joker

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: why the very concept of a Joker origin movie is a terrible, no good, very bad idea.)

Some questions are better left unanswered. This basic notion is anathema in modern Hollywood, where every character must have an origin story and every origin story must be given the full franchise treatment. Thus, earlier in the week, Warner Bros. announced that it was working on an origin movie for The Joker, the infamous supervillain who has plagued Batman and Gotham City throughout decades of films, TV shows, and comic books. Much of the early reaction was focused on the baffling combination of people involved in this potential film: right now, Todd Phillips of The Hangover is slated to direct and co-write the film with Scott Silver (8 Mile), and Martin Scorsese — Martin Scorsese — will produce it.

Let’s get this out of the way: that trio working on this project is inexplicably odd to the point of feeling like the product of a fever dream. (If there is no other lesson here: you should have seen Silence when it opened in December, instead of neglecting it.) But the problem with this Joker origin story idea isn’t that it’s going to be directed by someone who’s made his name largely on obnoxious, bro-heavy comedies, or that Martin Scorsese is attached (which is just kind of heartbreaking). In fact, it has nothing to do with the men involved, and everything with what they’re involved in. There shouldn’t be a Joker origin story, of any kind, ever.

This is not to say that the Joker hasn’t ever had an origin of some sorts. Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman depicts a wildly different version of The Joker compared with later cinematic versions. Jack Nicholson’s mobster Jack Napier starts out as just that: a crook who’s the right-hand man to Carl Grissom (Jack Palance) and wants to be the top dog in Gotham’s crime syndicate. Eventually, he runs afoul of the Caped Crusader, falls into a vat of chemical waste, and re-emerges as a psychotically damaged, physically deformed lunatic who faces off with Batman throughout the rest of the film. So the Joker can have a defined origin, as we watch him transform from a normal human being into a genuine comic-book villain. But throughout the comics as well as multiple screen versions, it’s rare for the Joker to have a specific, inarguable origin.

The best possible version of the Joker remains the one portrayed by Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Ledger’s performance has been justifiably praised for nearly a decade, but the true masterstroke of how the character was conceived and written is that he has no clear origin. From start to finish, this Joker is a maddeningly vague mystery. “Wanna know how I got my scars?” is a question he asks three times in the film (though he only gets to answer himself twice). One time, the answer is that he gave himself the scars to please his gambling-addict wife after she was horribly scarred by mobsters. The next time, the answer is that his father scarred him after attacking his mother. Maybe the first one is true. Maybe the second one is. Maybe there’s another story. But the backstory of the Joker in Nolan’s version — Jim Gordon points out that his clothing is custom-made, and he has no identifying physical attributes to tie him to previous crimes — is fully unsolved.

That’s exactly the way it should be. The Joker has had many iterations and performers, but his backstory has never been as solid as that of his archenemy, Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne always grows up the scion of a rich family, his parents are always killed in front of him at a young age, and this always pushes him into his crime-fighting vigilantism. The same goes for many other DC superheroes. Zack Snyder’s take on Superman might have been different in many ways from the 1978 film directed by Richard Donner, but it’s still always about a Kryptonian named Kal-El who crash-lands on Earth, grows up in the American heartland, and becomes a journalist in Metropolis while fighting bad guys.

These heroic origin stories are so familiar, whether you’ve read the comic books or just seen the movies, that studios are finally shifting away from re-telling them. This past summer, we got a new version of Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but without Peter Parker watching his uncle Ben get shot down after saying “With great power comes great responsibility.” Homecoming isn’t perfect, but the choice to sidestep Parker’s initial transformation is its smartest: we all know how he turns into Spider-Man and don’t need a reminder. Warner Bros. is apparently using the Joker as the beginning of making other non-continuity origin spin-offs (as this Joker may not be played by Jared Leto, perhaps one of the announcement’s few bright spots). WB did make a wonderful comic-book movie this summer in Wonder Woman, but they might want to focus on Justice League characters before they dive into bad-guy origin stories just to shove more comic-book movies on audiences.

In theory, we shouldn’t prejudge movies before they’re released. This is much easier said than done, especially when it comes to the idea of learning exactly how the Joker became the Joker. (Leave aside the fact that this version will be “gritty and grounded,” because everyone knows that superhero-adjacent movies should be grim and gritty, as opposed to, y’know, fun.) Sure, it’s strange to see such a disparate trio as Todd Phillips, Scott Silver, and Martin goddamn Scorsese working on a comic-book movie of any kind, let alone this one. But the inherent issue isn’t that these three people are making a Joker origin story. It’s that Warner Bros. should leave well enough alone. Of course they can make a film about the young man who would become the Joker. But the villain’s backstory should remain unknown; the mystery, in this case, is far more compelling than the solution.

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