The Depressing Inevitability of a Joker Movie
The news that The Hangover's Todd Philips is working on an origin project for Batman villain The Joker is, on the one hand, a surprising development. Especially given that said project, which he's co-writing with an eye to possibly direct, will be part of a new DC Entertainment label unconnected to the Justice League/Suicide Squad cinematic universe that's continuing to move forward.
On the other hand, though, it's something that seems almost depressingly inevitable: Of course there's going to be a Joker movie, because there's always a Joker movie, no matter the incarnation of DC franchise onscreen. The character has become inescapable, omnipresent when it comes to cinematic versions of DC characters: One of only two villains to have appeared in the Adam West, Michael Keaton (et al) and Christian Bale versions of the Batman character, he even escaped the Bat-mythos altogether for last year's Suicide Squad.
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For those paying attention, yes, that does mean that we've seen more versions of the Joker on the big screen than Wonder Woman — who's only been seen as played by Gal Gadot — and even Superman (Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger and Jared Leto vs. Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill).
Any attempt to escape via animation has been foiled, too; he was the bad guy in The Lego Batman Movie, as well as a villain in the 1990s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm big-screen spinoff of the fan-favorite Bruce Timm/Paul Dini animated series. He even had The Killing Joke go direct to home release last year just for an extra spotlight. Given this level of usage, the idea that the Joker will lead off a new initiative for Warner Bros. seems less unexpected, and more same-old same-old.
That such overexposure is detrimental to the character's chaotic appeal might be obvious to some — a little bit of criminal insanity goes a long way — but there's arguably a signifier that character integrity is less of a priority than maximizing audience identification and profit potential when it comes to this new movie, in the fact that it's being described as an origin story for the character … despite the fact that the Joker has no set origin in comic book lore.
The Killing Joke offers up one potential origin, where he's an unsuccessful comedian who turns to crime at the worst possible moment — but there are also stories of his being a criminal mastermind, a gangster in disguise and a lab worker who accidentally falls into chemicals on the job. The origins of the character are purposefully vague, a point picked up by Christopher Nolan in 2008's The Dark Knight, where the character offers up contradictory versions of his history when prompted. That mystery makes him more unpredictable, which is what makes him such a potent threat.
(By contrast, the 1989 Batman movie gave a very definitive origin story for the character, in which he was the criminal who killed Bruce Wayne's parents. Arguably one of the movie's biggest missteps, it was something that prompted comic book fans to complain loudly upon release.)
None of the above is to argue that the movie won't be a good one, merely that it feels unnecessary and predictable — two traits that hardly feel very Joker-esque. While there's undoubtedly brand-value reasoning to use this character for the movie, it's nonetheless disappointing that an alternate route wasn't taken … especially when there are other DC comic book characters who could fit into the role almost seamlessly.
July 20, 2019 9:01am PTby Graeme McMillan
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