Why a Joker Origin Movie Speaks to a Larger Misunderstanding of the Character

     August 24, 2017

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“Wanna know how I got these scars?”

It’s a question Heath Ledger’s Joker asks three times in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Just before Joker kills a gangster, he asks this question of his victim and recalls how his father “was a drinker and a fiend” who ran a blade across his son’s face in a rage.

When he crashes Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser for Harvey Dent, the Clown Prince of Gotham explains to Rachel Dawes how he scarred himself to ease the pain of his wife, who was mutilated by loan sharks. Despite the mayhem of the scene, the audience wants to connect with this sadistic villain and hope that maybe he has a reason for being the way that he is. But is Joker insane? Is he merely a pathological liar, or is he consciously catering his story to each victim — an abusive father for a mob boss and an abused wife for Harvey’s girlfriend?

The Joker threatens to tell a third story to Batman at the end of the movie, but gets a bunch of blades in his face before he has a chance to relate another twisted origin story.

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Image via Warner Bros.

The terror lies in this uncertainty. It’s a natural response to want to make sense of why anyone would drive a pencil through the eye of a human being, or slaughter a police officer for the news cameras, or threaten to explode two ferries full of civilians and inmates for some sick game. Bruce’s own morality is pushed to the brink of its limits in an attempt to understand his nemesis, but Joker doesn’t let us sympathize. Maybe he’s doing it because, as Alfred Pennyworth says, “some people just want to watch the world burn.”

The Joker’s origin story has been an ongoing mystery across film, television, and comics, with a few exceptions — Tim Burton’s Batman being one. As reports surfaced on Tuesday of Warner Bros.’ next expansion to its DC film roster, we’re left wondering whether or not we really need to know the backstory of one of the most crazed killers of Gotham. The powers that be behind the DC Extended Universe of Justice League seem to think we do.

According to reports, an origin story for Joker is in the works. Todd Phillips (The Hangover, War Dogs) will direct and co-write the script with screenwriter Scott Silver (The Fighter), while Martin Scorsese, a name one doesn’t usually consider when discussing the superhero genre, might be on board to produce.

Jared Leto debuted as a new iteration of the character in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, but he’s not expected to be a part of this standalone film. In fact, it will be altogether separate from the timeline involving Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, kickstarting a series of one-offs under a new banner that doesn’t care about continuity.

On one level, there’s something to be excited about. As Deadline reported, “The intention is to make a gritty and grounded hard-boiled crime film set in early-’80s Gotham City that isn’t meant to feel like a DC movie as much as one of Scorsese’s films from that era, like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or The King of Comedy.” And the fact that we can forget about how it has to connect with which film is an enticing prospect. But the exploration of Joker’s origin seems, in its very nature, to disregard the character’s history.

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