There has beena lot of talk about whether or not it makes sense to greenlight an origin movie about The Joker when DC's main line of superhero films are currently struggling to find their footing with fans and critics -- but the movie is happening and one of the things that has been relatively less discussed is what form it might take.
That kind of movie will this be? Well, fans know relatively little, other than the fact that it seems to be running toward a grimy, gritty sort of movie that would appease fans of executive producer Martin Scorcese, and is likely to take itself fairly seriously, since star Joaquin Phoenix, a method actor with a lot of awards heat behind him, has been thinking about if for years.
So while it seems likely that a lot of this movie could be created out of whole cloth, one has to wonder: what comics or other media might there be out there that might influence a Joker origin film?
While -- as we will get into throughout this piece -- that origin is generally understood to be mysterious, The Killing Joke gives a specific accounting of it and manages to skirt the issue by not specifically saying that the protagonist in the origin is The Joker.
It further convolutes itself by, The Dark Knight-like, seeing Joker admit freely that he is himself not entirely sure of his backstory.
It remains one of the most popular and reprinted Joker stories of all time, in spite of being frequently criticized for its depiction of sexual violence, its handling of the character of Barbara Gordon, and more.
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight totally redefined how everyday people who don't read comics voraciously viewed The Joker as a character, and it seems impossible to imagine that a movie dedicated to The Joker himself would not draw from that in some way.
That Nolan's Joker was gritty and dirty-hands violent in a way that no mainstream Joker had been (even Jack Nicholson's PG-13 Joker committed most of his crimes at the end of a gun, and rarely fought without making it seem theatrical and fun) likely means it will be a direct inspiration for this film which, based on the people involved and the very limited amount of available information, seems to be pretty grim.
The film's supporting cast, at least as far as we can tell from casting descriptions leaked online, seems to lean toward a Joker whose backstory borders on that of Rorschach from Watchmen.
The idea of a maladjusted young man with a troubled mother evetually growing up to dress in sharp (if filthy) clothes and engage in the whole costumed crime(fighting) scene feels a bit familiar, but that seems to be where things are headed unless these descriptions were made to misdirect fans and the press.
With Matt Reeves's The Batman reported to be loosely based on Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, and basically every movie since Tim Burton's Batman drawing some inspiration from Miller's take, it seems like a no-brainer that Todd Phillips would be looking at that characterization of Batman's early days to see whether there is anything he might distort, mirror, or otherwise appropriate for a movie centered around the early days of Batman's arch-nemesis.
That would make Joker and The Batman companion pieces, even if they don't technically share a universe, in a way that would make for a very satisfying cinematic experience, assuming both movies are relatively good.
The way that everyday gangsters deal with, rub up against, tolerate, and try to stare down a relentless parade of freaks and masked madmen seems a likely theme to be explored in a movie where casting notices have suggested gangsters, mob maven Scorcese is involved, and the idea of The Joker as "the Clown Prince of Crime" hasn't really been explored as deeply in recent media as it might be.
The character, who has a plan, and takes advantage of the loopholes life gives him while being brutal, uncompromising, and theatrical, could prove a solid template for anybody hoping to make a Joker movie, even if the actual events of "A Death in the Family" don't, shouldn't, and likely cannot take place within the context of Joker.
This story also features Jason Todd's mother, a non-Harley femme fatale who ends up working with The Joker to advance her own agenda. That could be a solid hook for a movie that so far feels pretty lacking in the strong women department.
That said, the ideas explored in Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's "Death of the Family," including The Joker's need to belong to something bigger than him and his borderline-homoerotic obsession with Batman, seems like fertile ground to explore -- if not here then perhaps in a follow-up to one or both of these planned origin movies.
Connecting The Joker's madness to dionesium could provide a never-before-used twist on the "chemical bath" origin as well as tying him into some recent mythology, and ultimately to Batman, even if the Dark Knight doesn't make an appearance in the film.
The dark, disorganized, high-stakes world of Joker, with its organized crime and its turf wars against other menacing Gotham City villains, feels like not only a pretty obvious setup for Joker (the movie) but also a potentially interesting way to make him a protagonist.
Yeah, he's evil and unhinged, but at least he's not a literal monster like Clayface, Black Mask, Killer Croc, or whomever they decide to pit him against!
While the Batman: Arkham franchise of video games closely mirrors The Dark Knight in many respects, it is important for comics fans to recognize that for a great many people in the audience, the movies and video games are how they actually know these characters.
The downside here is that the Joker of the games is already at the height of his powers and not, as you would like to see him do in an origin story, finding his way or building a reputation. That makes him an ideal version for the interactive platform of gaming but less so for a movie that has to build the character from scratch.
Still, as with other continuity-heavy takes like the "Death/Family" duology, it seems likely filmmakers will be able to pluck something recognizably Arkham-inspired from the games.
Given how hard the "grim and gritty" train has been riding for The Joker since Batman killed the character off in 1989, it seems likely that a good way to differentiate this movie from its recent predecessors would be to embrace the character's theatrical, clownish nature -- even if you're doing it in a deadly way.
Nobody did that better than Cesar Romero.