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As the teaser trailer for Joker makes clear, the origin story of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is a tragedy of a man undone by the world around him — but how does Todd Phillips’ movie compare with earlier attempts to explain DC’s man who laughs?
Although the Joker debuted in 1940’s Batman No. 1, his origin story remained under wraps for more than a decade, only coming to light in 1951’s Detective Comics No. 168, in the story “The Man Behind the Red Hood!”
In that story, written by Joker creator Bill Finger, the Joker clearly lays out how he came to be: He was, he explains, “a lab worker, until I decided to steal $1,000,000 and retire!” You know, that old chestnut. The robbery, which he carried out under the guise of super villain the Red Hood, was successful; he stole the money from a playing card company and swam to freedom through what is casually described as “the pool of chemical wastes.” It wasn’t the best plan.
“The chemical vapor — it turned my hair green, my lips rouge-red, my skin chalk-white! I look like an evil clown! What a joke on me!” he exclaims, upon seeing his reflection for the first time. In narration, he continues, “I realized my new face could terrify people! And because the playing card company made my new face, I named myself after the card with the face of a clown — the Joker!”
To some extent, this version of events has remained comic book canon ever since, although details get blurry with successive reboots of the Batman mythology. 1988’s Batman: The Killing Joke suggests that the Joker was actually a former lab assistant who had quit to go into comedy before being convinced to turn to crime out of desperation; after seeing what the chemicals had done to him, he suffered a psychotic break, rather than imagining a new criminal identity for himself.
By 2013’s Batman No. 24, the lab assistant angle has been dropped altogether; he’s simply Red Hood One, a criminal mastermind who chooses to fall into the chemicals to escape capture by Batman on the latter’s first outing as a crimefighter. Although the immediate aftermath of the event isn’t shown, subsequent Joker appearances make it very clear that he’s insane, rather than simply pretending.
Outside of comic books, the origin of the Joker has been shown on a number of occasions; in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Jack Napier was a mobster who fell into the chemicals after a confrontation with Batman. (He was also the man who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents, because that seemed entirely plausible.) The 1990s animated series mixed the original comic book version and Tim Burton version so that the Joker was a career criminal who fell into the chemicals after a confrontation at the Ace Chemical Plant, before declaring himself reborn as the Joker. Fox’s Gotham has devoted hours to Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska, the carnival twins who may or may not end up as the Clown Prince of Crime in some manner or another.
Perhaps most famously, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight has a Joker who actively lies about his origin, giving multiple contradictory versions to different people. That in itself is a comic book callback; in The Killing Joke, the Joker explains during a monologue, “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
That, then, may be the best way to consider Joker and how it relates to the Joker as audiences are familiar with the character. Is it the villain as people know him? Almost certainly not, and that’s more than OK. As long as he ends up with green hair, a creepy red smile and the desire to screw with Batman at any and all opportunity, everything else is up for grabs. Sometimes, the final destination is more important than the journey, after all.
Joker will be released Oct. 4.
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