Suicide Squad,” prompting a similar disturbance on social media. Even more recently, The Hangover’s Todd Phillips was announced to be moving forward on that Joker origin story movie with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead.
That’s OK. Fans get riled about nearly everything. But even a terrible, yelling, nitpicking clock is right twice a day. The problem with an origin story is that it undercuts everything that makes the Joker a terrifying villain — even for a hero who uses fear as a weapon.
Trying to give the Joker an origin story is a dumb idea
Here’s what we do know about the Joker: He originally rose to prominence in Gotham as the anonymous, masked gang leader known only as the Red Hood. In a confrontation with a young Batman, he fell from a catwalk in an abandoned chemical foundry and into a vat of toxic waste. The toxins bleached his skin, changed his hair color to a lurid green and stretched his face into a rictus smile. He and Batman have been locked in a titanic battle of good and evil ever since.
Who was he before he was the Red Hood? There has never been a consistent answer to that question. Infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters might be able to one day write Shakespeare, but 75 years of continual publication under the pens of innumerable artists and writers has yet to produce an origin story for the Joker that anybody gives a good goddamn about. Stories in which the Joker takes the lead have historically never worked either. The 75-year-old character’s only solo series put out its first issue in spring of 1975, and its final in fall of 1976.
Not even Alan Moore, whose Watchmen is arguably the most masterful recontextualization and reimagining of the superhero idea in the last century, could give the Joker an origin story in one of his most lauded comics. The Killing Joke’s lasting contribution to DC Comics canon was that it injured Barbara Gordon, not that it gave the Joker a failed career as a standup comedian and dead wife and child.
If the greatest Greats of the comics world haven’t cracked this code yet, the writers behind The Hangover and 8 Mile seem unlikely to make progress.
And there’s a reason for that
“There's no backstory you can give the Joker that could be scarier than not knowing,” I wrote last spring about DC’s stated plans to give him one, “Definitively knowing the Joker's backstory can really only do two things to the character. It can humanize him, running counter to the Joker's use as an embodiment of pure evil; or it can explain him, which would run counter to his use as an embodiment of pure chaos. Or it won't add anything at all to him, in which case why are we even doing it in the first place?”
At his best, the Joker embodies our fear of the screaming mad apathy at the heart of humanity, the growling animal heart of man that we bound centuries ago with the laws of civilization and guidelines of polite social behavior. Examine the most widely known example.
The Dark Knight is perhaps the best film with Batman in it. I say that because it isn’t really a Batman film. It’s a Joker film, one that doesn’t feel the need to give him a concrete origin story. It’s also a nihilist look at how close the average person is to throwing their fellow citizens to the wolves. This is what what Alan Moore was trying to say in The Killing Joke, when we’re not so distracted by making sure that Batgirl was always once canonically shot in the gut by the Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime’s core philosophy is that everyone else is just like him: one short inch from losing control of our cruelest impulses.
It’s not killing people, or doing it with a smile, that makes the Joker uniquely frightening, lots of villains do that. The Joker is scary because he is funny. He is scary because to laugh at a person’s jokes is to make a human connection — to recognize a bit of them within yourself. And then when that person fires a gun into a child’s face and keeps laughing, you have to ask the most pants-wetting question of your life.
Do I have that in me too?
Giving the Joker an origin story breaks the character
The terror of the Joker isn’t of what he might do — it’s of what we might do. It’s of what we all might do, if ... if ... if things had happened differently. And if the Joker does what he does because of specific events in his backstory, all of that goes away.
Suddenly it’s not about what any human might become. It becomes about what any human who has the same experiences as the Joker might become. That’s why giving him a backstory will always feel uninteresting at best and make the character feel completely alien at worst.
The core idea of the Joker isn’t that he’s a reflection of Batman, it’s that he’s a reflection of humanity, of the irredeemable and irremovable dark hearts of the people that Batman — and all DC superheroes — have dedicated their lives to protecting.
The Joker is supposed to represent everybody, and he can’t do that unless he is a cipher. Maybe he had a bad day, once, as The Killing Joke supposes, but maybe he didn’t. Nothing could be scarier than not knowing how close his story might be to your own.
Update (July 11, 2018): We’ve edited this article to reflect more recent news of Warner Bros. Joker films.