Recently at San Diego Comic Con, Warner Brothers confirmed more details about the stand alone Joker film centered around Batman’s infamous nemesis. The film starring Walk the Line actor Joaquin Phoenix and directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips was given a release date of October 4th, 2019 with the film title simply Joker. The film “centers around the iconic arch nemesis and is an original, standalone story not seen before on the big screen. Phillips’ exploration of a man disregarded by society is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.” Set in the 1980s, this movie will be a solo story not part of the DC Extended Universe which plans to do both a Suicide Squad Joker stand-alone film and a Harley Quinn film based on the characters portrayed by Jared Leto and Margo Robbie. While the multiple Joker movies will seem a little confusing and even unnecessary, the Joker is one of the few DC villains who’s character and mythos can support an individual film. With a screenplay co-written by Phillips and Scott Silver who worked on The Fighter, it’s amusing to consider there are multiple Joker origin stories to reference or build upon. That idea was a request from co-creator Jerry Robinson who felt the multiple origins added to the character’s mystery which has been honored by countless DC creators going forward. With that in mind, let’s look at 5 origin stories that might make an excellent Joker movie.
1. Detective Comics Issue #168 (1951): Until that time the Joker had just been a smiling silly criminal clown with gimmicks a plenty until this story titled “ The Man Behind the Red Hood” by co-creator Bill Finger and illustrators Lew Schwartz and Win Mortimer attempted to give him an origin story a decade after the characters debut. Batman decided to teach a class in crime fighting and as a challenge, he presents them with an unsolved case involving the Red Hood. When the Red Hood remerges and continues to elude the Caped Crusader and Robin, a clever trap ensnares the foe but they discover him to an imposter who tied up the real Red Hood so he could use his costume. The imposter leads them to the shed where the true Red Hood is revealed to be the Joker! The Clown Prince of Crime reveals himself to be a former Ace Playing Card Company worker who decided to steal 1 million dollars and retire but when the Dynamic Duo decided to show up, he took a chance in a chemical bath and managed to escape. While his helmet helped him survive, the chemicals transformed him into a new terrifying person and he took the name Joker as tribute to his formerly employer.
2. The Killing Joke (1989): This Alan Moore and Brian Bolland story is considered the pinnacle Joker origin story partially inspired by The Man behind the Red Hood story-line. While Joker famously cripples Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl, in an attempt to drive her father Commissioner Gordon insane, the story also parallels the story of the Joker’s origin story. The man who would become the Joker was a failed engineer who quit his job at the chemical plant to become a stand-up comedian. Stressed by his failure at comedy and the needs to support his pregnant wife, he agrees to take a job with two criminals to rob the playing card company next door to the chemical plant. The title of Red Hood appears to be a revolving door position for the criminals and the man is simply a fall guy in case Batman should show up. Before the heist can go down, the modest man is devastated to learn his wife and unborn child have both died in a household accident. He attempts to bail on his commitment but he is strong-armed by his new “friends” into withholding his agreement. The night of the heist, they are interrupted by security and Batman. The two criminals are killed during the shoot out and the Red Hood takes a chemical bath in order to escape the Dark Knight. When he remerges, the mixture of chemicals and the loss of his family has driven him completely insane. We see the Joker for the first time and this story has been referenced by many other storylines and is considered one of if not the definitive Joker origin story.
3. Batman Confidential: Lovers and Madmen (2007): Many Joker stories have made reference to Joker being involved with the mob usually as an enforcer. In this story by Michael Green and Denys Cowan which takes place early in Batman’s career, the Joker is simply a man named Jack who doesn’t feel his current career provides him with any real excitement. That all changes when he and his crew meet Batman which does indeed put a smile on his face. With a note pinned on a corpse about “making his day”, the storyline details a crime spree that pits Jack vs. the Batman. When Jack injures Batman’s current girlfriend, Batman lets his emotions get the best of him and cuts Jack’s face with a Batarang leaving him with a permanent smile. Batman also contacts Jack’s employer Maletesta with Jack’s location and they attempt to torture and kill him in an old Pharmaceutical plant. Due to a bizarre set of circumstances, Jack emerges from the incident reborn as the Joker. Batman has little time to regret his hand in Jack’s transformation before they are thrust into conflict once again.
4. Batman Black and White: Case Study (2000): Few people write the Joker better than Paul Dini and this story with breathtaking artwork by Alex Ross provides a Joker story unlike any other told in a report suggesting both an origin for the Joker and an explanation for his behavior. The Joker is depicted as an unhinged gangster who becomes bored with the lifestyle and power he has accumulated. He creates the Red Hood in order to commit petty crimes. After his encounter with Batman and transformation into the Joker, the story suggests that his methods are to commit sane crimes under the guise of madness thus suggesting he is completely sane and aware of his actions. Although this story convinces the doctors who read it, it is revealed it was written by none other than Doctor Harleen Quinzel prior to her life changing sessions with the Joker. The report is dismissed as being just another Joker prank but nonetheless as a short story, it serves as an original and interesting take on the Clown Prince of Crime.
5. Batman Brave and the Bold Issue #31 (2010): In this issue by John Michael Stracyznski, Chad Hardin and Justinano the Atom has to go into the Joker’s mind in order to cure him of a rare disease. Once inside, Atom experiences a bombardment of memories that suggest Joker’s life was already heading down a dark path before he became the Man who Laughs. We see him as an unstable and unpredictable child who you would not want to get angry. We see him killing his parents in a fire simply because of their discovery of his penchant for killing animals. We see him killing an accomplice after robbing a store simply because the man questioned his murder of the store’s employee. The overall experience in Joker’s mind almost drove Ray Palmer insane and even after the Joker was cured, you could see the traumatic experience would remain with the Atom and its left open that what the hero saw might have not even been the true story after all.
There are of course many other Joker origin stories out there such as Snyder/Capullo’s new 52 story that Joker is an immortal whose numerous resurrections is linked to Ra’s Al Ghul’s Lazarus Pit or Azarello/Bermejo’s Joker graphic novel which depicts an origin more aligned with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight that upcoming film could reference or find inspiration from. The homicidal clown enjoys creating new origins for anybody who would believe such stories as he sees them as tools he can use to manipulate people for his own agenda. As Batman said “Like any other comedian, he uses whatever material will work” and it’s that unique characteristic that has made the Joker an iconic fan favorite over the years and works to this films advantage. If the material and talent behind the film is strong, the fans will accept and love this interpretation. If it fails, the film will just be ignored and filed away in the bargain bin of comic book history. Although I do not completely understand the need or desire for such a film to exist, I am intrigued to see what risks and direction this forthcoming film takes. Until then, keep smiling.