Created by the trio of Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, The Joker is perhaps the most resilient villain in pop-culture, having first appeared in 1940 and returning to the comics and big screen again and again in different avatars. With the trademark grin, that is just a little wide enough to unsettle the coulrophobic in you, the wild green hair and that manic gleam in his eyes, he is also one of the most recognisable fictional characters. Although killer clowns are common in horror fiction, most famously in Stephen King’s horror novel It, it is the Joker, the most rogue of Batman’s rogues’ gallery, who is the most well-known.
The Joker is so popular that he sometimes outshines the hero Batman. Indeed, the greatest ‘superhero’ movie of all time, The Dark Knight has precious little superhero in it. The movie mostly revolves around the psychopathic, murderous Clown Prince of Crime bent on terrorising Gotham City, and the Caped Crusader takes a back seat in his own film, and admits defeat even at the end by taking the blame for murders committed by Harvey Dent. But Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger’s interpretation is only one of the many. This character has appeared in many live-action movies, animated features, video-games, and of course, his original abode, the comics and played by top-end actors such as Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill (as voice-actor), Heath Ledger and others.
The most recent depiction of this supervillain by Jared Leto in Suicide Squad did not find much traction with critics and audiences and now it seems Warner Bros and DC want to eventually dump Leto and get a better actor to play the role. Leonardo DiCaprio’s name had also popped up, but later Joaquin Phoenix was confirmed to play the character in an origin movie. However, this Joker will not be in DC Extended Universe and the movie is supposed to be a one-off.
Phoenix is a great actor, and even the negative reviews say he has given an amazing performance, but for the life of me, I cannot understand why Joker’s origin movie was even being considered. Let me explain why I think so. As I already said, the Joker has seen numerous iterations in different media, but it is Heath Ledger’s interpretation that is the gold standard now. So I will consider his version only for my argument.
Usually, audiences like villains to be complex with solid, poignant backstories to explain their current motivations properly. It needs to be told in a satisfactory manner the reason why the bad guy is doing bad things. Being bad just for the sake of it makes for boring, generic villains. Take Justice League’s Steppenwolf, for instance, who I consider the masterclass in how to write bad villains when it comes to superhero movies. That CGI behemoth was being destructive because that is what alien warlords supposedly do. His personality was like dozens of other superhero villains with no unique trait to speak of.
But Heath Ledger’s Joker was, as he said it himself, an agent of chaos. Explaining his backstory and things like how his face was disfigured and how he went mad, and so on, would have been counter-productive. For the most part, in The Dark Knight, Batman, that world’s greatest detective, struggles to understand the enigma that is the Joker. He desperately seeks for a rationale, and is horrified to discover that there is none. The Joker was an unstoppable force (as he says at one point), and not simply a man. Can something as primal as a force have an origin?
“Do you wanna know how I get these scars?” the Joker asks thrice in the film. And save for one instance when Batman prevents him from answering the question, he gives different answers in the other instances. Once, he says he gave them to himself to please his scarred wife, and the second time, he says it was his father who blemished his face. This was dashed smart writing. Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer, who together wrote the story, realised that Joker’s charm lay in the mystery itself. When it comes to this singular character, over-explaining leaches away his frightening charisma. It makes him less scary, less interesting, and less evil. So, no soppy, tragic backstory, please.