The Joker’s Origin: Why He Doesn’t Need One

the jokers

By W.T. Bane

In recent weeks, rumors have surfaced about the potential origin of the new Joker in the DC Cinematic Universe. More specifically, (Potential Spoiler Warning! if rumors are true) that he is none other than one of the former Robins, most likely Jason Todd.

You can read the extensive fan theory that originated from Reddit in this link.

I’m not here to debate the merits of this yet to be proven fan theory. Honestly I hope it isn’t true. Because quite simply, the Joker works best when given as little background as possible and if this theory does pan out, it just nicks away at another great piece of the puzzle that is the Joker, and takes away from the mystique of the this great character.

Lets talk about the man himself first. If polling random people on the street on who is their favorite supervillain, the largest portion of the audience would most likely select the Joker as their tried and true favorite amongst the dastardly, devious, and most despicable of criminals. His face is recognized by people who’ve never picked up a comic. His laugh is the standard bearer in the sound of insanity. His mannerisms copied time and time again, ripped and recycled onto other lesser villains in hopes of the writer creating someone as memorable, and never with as much success. He has been used in every medium, every show, every game series, every platform, every cartoon in one way or another that Batman appears in.

But why? Why do people latch onto this character that is so cruel, so inhumane? Because lets recount some of his worst deeds:

  1. He beat Jason Todd (Robin #2) with a crowbar and then blew him up, leaving his body to be discovered by Batman.
  2. He shot Barbara Gordon (The first longstanding Batgirl) at point blank range and left her paralyzed. Oh and he took pictures of her naked injured body to show her dad as he tried to drive Commissioner Gordon insane.
  3. When Gordon’s wife had the Joker at gunpoint, he threw a baby at her to make her drop her gun to catch it. Then he shot her too and left her dead.
It was really the fans that killed Jason Todd.
It was really the fans that killed Jason Todd.

This is beyond all the countless murders he’s committed and attempts made on numerous other heroes’ lives.  So why do people latch onto him? Why do people love to see this character?

There is something about him that is incalculable, mystifying and larger than life. When other villains’ motivations are cut and dry, his aren’t by any means. Magneto will commit great atrocities to see that the mutant race, Homo Superior, are truly the superior race and are given all that is due to them by the humans that mistreated them for years. Dr. Doom is so egomaniacal that he actually believes the world will be better and safer if he were allowed to rule over it, and he acts accordingly to put that in place. Lex Luthor doesn’t trust the amount of power that Superman has and doesn’t believe any one person should be allowed to have that much power, and he blames Superman for many of the other problems that exist in modern society. These are ideals that on some level are relatable. You can understand in some way that each of these villains believe that they are doing the right thing.

From "Death of the Family" (2012)
From “Death of the Family” (2012)

Depending on the story and who’s writing it, the Joker’s motivations can’t always be so easily understood. Sometime’s it seems that he just wants to cause havoc. In “The Killing Joke,” he says he wants to prove that the only way to live is through madness and tries to force Gordon to fall into his own version of insanity. In “Death of the Family” Batman believes that the Joker is trying to eliminate the sidekicks of Batman because he wants to restore the Dark Knight to an older crueler model of vigilante he was before he attained a family. Why? Because on some sick level, the Joker loves Batman. Everytime he arrives he changes somewhat, an aspect of the supersanity of his personality where he recreates himself every few years into a new Joker, an idea crafted into canon by Grant Morrison. This isn’t someone you can identify with. His motivations are in no way relatable. He’s mysterious to the core due to the lack of sense but it is completely buried beneath his charisma and larger than life appearance, actions and general demeanor.

A large part of what makes this character so great is being unable to understand him completely, beyond his obvious insanity. Another great aspect of why the character is so remarkable is because we know so little about him. His classic origin used in the majority of the media and originating in the comics in that he was a criminal, at one point known as the Red Hood, who was dropped into the acid and emerged the crown prince of crime.

