HEAT VISION

Why 'Joker' Doesn't Need a Young Bruce Wayne

It's time to stop putting Batman and his family into prequels.
David Mazzucchelli/DC Entertainment
It's time to stop putting Batman and his family into prequels.

The addition of Dante Pereira-Olson to Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker movie as a young Bruce Wayne both connects the project more concretely to DC Entertainment’s Batman mythos and underscores a basic truth, commonly misunderstood, about Bruce Wayne as a character.

That Joker is one of three Batman prequel projects currently in the works or on air in some form or another — Pennyworth, centering on a young version of Batman’s trusted butler, is in development, and Gotham, the series following the pre-Batman exploits of Commissioner Gordon, will debut its fifth season on Fox in 2019 — speaks to the belief that there is something inherently interesting in the backstory of almost everyone attached to the Dark Knight, even before Bruce gets the idea of emulating the leathery wings of tiny mammals as a disguise.

The logic is obvious, if not necessarily sound; prequels allow for the project to have a connection to the successful and famous property without having to create an actual Batman story with all the attendant tropes and expectations to fulfill. There is, however, one fatal flaw that keeps showing up again and again in such projects: The desire to pretend that there’s anything interesting or worthwhile about the Wayne family before Bruce’s parents get killed in Crime Alley.

I understand why Gotham, Pennyworth and Joker all feature either Bruce or Thomas Wayne as characters, however incidental that may be — they make it so much easier to say, “Yes, it’s a Batman story! Look!” — but without fail, such cameos foreshadow the future, and in doing so fundamentally betray a central truth to the Batman idea: The one defining moment in Bruce Wayne’s life is the murder of his parents, to the extent that it literally changed who he was.

The desire to hint at the Batman to come isn’t something that’s only the purview of media adaptations of Batman; comic book flashbacks have included nods as small as a pre-adolescent Bruce Wayne falling into a cave and being terrified of bats and as large as Thomas Wayne dressing up in a bat costume and foiling crimes before his son was even born — no, really — in an attempt to give something of a mythical edge to the Dark Knight Detective. But every single attempt to do so — to suggest that Batman was somehow destined or fated to appear — cheapens the impact of Bruce Wayne losing his parents as a child.

(To be fair, Gotham initially attempted to get around this by literally beginning with the murder of the Waynes, but within a season had introduced hidden rooms in Wayne Manor used by his father, and nefarious goings-on in Wayne Enterprises.)

It’s an unpopular idea, given both Bruce Wayne’s endpoint and the fact that wealthy families are seen as inherently interesting on popular culture, but the Waynes should be boring before Thomas and Martha are killed. They should be the least interesting of everyone around them, because Bruce is the character with the traumatizing inciting incident, whereas Gordon, Alfred et al basically roll with the increasingly surreal punches in remarkable fashion, no matter how strange things get. In order for the death of the Waynes to have the weight that it should — a weight that makes it worthwhile to kill them in the first place, at least in the narrative sense — the entire family should be unworthy of spending any significant amount of time with before that night on the way home from the theater.

Of course, that’s only the case if DC doesn’t buy my pitch for That Night On The Way Home From The Theater, in which I suggest that the line for the restroom during intermission featured little Bruce talking to an expect in bat conversation …

Joker opens Oct. 4, 2019.

 
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