Why the Joker works better when he's mysterious
Even though he was originally created in 1940 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, the Joker is somehow one of the most popular pop culture characters of the 21st century. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, for example, the Clown Prince of Crime (as played by Heath Ledger) has nearly as much screen time as Batman — the film’s ostensible protagonist. Something about the Joker seems to fascinate, year after year — maybe because he rarely pulls the same trick twice. As decades have gone by, the Joker has changed from a cold mass killer to a goofy trickster to a philosophy-spewing chaos agent, and back again.
His latest version, according to recent rumors, is a prequel film directed by Todd Phillips (and possibly produced by Martin Scorsese) that will purportedly explain the Joker’s origin story — Joker Begins, if you will. You can certainly see the logic at work: After years as a moribund pop culture property, Batman’s fortunes were massively revived when Nolan delved deep into his backstory in 2005’s Batman Begins. The problem is that the Joker is not a creature of logic. He scoffs at rationality and laughs at well-laid plans. In fact, sometimes the Joker works best when we know very little about him at all.
The Dark Knight
Take The Dark Knight, which is probably the most famous Joker story these days; Ledger’s personification of the clown as a chaos theory-spouting art-punk has been seared into the 21st-century zeitgeist. Part of the Joker’s power in The Dark Knight draws from his refusal to truthfully explain his own backstory. Over the course of the film, he offers 2.5 explanations for “how I got these scars.” In one story, the Joker gave himself those scars in order to please his wife who had been disfigured by the mob. In another, he was scarred by his father when he tried to intervene in a domestic dispute between his parents. Obviously both of them can’t be true, and the strong implication is that neither is.
This is one of the movie’s essential subtexts: The Joker is pretty much always lying. At one point, he famously asks Two-Face, “Do I look like a man with a plan?” Of course he doesn’t, with his constant cackles and his nurse disguise (another bit of obfuscation), but in fact, the entire movie is the Joker’s plan. He plots his schemes (from the opening bank robbery to the ultimate corruption of Harvey Dent) down to the last meticulous detail, but not even Batman can predict their course. It’s impossible to guess where the Joker’s going when you don’t even know where he came from, and that’s just the way he likes it.
Batman: The Animated Series
Mark Hamill’s depiction of the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series is another one of the character’s most famous modern incarnations. Amazingly, even though every other villain gets their own introductory episode, over the course of 85 episodes there is never even an attempt to explain where the Joker came from. He just pops up immediately in the show’s second episode as if he had always been there. Maybe he had been; in the episode “Zatanna,” a flashback to Batman’s youthful training features the magician Zatanna trying to predict his future with cards and drawing only a Joker. One of the Joker’s defining features in the show is his ability to escape death, even in situations where he obviously couldn’t have survived. Part of that comes from the cartoon format, of course (and WB’s particular legacy of cartoon characters evading certain death) but it also paints the Joker as an elemental force of corruption and destruction, the specter that will forever haunt Batman’s quest for justice. Explaining how he got that way is beside the point.
One adaptation where the Joker did get a definite backstory, of course, is the original 1989 Tim Burton film. There, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was also the same man who originally killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. Like Ledger, Nicholson makes the Joker the most compelling part of the movie, but in his case giving the character a definite backstory only works because it ties him closer to Batman. Two of the most important elements of the Joker are his mystery and his Manichaean struggle with Batman; sometimes one has to be sacrificed to strengthen the other.
The Killing Joke
When it comes to comics, the Joker’s backstory got its most famous treatment in The Killing Joke, a 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland that went on to strongly influence both aforementioned film adaptations (and was recently adapted into an animated film featuring the voices of the Batman: The Animated Series team). In that comic, Moore built upon a 1951 issue of Detective Comics suggesting the Joker was originally a criminal named the Red Hood who tried to rob a chemical plant. When Batman showed up to stop him, the Red Hood jumped in a chemical vat to escape, leading to the permanent scarring of his body and mind.
The Killing Joke presents this story as a flashback alongside the present-day story of the Joker trying to drive Commissioner Gordon insane by kidnapping him and torturing his daughter Barbara (a.k.a. Batgirl). The Joker’s whole argument in this story is that all it takes is “one bad day” for anyone to go as insane as him. For a comic that eventually became one of DC’s most canonized stories, Moore and Bolland play fast and loose with reality (the ending seems to suggest Batman killing the Joker). So the point of those flashbacks is not to give the Joker a definite backstory so much as it is to suggest that the Joker could have been anyone. All it takes is one bad day.
This Red Hood origin was recently updated by writer Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo in their much-acclaimed Batman run. In their story line Zero Year, Snyder and Capullo wound the clock back to Batman’s first days in Gotham, after he had started crime-fighting but before he fully donned the cape and cowl. As Bruce runs around Gotham in disguises figuring out how to fight crime, he runs up against the Red Hood Gang and its mysterious leader, whose face is entirely covered by a massive helmet. Despite this peek at his pre-scar days, Joker retains his air of mystery; after the climactic confrontation with Red Hood at the chemical plant, Bruce realizes the man he thought was leading the gang had been killed and replaced some unknown time ago. This isn’t a definite origin for the Joker so much as it is a test-run for his eternal struggle with Batman, both of them learning the ropes as they work their way to their final transformation. As this Red Hood tells Batman while dangling over the fateful chemical vat: “It’s only just beginning.”