Back to the Past: The Future of the Joker, and Maybe Even DC vs. Marvel

Is WB's new direction a stroke of genius or an act of desperation?

Joker Origin Movie Warner Bros. DCEU Marvel
WB developing a Joker origin movie. Warner Bros.

By now, you’ve probably heard the news that Warner Bros. is developing an untitled Joker origin story with Martin Scorsese producing and The Hangover‘s Todd Phillips directing/co-writing. The project will be the first under a new branch of Warner Bros. that will stand separate from the continuity of the DC Extended Universe, according to EW.  As such, Suicide Squad‘s Jared Leto will not be starring, though he is expected to reprise the role in future DCEU films.

This idea is about as bad as the Clown Prince of Crime trying to take on Batman in a fist fight. It’s worse than Bane’s logic-defying coup in The Dark Knight Rises. It’s as head-scratching as putting George Clooney in the cape and cowl. Aside from the masterful The Killing Joke, the origins of Batman’s most iconic nemesis have purposefully been left up for interpretation. The madness that is the Joker could have sprung from anywhere and his ambiguous beginnings are a clever parallel to Batman’s whole “anyone could be behind the mask” philosophy.

The move also reeks of trying to leverage a brand name…again. This will be the fourth live-action Joker (The Dark Knight, Suicide Squad, Gotham) since 2008. It’s as if WB has completely forgotten about the breadth of its Rogues Gallery and the many interesting characters it has at its disposal. Haven’t we seen enough of the Joker for now? Isn’t it time to develop some other villains?

For all of the negative reactions I’ve cycled through since this news first broke, there has been one surprising response: intrigue. No, not in a Joker origin movie, but in the strategy behind it. Warner Bros. wants to diversify its DC films and developing stories unconnected to the DCEU frees these projects from the shackles of interconnected world-building. Thinking long-term, this could be the move that finally puts DC ahead of Marvel.

“The new banner is intended to bring unique story angles to the studio’s iconic heroes and villains,” EW reports.

I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe; I’m there every single opening weekend. But it’s not a crime to point out that the MCU is the product of a factory-made assembly line that adheres to a strict formula and balks at any deviation (see: Wright, Edgar). For all of its wonderful comic book faithfulness, good humor and stellar action, the MCU is kind of…flavorless.

This new Warner Bros. venture has the opportunity to give interesting storytellers the room to tell interesting stories without saddling them with the burden of setting up the next big team-up or nodding to past events. Think about it: no haphazard introductions to other superheroes via grainy YouTube videos, no awkward Batman cameos jammed down the audience’s throats, no inexplicable dream sequences that fell lifted from an entirely different movie. Instead, we have a shot at some real individuality.

Let’s explore the weirder corners of the DC Universe with the long-gestating Sandman movie, which revolves around a story packed with anthropomorphic personifications, metaphysical entities and mythology. Let’s get culturally political with a Superman: Red Son adaptation that sees baby Kal-El land in the Soviet Union as opposed to Kansas. Let’s get ambitious and unique and memorable.

Perhaps WB is taking a cue from television, which has popularized the anthology format; self-contained one-offs lend themselves to more meaningful storytelling anyway. It’s a move that has worked for the burgeoning Cloverfield cinematic universe and its a directional shift that could help separate DC from Marvel on the big screen. In short: it offers the potential for something different in this overly-saturated superhero market.

Should Warner Bros. kick off this new banner with a Joker origin story? No, I’d rather spend a week trapped in a screening room with Leto while he’s going full method for his next Joker appearance. But let’s not damn the entire venture just because of this. Shared cinematic universes are all the rage in Hollywood right now thanks to Marvel, but lost in this arms race of interconnected storytelling has been the virtue of the old fashioned Beginning-Middle-End. Maybe WB will bring us back there with some creatively risky gambles that remind audiences how great it can be when studios make a beeline off the beaten path.

As Heath Ledger said in The Dark Knight, “It’s all part of the plan.”

Back to the Past: The Future of the Joker, and Maybe Even DC vs. Marvel