The man who became Joker fell into the chemicals
The man who became Joker fell into the chemicals

Other than that, the details are not so concrete. In the Killing Joke, we are given a story that he was a failed stand up comic and became a criminal to provide money for his family. Except later in the same story, he tells Jim Gordon, something bad happened to him in his past that caused him to become the Joker, but even he can’t remember it exactly.

“Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another … If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

In the post New 52 retelling of Batman’s early years in “Year Zero,” the Red Hood Gang is much larger. One of them drops into the acid and it is more than implied that he becomes the Joker. However what we know of him before is again a mystery. Batman is unable to identify who it is.

Most recently, in a story “Endgame” by the same writer Scott Snyder, we are told that the Joker is a being of regenerative power and possibly immortal. That he was known as “the pale man” and his history with Gotham long supercedes Batman. However at the end, it is again suggested that this isn’t true and that the Joker was lying to Batman the whole time.

The Joker in "Endgame" (2015)
The Joker in “Endgame” (2015)

Even in the films the more mysterious origin is the more celebrated. For a long time Jack Nicholson’s performance was considered to be the most iconic and grandest. But was this because of how the character was written or because of the larger than life performance by an actor that is by all means larger than life himself. If anyone else were to perform that role in that film, would that character, not the performance, have been as celebrated? He could have been almost any other villain really. He was a gangster who wanted to take over. Then Batman dropped him. He went crazy, and he still tried to be the top gangster in Gotham and rule the city. It’s not that great of a character arc but Nicholson saved it by his magnificent portrayal, and for a long time we thought no one could top him as the ideal Joker.

holding mask

We were wrong.

why so serious

In a way that mirrors Jared Leto’s controversial unveiling, Heath Ledger was not the fan’s favorite choice. Many balked at the casting, and the internet hurled their insults and crybaby whines at the casting choice. Then they all collectively shut their mouths once they saw him in action. Ledger’s performance is now that which all is compared to, but again his performance isn’t what I want to talk about as much as the character’s written portrayal.

leto joker

This version of the Joker wears makeup over scars, a deviation from the source but one that fits my point even more. He retells the story multiple times. “Wanna know how I got these scars?” Each time there’s a different story. There is no answer to who he was before. There is no answer to why he is the way he is. He simply is. He arrives like the shark in Jaws and chews his way through the movie causing havoc wherever he goes. I have held debates with the other members of Nerd Union on many occasions on what exactly he was trying to accomplish in the movie and we have never completely 100% been able to agree with what he wanted to accomplish. Was it really just wanting to incite anarchy? Did he really just want to prove that anyone could fall from grace and become insane like him? He wants to kill the Batman, then he doesn’t want to kill Batman because “You’re just too much fun.” He is a complete enigma in the film. He swears he’s not the kind of guy with a plan and is there to incite chaos, but he uses the most ornate and masterfully orchestrated plan to do it. He’s something that can’t be understood.

robin suit

Which brings me back to the fan theory of Joker being a former Robin in the new films. What does this add to their historic dynamic relationship? If it is a Jason Todd who was tortured by someone then becomes the Joker it does not add to the dynamic of the character by so clearly defining why he hates Batman. Jason Todd already has a great character arc and storyline after he returns from the dead when he took the Red Hood mantle from Joker and feuded with both his murderer and former mentor, and removing the mystique of who the Joker is does not increase the dramatic draw of the character by making us understand exactly why he hates Batman.

The Joker should remain a mystery, one never fully told or explained. There have been stories where his origin has been fully told with decent to good results (Batman 1989, Batman Beyond: the Return of the Joker) but there is a reason that the feud between he and the Bat has lasted for 70 years and there is a reason why there is always room for new and interesting stories for the Joker, because there is so much we don’t know about him, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine could tell you that sometimes finally shedding light on the long dark mysteries that have lasted decades don’t always go over so well.

Check out the Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad trailer here

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