Few comic book movie villains, if any, are as beloved as the Joker. Or, at least the most well known. He’s had three high-profile portrayals (and a Lego incarnation) in the last three decades—two of them downright iconic—and, unlike many comics-based baddies, he’s a character with character, a knowable personality whose motivations beyond “world domination, or whatever” have been explored onscreen many times. Everyone knows the Joker—more than they know almost any bad guy in recent memory.
Warner Bros. hopes you want to know more. According to Deadline, the studio and DC Entertainment are starting to pull together an origin story flick to be directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips, written by 8 Mile’s Scott Silver, and produced by Martin Scorsese. Yes, really. The report says that it will be “the first film under a new banner that has yet to be named in which WB can expand the canon of DC properties and create unique storylines with different actors playing the iconic characters.” That means even though Jared Leto just did a turn as the Joker in director David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, he won’t reprise the role for this new incarnation. (He’s still on deck to play the character in the reported Harley Quinn spinoff movie, though.)
How you feel about that casting tidbit depends entirely on how you feel about Leto’s performance in Squad. But the key part of the report should inspire stronger feelings: The film will take place in early-‘80s Gotham City and “isn’t meant to feel like a DC movie as much as one of Scorsese’s films of that era.”
Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are wonderful toys to play with, for sure. And the idea of a Batman universe shepherded by the guy who gave us Gangs of New York and Wolf of Wall Street is downright thrilling. (Calling it now: Leonardo DiCaprio to play the Clown Prince of Crime. He’s already turning into Jack Nicholson, might as well complete the circle.) There’s just one problem: He’s already been done too well too many times before. A villain has never been so gleefully watchable as Nicholson’s take in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, when he went full “Here’s Johnny!” under a pile of facepaint and a green toupee. His performance was so well-received (and well-remembered) that when Heath Ledger was cast in the role 17 years later, folks wondered how he could live up to it. Then Ledger won an Oscar for his work in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, with an unhinged turn as the Joker that eclipsed nearly every other performance in a comic book movie before or since. By the time Leto came around for Squad he barely stood a chance; his was a suicide mission all his own. (Why else would you think sending costar Viola Davis a dead pig was a good idea?)
Indeed, the Joker may have the biggest clown shoes (or wingtips or whatever) to fill in all of comic-book-movie fandom. There are, to WB/DC’s credit, a lot of smart and fun ways to tell a Joker origin story. While Gotham has given some screen time to a young Joker on TV, the movies have never envisioned a teenage Clown Prince. It sounds promising. But even if someone can convince Jacob Tremblay to break bad and terrorize Gotham High, he would still have to give a career-defining performance to live up to the precedent that’s already been set. A Joker standalone movie backed by Marty Scorsese looks great on paper, but at this point anything with the Joker feels done to death.
Moreover, trying to out-do, or at least live up to, a pair of legendary performances seems ill-advised when there are dozens of other characters—new, exciting characters! characters your mom probably couldn’t pick out of a lineup!—that have gotten little to no screen time before. Give Batwoman a movie. No one remembers (or maybe has intentionally forgotten) Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin; let her plant some roots in the new DC cinematic universe. Anarky, anyone? It’s become low-hanging fruit to say that Hollywood needs to explore some new ideas; but also, Hollywood needs to explore some new ideas. Getting together a team that includes Martin Scorsese and then asking them to try to retread a character that’s already been done so well doesn’t seem like the best use of anyone’s time.
It’s easy to see why Warner Bros. and DC want to do this. A well-known character and a strong production team gets an automatic green light. Hollywood tends to get stuck on sure-fire hits, pumping out the same thing over and over again. This town, in the words of the Joker himself, needs an enema.