How Will Scorsese Tackle the Joker's Origin Story? Batman Mythology Provides (Many) Answers

Martin Scorsese
Oscar-winning film director Martin Scorsese is taking a sharp left turn into the world of superhero films. Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Martin Scorsese is set to produce a film that will tell the origin story of the Joker. Yes, that Joker, the enemy of Batman, the superhero. It's probably the last subject one would expect the Oscar-winning director to tackle, but according to entertainment site Deadline, the project will be a "gritty and grounded hard-boiled crime film" that will recall Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The King of Comedy. In other words, this might just be really, really awesome.

The DC/Warner Bros. collaboration will be directed by The Hangover's Todd Phillips, who will co-write the script with Scott Silver, best known for the 2002 Eminem venture 8 Mile, which is quite gritty. The project does not yet have a title, but it does have a setting: early-1980s Gotham City. Again, sign us up.

Phillips and Silver will likely have creative freedom in telling the story of the Joker's origins, but there is plenty of mythology from the Batman comic books available for them to draw from. The most common accepted element of the villain's creation is that his cartoonish features and wild-eyed insanity are the result of an unfortunate plunge into a vat of acid, as was portrayed in the 1989 Batman.

In that film, the pre-acid Joker is Jack Napier, a mobster who is having an affair with his boss's mistress. The boss arranges for Napier to be killed at a chemical plant, and things go awry when the police—and Batman—arrive. Napier ends up falling into a vat of acid, survives, gets plastic surgery and emerges with white skin, green hair and an insane perma-grin. In 2008's The Dark Knight, the provenance of Heath Ledger's Joker is shrouded in mystery. The character's history is similarly obscured in 2016's Suicide Squad, in which Jared Leto plays the role of a "psychotic, antisocial freak" who is in love with Harley Quinn, who has appeared in the comics as a former psychiatrist who falls in love with the Joker after learning about his troubled past.

The Joker's debut came in the first-ever Batman comic, in 1940. This version of the Joker was a prolific serial killer who resembled a joker one might find on a playing card. Similar to how he miraculously survived the acid plunge, the early Joker was repeatedly "killed" only to somehow, some way, survive. Usage of the Joker in Batman comics would fluctuate through the years, and over time he would morph from a run-of-the-mill mass murderer to the unhinged psychotic we know and love today.

The forthcoming project from Scorsese and Phillips, however, will allegedly tell the story of what preceded all of this debauchery, and, according to Batman Wiki, there have been plenty of conflicting tales scattered throughout the Batman canon as to who the Joker was before he became the Joker.

In the 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke, the Joker is a former engineer who quit his job at a chemical plant to pursue stand-up comedy (yes, really). To earn some money to help support his pregnant wife, the engineer helps some criminals break into his former place of employment. Before pulling off the caper, he is informed that his wife and unborn child have died in an accident, but the criminals force him to follow through with the plan. The break-in doesn't go as planned, a shootout ensues and, of course, Batman shows up. The engineer winds up falling into the acid, is flushed into a reservoir (much like Napier in the 1989 Batman), survives and goes insane.

Another take comes by way of the Batman Confidential, which debuted in 2006. Here the Joker, known as Jack, is a suicidal criminal who becomes obsessed with Batman after the Caped Crusader foils one of the Joker's jobs. At a party, Jack injures the woman Bruce Wayne was dating, and Batman disfigures Jack's face with a Batarang. A group of mobsters torture Jack in a chemical plant after being given his information by Batman, and in the process of escaping, Jack falls into an empty vat. Gunfire punctures a hanging container, and he is drowned in antidepressant chemicals—completing his transformation into the Joker.

In the Batman: Streets of Gotham comics, there is a child named Sonny who witnesses a crime, after which mobsters break his jaw and infect him with a laughing virus. The mobsters then firebomb the clinic in which Sonny was staying before kidnapping him and abusing him repeatedly. Though it doesn't say it explicitly, it is implied Sonny grows up to be the Joker.

There is clearly no consensus as to how the Joker became the Joker, but this is also kind of the point. In The Dark Knight, he tells multiple stories about how he incurred the scars on his face. The Killing Joke lends some insight as to why. "Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another," he says of his past. "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!"

We'll have to wait to see what choice Phillips and Silver decide to select, but judging the description given on Deadline, we're guessing the Joker's new past is going to be occupied with crime rather than stand-up-comedy aspirations.