If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the Joker would be a much better character if only his origins were explored better. So it’s with delight that we see Deadline reporting that a brand new, stand-alone Joker origin movie is in the works.
Okay, sarcasm aside, this is a very strange story, for a number of reasons. Deadline write that the film will be produced by Martin Scorsese (!), and directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips, which feels somewhat like a clash of styles, although perhaps that’s the intent. They also write that “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 let’s skip over the fact that those three films are all quite different from one-another – again, maybe that’s a deliberate tonal clash).
It’s generally accepted by fans of the character – in both his comics and screen iterations – that the less we know about where the Joker has come from, the better. It’s one of the many things that made Heath Ledger’s portrayal so memorable – the idea that he was simply a force of nature, and that not knowing who he was or why he was the way he was made him all the more unpredictable. By contrast, one of the things that weakened the 1989 Jack Nicholson version was having known and met Jack Napier beforehand – it meant that to some, the character Nicholson was playing (while fantastically entertaining and sinister in equal measure) was really just Napier in clown makeup rather than the Joker.
On the page, meanwhile, his background has always been obfuscated. It’s been canonically established ever since the 1951 story The Man Behind The Red Hood that the Joker was previously a petty thief called the Red Hood, who took on his clown-like visage when he fell into a vat of chemicals during a heist gone wrong. But crucially, we’ve never learned who he actually was, or even what he looked like, under the hood.
Famously, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s classic 1988 story The Killing Joke featured flashbacks to a struggling standup comedian corralled into carrying out the robbery after the death of his pregnant wife – but it also had the get-out clause of the Joker later admitting that his recollections of the past are hazy, with the famous line “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice”.
DC/Warners’ recent obsession with going back and telling stories about their characters before they became the ones we know and love already feels a little tiresome, but to do so with the Joker of all people feels especially misjudged. Nor does he seem like a character who would particularly fit into a 1980s Scorsese-style “gritty” crime drama. Indeed, you could name several other Bat-characters – most notably Two-Face – who would surely fit it better if that’s a story they feel determined to tell.
Perhaps the most intriguing – certainly the most positive – aspect of this news is the idea that DC are actively developing a set of movies outside of the “regular” DCEU continuity. Whether or not their attempt at hacking together a shared universe has been a failure or not is still open to debate (we’ll surely know more about that in the wake of Justice League), but doing standalone “Elseworld” style stories (either instead of or in addition to the shared universe) strikes us as a way that DC could mark themselves out as genuinely distinct from Marvel, and bring a little more variety and invention into their slate. It also, perhaps, lends a little more credence to those Red Son rumours that were kicking around a little while ago.
As to what this means for the future of Jared Leto’s version of the character? Well, don’t get your hopes up too much – he’s purportedly still going to be hanging around like a bad smell in Suicide Squad 2 and Gotham City Sirens. And if you’re thinking it’s one of cinema’s great injustices that he looks set to be the first screen version of the Joker to make it into more than one film, well, you wouldn’t be alone.
Deadline report that the script for this film – by Phillips and Scott Silver (8 Mile) – is already in development, but there’s no word on any scheduling as yet. For the moment, we’d give this film three out of five Channing Tatums on the Gambit Scale of Future Movie Likelihood.