Around July 18th, Warner Bros. announced the release date for an upcoming stand-alone Joker film. Rumors about this project were circulating online for quite awhile, with Leonardo DiCaprio most favored to be cast. Yet, on September 16th, director Todd Phillips released the first official image of Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. The caption displayed the character’s first name, Arthur, leaving a vague impression of the yet-to-be Clown Prince of Crime. As much as I’m excited for this film to come out, I can’t erase my own opinion, that a Joker origin story is not a good idea.
It’s not to say this movie will be a bad film by any means. A dark character study, which this film seems to be, of a down-on-his-luck comedian spiraling into insanity could be great. But attaching the infamous name of the Joker immediately places expectations to which the film can’t live up.
The Joker, who first appeared in Batman #1, in 1940, has been a staple of pop culture, as much as Batman himself. An antithesis of the Caped Crusader, the Joker is chaos incarnate. Wrapped in the colorful attire of a clown, but armed with guns, knives, and poison gas. All with a demented smile on his face. An iconic villain to say the least, whose multiple comic, film, and television interpretations have all (mostly) been embraced (sorry, Leto). Yet, what I find interesting about the Joker isn’t his twisted sense of humor, or his obsession with the Dark Knight. What I find interesting is the mystery around the character.
The Joker rarely has a backstory. He just appears into the world with a bang. Most times, quite literally. No one knows where the Joker comes from, when he was born, or his actual name. Not even Batman, the world’s greatest detective, can determine the Joker’s true identity. Sure, there have been interpretations that dip into the Joker’s origins, such as Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. But most are deemed as hypothetical scenarios. See, it’s this intrigue, this mythic status that distinguishes the Joker from other comic-book villains. He’s not just a common criminal or a vengeful scientist. The Joker is a monster out of a legend. He’s the Bogeyman.
What makes the Joker compelling as an antagonist, as a character, is his role as a force of nature. He doesn’t care about money or power, and if he does care, like in Tim Burton’s Batman, it’s all for the punchline. The Joker cares about putting a smile on people’s faces, to show them the true ridiculousness of modern society and its code of ethics. As psychotic as he is, the Joker has some semblance of an internal philosophy, that drives him forward. And an audience, through any medium, hopefully won’t empathize with that motivation, but will sense its momentum and energy.
Giving him a backstory, especially one like The Killing Joke, changes the character’s motivation, and not for the better. He no longer becomes a dangerous monster hellbent on proving a point. He becomes a pitiful man hellbent on spite. It takes all the interesting aspects of the character, only leaving the pettiness, the bitterness of the character. Now, a petty character doesn’t necessarily equate to a bad one. But if you had to choose between someone who acts because of their beliefs, or someone who acts out of spite, who would you be more interested in? To me at least, conviction will always be more interesting than spite.
Even Joker’s strong motivations mean nothing in a Batman-less universe. Although Phillips’ adaptation does have Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne’s father) as a character, Batman’s presence will most likely be non-existent. That is disappointing because much of the Joker’s story is intertwined with Batman’s. Although Joker will commit crimes regardless of the vigilante’s immediate presence, his motivation runs on the idea of proving Batman wrong: that true justice doesn’t exist, for the world is crueler than it lets on. And that is the joke.
But if chaos were to run rampant in the street without anything to combat it, then chaos would lose meaning. There would be no point to Joker’s actions because it’s all the same. As much as Joker wants to kill Batman, he knows that there would be no “fun” in his grand scheme. You can’t separate them from one another.
So, I don’t think a Joker origin film is a good idea. I do think that a Joker solo film can be a great success. Specifically, an adaptation of Brian Azzarello’s graphic novel Joker. The narrator is Joe, a low-level criminal sent to pick up a “rehabilitated” Joker from Arkham Asylum. He soon becomes close friends with the psychopath, following him into the depths of Gotham’s underbelly, and observing the kind of man Joker truly is.
In short, a modern-day, comic book adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Or Training Day, but without any cops. Either way, it would work. Any mystery surrounding Joker would be maintained; Joker’s identity to Batman wouldn’t be compromised; and we would get a deeper look at a character without having sympathy for a homicidal maniac.
But you’re probably asking, “Why do I care about this? Why should anyone care?” Because we deserve better. People have been clamoring for a Joker movie for years, and now that we’re getting one, people are hyped. But we can’t succumb to the hype. Because if we do, then that hype can blind us, and we start to lower our standards on storytelling. Especially with superhero adaptations. We can’t wait to see our favorite characters alive and on screen, but we shouldn’t let that block our cinematic sensibility. We have to know what make these stories great, so that when we adapt them and share them with the wider public, people will understand why we keep going back to stories of bats and clowns.