“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
– The Killing Joke (Alan Moore)
It was announced this week that Martin Scorsese is working with The Hangover director Todd Phillips to produce a film detailing the Joker’s origin. Not only will this be a in a separate continuity than the current DC Extended Universe (DCEU) but it will be the first in a line of standalone films to feature unique takes on popular characters.
Basically, it takes DC Comics’ “Elseworlds” concept, featuring alternate versions of characters and events outside of regular DC canon, and creates a whole new universe that doesn’t have to adhere to previous narrative constraints or continuity.
While this is a novel concept in practice, the current track record for the DCEU does not inspire a lot of confidence. Out of four films released so far, only one is widely considered to actually be good (Wonder Woman), while the others are polarizing at best and downright terrible at worst. Launching an expanded cinematic universe with so few successful films may not be the best idea. Additionally, starting with a Joker origin that doesn’t tie to current or previous continuity seems like an even worse one.
For starters, no one, literally no one asked for this movie (trust me, I’ve asked). As popular as the character is, many fans agree his backstory is better left untold. I mean, I love me some Joker but even I would prefer his origins were left to the imagination. Sure, some villains benefit from being fleshed out. Characters like Two-Face and Mr. Freeze wouldn’t be nearly as interesting were it not for their respective tragic origins.
Joker, however, works best if you don’t know his beginnings, where he came from, what drives him. Not even his real name!
In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger portrays the character as a force of nature, slicing through Batman’s and Harvey Dent’s parallel narratives like one of his own knives, scarring both characters beyond repair (literally in Dent’s case). He provides multiple explanations for his scarred visage, never letting us know the truth, never giving one shred of evidence as to why he’s obsessed with chaos and destruction. Even in the comics, the idea that his true origin could be one of many different flashbacks or retcons is far more fascinating than being given the truth, the whole truth and blah, blah, blah.
The closest thing we have to a definitive origin story is in the graphic novel The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. Here, we’re introduced to an unnamed, down-on-his-luck comedian who turns to a life of crime to support his family, only to lose his wife and unborn child in an unrelated accident. While taking part in a robbery foiled by Batman, the man falls into a vat of chemicals, which combined with his already deteriorating mental and emotional state, transforms him into the lovable cad we know today. In the years since, this tale has been retconned to be just one of a number of stories that may or may not be true. Certain details even made their way into the Joker’s updated origin during DC’s New 52 relaunch.
Most recently, Jared Leto was cast as the Clown Prince of Crime, making a small yet memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons appearance in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Much like The Dark Knight, this film also eschewed his origin story, opting instead to use him as a catalyst for lover Harley Quinn’s own backstory. This tatted-up punk Joker was a unique take on the character that differed from nearly all previous incarnations. And not in any ways that were particularly good.
That’s my other issue with this announcement. Reportedly, this film is to be set during the early 1980s, with a tone to match the grim and gritty crime films of that era. One can imagine Scorsese’s involvement might lead to something along the lines of Goodfellas meets Taxi Driver with a little Watchmen thrown in for good measure.
While it may sound intriguing, I don’t know that this is the right time for such an approach, especially since there isn’t a compelling version of the character in the main DCEU. Not to mention the release of this film may coincide with either the Suicide Squad sequel (yay) or the Harley Quinn spin-off film, both of which are rumored to feature Leto’s Joker (double yay). It’s also been announced that Leto will join Margot Robbie as the leads in a Joker AND Harley film.
Having multiple films featuring multiple Jokers is just too much. Back in the early 2000s, we had what was referred to as the Bat-Embargo. We had three different shows (Justice League Unlimited, Teen Titans and The Batman) on two different networks (Cartoon Network and The WB! respectively) and DC/Warner Bros enforced rules that characters could not crossover.
For example, Robin was a main character on Teen Titans so he was forbidden from appearing on either of the other shows. Subsequently, none of Batman’s villains or supporting cast could appear on JLU because they were solely to be used on The Batman. It seems silly, but regardless of contractual obligations, the intent was for audiences to not be confused by multiple versions of familiar characters. It seems like DC would benefit from exploring that option again now.
The thing is, DC really needs to focus on delivering a quality experience with their established cinimatic universe before launching a barrage of unrelated spin-off flicks. Let’s maybe get a decent Green Lantern flick out the door, or even a Booster Gold movie (I’ll write this one. Seriously, I’ll write it for free). I just think we need to explore some other avenues, rather than exploiting everything the Batman franchise has to offer and telling stories that don’t really need to be told.
Now that Booster Gold, has HE got an origin story worth telling!