I believe that one of the hardest aspects of any superhero mythology to bring to appreciative audiences is the origin story, be that of the hero him- or herself or of any of their various sidekicks, hangers-on, or especially villains. The stakes are always very high -- given our culture's linear psychology, the origin story necessarily provides the keystone for understanding the tempestuous tableau of daring-do that so thrill us fans. The pressure for the storytellers is palpable. Get it right, and the character acquires a depth and complexity that opens up sympathy and story lines; get it wrong, and fanboys and -girls the world over will barrage the blogosphere with boos and cry out curses at Comic Cons. At the heart of it all is the promise of unveiling the mystery -- of learning more. The TV show Lost has been using origin stories brilliantly as a narrative device, and I dare say that there are many fans who find the answers to the question of how everyone got to the island even more compelling than how they are going to finally get off.
Any fan of the superhero genre has their favorite origin story for a character, and by favorite I am of course implying the plural. Part of the fun, I believe, is that there are multiple origin stories to choose from (just how many spiders have bitten poor Peter Parker over his prolonged adolescence?), each competing to provide a better psychology than the one that came before. But originality is hard to perpetuate, particularly when dealing with characters like those from the Batman universe, where so many glimpses under that famous cowl have been provided by so many. And yet, as I joined apparently every other human being on the planet this past week in watching The Dark Knight, I couldn't help but be stunned by the originality of the origin story surrounding the Joker -- or, rather, the lack of an origin story, and how completely satisfying the absence of narrative turned out to be. This is probably a good time to issue a spoiler alert, so if you haven't seen the film, know that I will be discussing plot details after the jump....
Let me take a moment to jump back to Batman Begins, the first of the Christopher Nolan Batman films. In that film, Nolan spent a good deal of time delving into Bruce Wayne's transformation into the Batman. It was an unusual choice, to have so many scenes of Christian Bale as a pre- or nascent Batman, often looking and acting quite differently than the caped crusader we've all come to know. The backstory on Bruce's trek to seek out spiritual and martial arts training provided not just depth and complexity to the narrative, but also a different motive for Bruce's actions. Rather than the familiar story of his adopting the Batman persona to avenge the death of his parents, Nolan's Bruce Wayne is additionally motivated by a sense of betrayal from his mentor, Ra's Al Ghul. It is telling that the film's climactic battle (or, more accurately, scene of destruction), is not between Batman and his parents' murderer (as it was in the first Tim Burton film), but between Bruce/Batman and Henry/Ra's. Put differently, Batman Begins ends not with a sense of completion but with a sense of ascendency. Although Bruce has, by that point in the film, donned the Batman cape for many adventures, it is only with Ra's death that he completes his own origin story. Spending the entire film reaching that point, instead of starting with it or simply assuming it, was a bold decision on Nolan's part and provided a sense of humanity to the Batman that had all but been lost (especially under the horrendous vision of Joel Schumacher). This was an origin story done just right.
Now, to The Dark Knight. With the Batman's origins established, one would think that we'd get an equally compelling take on The Joker's history. With all the discussion surrounding Heath Ledger's portrayal, I was expecting the movie to do something like the Tim Burton film, which was to show how The Joker went from a criminal to a demented mastermind. If the first film had taken such care to plot out the hero's transformation, then it seemed likely the most compelling nemesis of them all would receive no less attention.
But that's not what happens. The truly remarkable decision on the part of the filmmaker here is simply to have The Joker show up and not explain him. The director shows his hand early on, but it took me a while to fully appreciate it. Early on, when the bank robbers are talking about the guy who set it up, I was split 50/50. Either The Joker would be waiting outside, in some outlandish purple and green mega-car, or I thought he might be one of the robbers in disguise. But even suspecting that wasn't enough to prepare me for the reveal, when he takes off his mask and you see that The Joker didn't come from anywhere -- he was just there all along. It's his presence, not his mythology, that proves sufficient to cause a whole lot of damage.
That simple revelation seems to me to encapsulate The Joker's place within the narrative. The Joker is always on scene and ready to create chaos. Nolan uses this plot device repeatedly, and each time I found it amazing. The exemplar, for me, is the scene leading up to the chase through the underground highway. As a lone police officer approaches the parked semi to tell the driver he has to move on, The Joker suddenly pops out from behind the driver and shotguns the poor, unsuspecting officer. The Joker was there all along, just waiting to strike. He didn't come from anywhere, and he didn't go back to anywhere. He was just there. It's a shocking moment because of its suddenness, made all the more terrifying because there's no context for The Joker's action. Like the monster himself, his violence doesn't seem to come from anywhere; it's just always there.
But these ideas of omnipresence and a lack of an entry point are involved in the larger mythos of the narrative, as well. The Joker never lets his origins get pinned down. He tells TWO different stories about how he got his scars. Even his fingerprints lead the police to a different location than his lair. As he tells the Batman toward the end of the film, he simply is interested in creating chaos, which he does to perfection. It is also interesting to note here that much of the violence The Joker creates is not directly witnessed (the tunnel chase being an exception). When he leaves the three henchmen with the pool cue ultimatum, we do not see the end result of this violence. We don't see the cop whom he shoots. We don't see the victims in the hospital he blows up, either. But we always see him. He's just there, and everything else is invisible on the margins. By not giving The Joker an origin story that can actually pin him down, he becomes the more freewheeling, monstrous and, seemingly, unstoppable. There is nothing to explain or anchor his will to destroy, which adds to its destructive capacity. As The Joker himself insists -- quite seriously -- at one point in the film, he's not "crazy." I believe him. Crazy would mean that something happened to him -- something made him crazy. That would mean that he must have had a prior life, must have been something other than what he is now. But he has no history and no prior self. Therefore, he is not crazy. He is just The Joker.
One final scene to illustrate this point: After The Joker escapes from jail, he sits in the back of a stolen police cruiser, and leans out the window. The warm night air blows back his greasy mane, and The Joker looks quietly content. The scene itself takes place in near silence. There is no laughter, no explanatory speech about his prowess or the virtue of evil, just the camera showing us a truly disturbed presence in a rare moment of rest. Chilling. After seeing this person do so much violence, to see him looking peaceful and free creates a nightmare in my imagination. This is what he wants. This is what he is. This is who he is, and there's no more to the story.
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the film ended without a resolution for this character. In a literal and figurative inversion of the end of the Tim Burton Batman movie, in which The Joker plummets to his death after hanging from a wire, Nolan's Joker hangs from a wire (upside down, of course) but does not die. He just continues on -- without a beginning or an end.
After having some time to think about The Dark Knight, I'm convinced that Nolan's decision to present The Joker without an origin story -- or, at least, to confound the idea of an origin story whenever possible -- made the character and consequently made the film. I'm sure that this plot device would not have worked as well if it weren't for all the labor that went into the origin story in Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight certainly is helped by the immense and diffuse general knowledge of The Joker shared by the legion of fans who have patronized the film, and who are more than adequately equipped to fill in whatever blanks in story they feel necessary. But taken on its own terms, The Joker in this film makes few such concessions, nor seems to need them. His self-contained story is troubling enough, both to the sensibilities of cinematic audiences and to the sense of cinematic superhero narratives.
So, much praise to Nolan for taking the chance to tell The Joker's story without giving him an origin. Less is more.