Biography: The Joker.
In the days leading up to my seeing the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, and my excitement to see The Joker as portrayed by as skilled an actor as Heath Ledger, I got to thinking about the character itself and it’s personal history.
And particularly so for one simple fact: In Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Jack Nicholson portrays the character Jack Napier, a mobster who becomes the Joker after an accident in a chemical factory. Prior to that, however, it shows a young Jack ambush and murder a young Bruce Wayne’s parents in an alley. In the end, Batman is unable to save the Joker from a fall off of Gotham Cathedral, and he plummets to the street below to his death.
In contrast, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) depicts the origins of Batman in a new light, inspired by far different means. When young Bruce Wayne, terrified of bats, is upset by a night of opera, his parents leave early with him through an alley and are murdered during a botched robbery by Joe Chill, a forgettable lowlife that is too tightly wound and too strung out. At the end of the movie, Lt. Gordon of the Gotham Police Dept. hands Batman a Joker card and mentions a new guy in town.
Who is the Joker? Where did he come from? Which story is true? With all my questions I turned to perhaps the most informative Wikipedia entry I’ve ever seen, and learned so much about the character and its roots as I could. And what I learned… woo…
The Joker, rated by some as the greatest villain of all time, made his first appearance in the very first Batman comic nearly 70 years ago. Though portrayed for a time as a mere nuisance, the Joker began as a straightforward mass murderer that narrowly missed being killed off by writers in his second ever appearance. And though he appears in numerous Batman stories, films, and media, one simple fact stands out above all else: he has no concrete background story.
The most widely cited backstory can be seen in The Killing Joke (by acclaimed writer Alan Moore). It depicts him as originally being an engineer at a chemical plant who quits his job to become a stand-up comedian, only to fail miserably.
Desperate to support his pregnant wife, Jeannie, the man agrees to help two criminals break into the plant where he was formerly employed. During the planning, police contact him and inform him that his wife and unborn child have died in a household accident. Stricken with grief, he attempts to back out of the plan, but the criminals strong-arm him into keeping his promise. As soon as they enter the plant, however, they are immediately caught by security and a shoot-out ensues, in which the two criminals are killed.
As the engineer tries to escape, he is confronted by Batman, who is investigating the disturbance. Terrified, the engineer leaps over a rail and plummets into a vat of chemicals. When he surfaces in the nearby reservoir, he sees his reflection: bleached chalk-white skin, ruby-red lips, and bright green hair. These events, coupled with his other misfortunes that day, drive the engineer completely insane, resulting in the birth of the Joker.
The story “Pushback” (Batman: Gotham Knights # 50-55) supports part of this version of the Joker’s origin story; a witness recounts that the Joker’s wife was kidnapped and murdered by the criminals in order to force the engineer into performing the crime.
I find it very fitting, then, that Nolan’s interpretation of the Joker is one entirely shrouded in mystery; Ledger’s Joker has no name, no background or record of any kind, and nothing at all to trace. Not only does the character tell different variations on singular themes (like how he got the scars on his face), he doesn’t actually have the standard bleached skin, green hair, etc. – it’s all makeup. And wearing it is a choice that the character itself makes, further casting a shadow of mystery over itself.
After being offered the role, Heath Ledger reportedly approached Christopher Nolan about the way he envisioned the Joker being portrayed – an anarchical, method-to-the-madness character that echoed Nolan’s own ideas. Ledger then isolated himself in a hotel room for a month to capture every nuance of the Joker; his posture, his mannerisms, even his voice were all meticulously constructed, with every one of his ‘thoughts’ recorded in journals.
Ledger himself got so into the character that he had trouble coping and sleeping at night, causing his tragic addiction to sleeping pills and other prescription medications. Daniel Day Lewis is reportedly going to take up the torch in the wake in Ledger’s tragic passing.
To accentuate the entry, I’m including this 2005 fan-film, Patient J, written and directed by Aaron Shoenke. It’s 34 minutes depict a desperate psychologist that has secretly set up an interview with the mass-murdering Joker (played by Paul Molnar) in the basement of Gotham’s Arkham Asylum. Here the Joker personally recounts the key moments of his life, and the fantasy that is his murder by Batman.
In all, I don’t know that I’ve even encountered a similar situation of a literary character that is so larger than life. But as The Dark Knight clearly shows, such a character can definitely be faithfully brought to life by filmmakers that are passionately dedicated to their craft. See it once so you can see it again.