Columns > Published on October 3rd, 2019

Smile! All You Need to Know About The Joker Before You Watch the Movie

Throughout history, many characters who were only meant to exist for a brief time have managed to escape the tolling of the death knell. For instance, the Fonz was originally supposed to be a minor side character on Happy Days. Steve Urkel was only meant to make a guest appearance in the first episode of Family Matters. Arthur Weasley only survived an attack from Nagini in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix thanks to J.K. Rowling’s last-minute change of heart.

The endurance of these beloved characters might have… put a smile on your face. But this post is about another iconic character who was meant to perish, but instead lived on as a series star — a character who definitely doesn’t make Bruce Wayne smile: the Joker.

In anticipation of the October 4th release of the Warner Bros. film, Joker, this post will cover five facts about the DC Comics agent of chaos.

1. His look was inspired by a 1920s American silent film

The Man Who Laughs is a 1928 silent film about a young boy who is disfigured with a permanent grin by King James II. As the King puts it, the mutilated smile is meant to ensure that that the boy “laugh[s] forever at his fool of a father.”

The movie was meant to be a romantic drama, but is often classified as a horror film thanks to the image of the “carnival freak-like” grin on the face of the protagonist, played by German actor Conrad Veidt. Does “horrific grin caused by disfigurement” ring any bells? If not, perhaps this picture of Veidt as The Man Who Laughs does.

While Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and Bob Kane might not all agree on who exactly is responsible for the creation of the Joker, they concur that this photograph of Veidt sparked the sinister, green-haired, clown-painted look of Gotham City’s Joker.

“Smile, because it confuses people. Smile, because it’s easier than explaining what is killing you inside.”

2. One of his kills was based on popular vote

It’s no stretch of the imagination to picture the Joker himself hatching up this plan, but he can’t take the credit this time.

The 1980s are known as the “Dark Age” of comics. By this time, the kids who grew up reading Batman and other such comics were now adults, and ready to handle darker themes of death and destruction — including the killing off of core characters in gruesome fashion.

In the late 80s, the second Robin (yes, there were multiple Robins) or “Jason Todd” was not a popular character among fans. DC knew this and decided they would let the fans decide what happened to the character. Should he be modified and stay on, or written off? In the end, the fan-vote sealed second Robin’s fate: he would be beaten to death with a crowbar by the Joker. Again, it was the Dark Ages, and the Joker was likely only too happy to oblige.

“I believe that whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.”

3. His origin story is a mystery

The Joker is a classic but intentional unreliable narrator. Throughout the series, his claims about his roots waver wildly, spinning from tall tales about once being the jester of an Egyptian Pharaoh, to more sadly believable stories about growing up with an abusive father. As Batman puts it: "Like any other comedian, he uses whatever material will work."

Jerry Robinson, one of the Joker creators, believed that officially confirming the Joker’s origins would “take away from some of the essential mystery.” And so the murkiness remains, as a canonical origin is absent.

However, there are two origin stories that fans seem to believe most widely. The first is that the Joker started as a lab worker who then started stealing from his employer and became known as the criminal, the Red Hood. When Batman became wise to the Red Hood’s schemes, he confronted him, leading to the Red Hood falling into a vat of chemical waste — bleaching his skin, coloring his hair green and his lips red, and turning him insane.

A variation on this theory sees the Joker as a failed comedian who is convinced to rob the chemical plant that formerly employed him. This is the story that seems to take shape in the 2019 Joker movie.

“’s a funny world we live in. Speaking of which, you know how I got these scars?”

4. He knows Bruce Wayne is the Caped Crusader

A major storyline in every superhero’s arc is the drive to protect their true identity. Exposure could mean risking everything they hold near and dear. So it seems unlikely that the Joker would not reveal Batman’s identity if he knew the truth. But the fact of the matter is that he does know, he just doesn’t care.

The Joker makes a point of targeting Bruce Wayne, as opposed to Batman, on multiple occasions: he’s invaded the Batcave, attacked poor Albert (by chopping off his hand!), and has even gone so far as exhuming the bodies of Bruce’s parents to further torment our long-suffering hero.

But the Joker doesn’t make a point of exposing Batman because he believes that Bruce Wayne is a disguise, and Batman is the real “man behind the mask.” In fact, the Joker actually believes he is helping Batman, because he pushes Batman to continuously develop into a better version of himself. Contradicting the prophetic nature between a hero and villain of a certain fantasy novel (“neither can live while the other survives”), the Joker feels that Batman needs him: a hero can only be a hero so long as there are villains to take down.

“I don’t wanna kill you, what would I do without you? Go back to rippin’ off mob dealers… no, no, no… no, you, you complete me.”

5. He’s a crossover star

As we mentioned in the intro, it’s true that the Joker was meant to die right after his first appearance, and was spared by editorial intervention. And not only did he go on to thrive within the Batman series, he also managed to cross over into other worlds too. His path has intersected with Judge Dredd, the Punisher, Carnage, Scooby-Doo, and he’s been changed into a Xenomorph before (an extraterrestrial from the Alien series). He’s even donned The Mask — the green one from the movie with Jim Carrey.

Indeed, there’s something about the Joker that’s perversely, universally fascinating — such that, even when we want to, we just can’t seem to look away. This practically guarantees that while 2019’s Joker may be the next film to explore his character, it will not be the last.

“Why so serious?”

Do you plan on seeing this latest incarnation of the Joker? Come back and let us know what you think. 

About the author

Emmanuel Nataf is a Founder at Reedsy, a marketplace and set of tools that allows authors and publishers to find top editorial, design and marketing talent. Over 3,000 books have been published using Reedsy's services.

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