The DC Extended Universe Has a Joker Problem
Jared Leto followed Heath Ledger's legendary turn as the Joker in last year's Suicide Squad. The signs were fairly promising; Jared Leto's a fine actor and the sleazy, instagram drug-lord aesthetic was a logically modern update of a villain who started out as colourfully dressed mafioso thug when he was conceived way back in 1940. But Suicide Squad had little to do for this Joker but vamp and purr like a not particularly scary weirdo. He was there because he would help sell the obscure DC villain movie; one of the greatest villains of all time was reduced to a mascot.
It was all received with unkind bafflement, to put it mildly, despite raking in the cash. Where to go from there?
Unless you've been hiding under a rock you've probably heard the news that dropped last week: Warner Bros/DC is planning a Joker origin story movie to be directed by Todd Philips (he of Hangover and War Dogs fame) and produced by Martin freakin' Scorsese. The idea is that it'll be a hardboiled crime picture set in an early 80s Gotham City and will chronicle the rise of the Clown Prince of Crime. Not only that, but there'll be a modern-day Joker and Harley movie that'll be set in the main DCEU continuity (Man of Steel, Wonder Woman, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, etc.), and is touted as a “criminal love story”.
So with that, the DCEU has seemed to opt to split the difference between a reboot and a continuation – two Joker movies. There's quite a bit to unpack here.
A hardboiled crime drama a la Taxi Driver or Raging Bull? It's an interesting idea on paper, one that's so outside of the box that you can be sure it's going to go through the contortions of compromise and half-measures. Still, taking this news at face value, it remains an awful idea. The key word to its awfulness is “origin”. There are few certainties in life, but one of them is that the Joker should never, ever be explained. The closest popular interpretation to an origin lie within the pages of Batman: The Killing Joke, where Joker immediately kills the reliability of his detailed past by screaming with trademark mirth, “If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”.
So why has the Joker resisted a definitive origin for over 70 years?
In part it's because the Joker works best as a mysterious, malevolent force who engenders fear and uncertainty. To make him a harmless prankster one week and to have him open fire on an orphanage the next week is inexplicable – and quintessential Joker. An origin story supposes that we must connect the dots – to reconcile – the giggling, harmless nutcase and the grim, terrifying serial killer. Or to go with one or the other in order to craft at least a semi-comprehensible protagonist. Even Christopher Nolan, the filmmaker who traded up Batman's fantasy for tactile realism and 'logic', knew better than to impose an origin story beyond the succinct line, “I'm an agent of chaos”. A little mystique, intelligently guided, went a long way.
Another reason he works best, and the most important one, is that he's funhouse Batman. Some artistic ideas are so primal that they just don't need to be justified. The Joker's scrawny, heroin-chic, gender-bending killer contrast to Batman's fantasy vision of square-jawed American masculinity is so compelling and powerful on its own that any story justification for why the scrawny, heroin-chic, gender-bending killer is the way he is would seem terribly boring and literal.
With that in mind, the appeal of Scorsese-style Joker origin standalone sours upon a minute of consideration. So without Batman, who'll be there to challenge him, thematically or story-wise? Just other gangsters? It's certainly not going to be other Batman villains because this is a “hardboiled crime story a la Taxi Driver”. And to detail his backstory is to ultimately defang him, and who wants a defanged villain? So, what, the Joker would be a sympathetic protagonist? Doesn't that strike anybody as vaguely disgusting and confusing?
Less confusing but more potentially repulsive is the idea of a Joker and Harley spin-off love story. We got a glimpse of that in Suicide Squad, but let's rewind a bit.
The 90s Batman cartoon series, where Harley Quinn originated, deftly presented their relationship as a tragic tale of abuse in the episode “Mad Love.” Harley Quinn's arc throughout the series was to escape the Joker's thrall and make her own life. It was mature storytelling for a cartoon aimed at children, and one that adults could enjoy too.
On the other hand there's Suicide Squad, which presented their relationship as the epitome of goth-y co-dependence. When Harley willingly plunges into the vat of chemicals that made the Joker and he dives in to save her while lyrics blare “I need a gangsta to love me better than all the others do”, it's safe to say we are wading knee-deep in some C grade Lana Del Rey-esque jerk-off material. It's impossible to read that scene as disturbing, though the core idea of that scene is about as disturbing as it gets. It's murky, weird territory that I really like in theory. But when the inherent nastiness of it is glamourised in order to sell Harley Quinn and Joker merchandise to 14 year olds (which after all is what Suicide Squad was all about), then that portends something far more unnerving than a fictional clown killing a thousand fictional characters.
But a Joker and Harley movie needn't adhere to that corporate ethos of commodifying and manicuring bottom of the barrel garbage in order to sell it to teenagers, because it's not bound to Suicide Squad save for the same actors portraying Joker and Harley.
For instance an amoral, aimed-squarely-at-adults Natural Born Killers style comic book romp with Joker and Harley cutting a bloody swath across DC's version of America could potentially be pretty cool! Veering away from franchise-building movies and looking toward low-budget standalone films (such as this year's Logan) is the key to keeping superhero movies from feeling stale. And it could lean heavily into the sickness of their co-dependence instead of fetishising it. It's an opportunity to be bold, like Nolan and Ledger were bold. But one is way riskier than the other, and mainstream movies are as risk-averse a business as any. So...just some wishful thinking, I guess: Colour me not-shocked if we get the watered-down, emotionally dishonest version of that story, is all I'm saying.
But the problem that can't be negotiated is that they're even floating out the idea that there'll be two movies about the same iconic comic book character. Isn't a film meant to be an amalgamation of the best source material, to be a distillation of that which makes a character so beloved? Comic books can have multiple interpretations and concurrent stories because the economics of a 3 dollar funny book and a half-billion dollar film aimed at everyone is a night and day difference – and that's a good thing! If you're sinking all this money and time into a behemoth of a production, surely it's obvious to put your best foot forward instead of this meek “Well, if you don't like that, there'll be this” shit? Fracturing an audience in this way can only serve to speed up the burst of the current superhero movie bubble. It's double-dipping nonsense that an audience is savvy enough to sniff out and reject.
It's a long and twisty road from announcement to a completed film. It's possible that one or neither of these films will come to fruition, or both will be made and both will be great. Who's to say? But what can't be denied is that right now the DCEU is hedging their bets like a man down to his last two chips at the roulette table. Which is insane because they just won over so many doubters with Wonder Woman. If the answer to Wonder Woman making all of the money and earning all of the praise is, “We need two Joker movies!” then you've gotta wonder if, like in the famous graphic novel Batman: A Serious House on Serious Earth, the inmates are running the asylum.