Warner Bros. is planning a Joker origin film that is separate from the DC Extended Universe. There’s no good reason it should exist.
In life, death is a certainty. In Hollywood, it’s sort of the opposite. A film, or its byproducts, will be given life—again, and again, and again. That seems to be the one certainty in the film industry today. Properties thought to be “unremakeable,” “unrebootable,” and otherwise untouchable, have found new life. For instance, it was recently announced that Ryan Murphy will produce a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel series for Netflix starring Sarah Paulson as the diabolical Nurse Ratched, a sentence that I never thought I would see, or write—but here we are.
It could be argued that this ideology—to regurgitate the same formulas, characters, and ideas on a rotating basis—could ironically be the death of the medium. Those arguments have been made (this summer’s atrocious summer box office), and contested (the rebound in the form of the It adaptation, which our own Steve Lam reviewed here), so I won’t get into that.
What I’d like to get into is WB’s troubling, perplexing, and just all-around blatant disdain for the DC Comics characters they bring to the big screen. With the exception of the wonderful Wonder Woman (2017), the DC Extended Universe has been a huge dud. I liked Man of Steel (2013), but the shadow of its sort-of-sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) looms over it like a bad omen. The hollow Suicide Squad (2016) never manages to live up to the promise of its awesome “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer–indeed, it was just fantasy.
Now, WB has announced a Joker origin film that has zero ties to the DCEU. Instead, it would be within a different universe in DC Films. Martin Scorsese is apparently set to produce (it doesn’t matter) and Leonardo Dicaprio is “eyed” for the title role (it’ll never happen).
That Ryan Murphy Ratched series has something in common with this Joker movie: both take villains from distinguished properties and tell their origin stories. The difference between the two is that one is on TV. And in this age of “peak TV,” Netflix is a more reliable playing ground than if a studio brought Ratched to theaters. Not to mention, while we don’t necessarily need a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel, it’s also never been done before. Who doesn’t want to see Sarah Paulson as a crazy nurse? I’ll at least give it a try.
The Joker, however, is a character that has been portrayed by four different actors in the span of fifty years. Cesar Romero brought the character to the small screen in 1966. Since then, Jack Nicholson (Batman (1989)), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight (2008)), and Jared Leto (Suicide Squad (2016)), have all donned the infamous white make-up and green hair of the Clown Prince of Crime. While four actors in fifty years may not seem like a lot, the last two incarnations of the character were only eight years apart from one another. This new origin film would be even less if it actually sees the light of day.
Then there’s the numerous voice actors, most notably Mark Hamill from Batman: The Animated Series and the recent Batman: The Killing Joke adaptation (more on this later).
Other franchises/characters have gone through these quick turnarounds. Spider-Man is the straw on the camel’s back. The character was rebooted in 2012 with Andrew Garfield, five years after Tobey Maguire’s final film. This year saw another reboot, with Tom Holland taking on the role. If you’re not keeping track, that’s fifteen years after the first Spider-Man movie in 2002, ten years after Maguire’s trilogy ended, five years after Garfield made his debut, and only three years after the forgettable Amazing Spider-Man 2 pushed Sony to make a deal with Marvel Studios.
Alas, Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) was a huge hit, both commercially and critically. While I have my qualms with it, it does essentially understand the character. So why couldn’t this Joker film do the same? There’s two main reasons: 1) Joker is a character that exists for no other reason than because Batman exists, whereas Spider-Man has been one of, if not the tentpole character in Marvel’s arsenal since his inception, and 2) WB clearly has little grasp on what makes these characters great, whereas I have faith in Marvel Studios’s ability. Marvel’s track record isn’t perfect, but as of late, the DCEU has been largely misfires. The fact this Joker film wouldn’t be a part of that universe does little to quell my reservations.
If WB wants to right the wrongs Suicide Squad inflicted on the character, similar to what Sony and Marvel did with Spider-Man, this isn’t the way to do it. It’s more similar to Sony’s plans for one of Spider-Man’s villains, Venom, who isn’t even nearly as recognizable. They too plan to make a standalone movie that isn’t connected to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe … but is still kind of riding its coattails.
It is true that the Joker is one of the most popular villains in pop culture. WB may have that in mind when they jumped on this misguided effort. He’s managed to stick around since 1940 with little to no origin story. That’s for good reason: like your typical slasher film antagonists like Michael Myers, the Joker works because we know so little about him.
However, just because his backstory is so muddled, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any substance. He brilliantly changed his backstory whenever he told it in The Dark Knight—that film instead focused on the Joker as an agent of chaos. His main goal was to upset the delicate balance of things. And throughout his seventy-plus year comic book existence, he remains the Dark Knight’s primary foe.
Alan Moore famously gave the Joker somewhat of an origin story in his classic work Batman: The Killing Joke. While that comic is considered canon, it’s worth noting that Alan Moore can basically do whatever he wants, and the Joker’s psyche isn’t exactly coherent. So any “origin” story may not even be true. Some may find an ’80s-style mob thriller from the perspective of a deranged, unreliable narrator to be compelling—and the sad part is that it is. But as soon as you throw the fact that this is about the Joker into the mix, it dilutes not only that premise, but the character himself. We have to ask ourselves if that has any merit or adds to the mythos of the character.
More Movies: It Review: A Worthy Adapation That Takes Some Questionable Liberties
We know very little about this film, but the odds are that it won’t feature Batman. And the Joker without Batman is like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without, well, one of those things. All in all, WB either has no idea what makes these characters so special, or they just don’t care. These kinds of ideas may have worked in the comics, whether it be the Joker’s origin or Ben Affleck’s murderous The Dark Knight Returns take on Batman. But just because they worked for one medium, doesn’t guarantee they’ll work for another.
Then again, the one certainty in Hollywood is life—again, and again, and again. If it doesn’t work this time, they’ll most likely take another crack at it in a few years.