Back in 2008, audiences attending Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins sequel, The Dark Knight, were blown away by the astonishing and very surprising tale of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Heath Ledger's performance was so good that it warranted an Oscar-win for the actor, although it was only given to him after his untimely death. It was a sad moment for audiences and fans, but even more so for family and friends.
His performance has since become an eternal stamp on the history of film-making and acting, and whether you loved it or hated it, it will always be talked about.
An Unfinished Story
Besides losing a talented actor, we were also at a loss as to the completion of the Joker's story. Many may not realize, but director Christopher Nolan had special plans for Joker in the conclusion of his Dark Knight Trilogy. I don't know how integral a role Joker was to have, but based on the performance he gave us in The Dark Knight, I can only imagine that his role would have really come to a head.
Perhaps we would have gotten a clearer look into his origin instead of him remaining a complete mystery to us all.
Now, I know that the novelization of The Dark Knight mentioned something in passing that he was the only person kept in Arkham Asylum when everyone was taken to Black Gate, and that he escaped at some point during the events of The Dark Knight Rises, but I feel that was a quick cop-out on the writer's part, as he was probably pressured to give some sort of update to where the Joker might have been during the events of the third film.
But honestly, I think it's safe to assume that the novelization doesn't reflect 100% what Christopher Nolan's original vision was for the character.
Truth be told, we'll never know. So I want to take some time and have fun speculating as to what Heath Ledger's Joker's origins might have been inside the Nolan-verse.
As every origin seems to go, I imagine that Joker's very own childhood might have been a tragedy. I picture a young boy living in the worst parts of Gotham and seeing the ugly side of life in his own family. His father, we'll call him "Jack," would have been a monster in his own right; overly critical, setting unrealistic expectations for those around him, and abusive.
The Joker himself, even alludes to this in the following clip:
This father of the Joker would have run with the criminal underworld of Gotham and caused havoc everywhere he went. I imagine that he might have even been a little high-up the food-chain in the criminal hierarchy that ran rampant in Gotham before Batman showed up.
Picture a man who, despite his respected position among his criminal peers, felt underrated, under-appreciated, and ready to take charge of everything. He does this slowly and over time, turning his boss' henchmen against him, even taking the man's own mistress for his own. But then things go south on the day he begins to make his move against the criminal boss, he sets up to kill the man but is found out by those still loyal to whoever's in charge. Things get hairy when the two men confront each other and blood is on the hands of every mobster in Gotham. It's like a dog-fight between Jack and the criminal boss he used to answer to and it ends with Jack sitting on the man's chest, beating the life out of his victim one punch at a time, until there's nothing left to hit.
But his victory in combat doesn't mean his victory in his conquest to rule Gotham, no, there are family members of Jack's victims, that family happens to be the Falcones.
He goes on the run and into hiding, out of town, and he packs his family with him as he sees them as useful for getting things done. He sinks down, deep into despair as he remains in hiding. Drinking every night, making little-to-nothing just to keep the lights on and his pathetic, useless family fed.
Then, just as the Joker says, he comes home "crazier than usual." He's the drunkest his ever been and the angriest. He's just killed a man in a bar fight and fled the scene before any police could arrive and he comes home to wife that is bickering and nagging (or at least in his mind) and useless son that's always shriveled up in a corner somewhere, starring wide-eyed at the monstrous father of his.
Things finally take a turn for the worse, tensions that have been building up are now creating a chain-explosion of anger out of everyone. Jack hits his wife once, it feels good, so he does it again. Finally, one good kick in the groin disables Jack temporarily just long enough for his wife to grab the knife. His anger flares up hotter than before, but with an eerie and deadly calm. The eyes of a killer lock onto his wife; the same eyes that the Falcones' dead family member saw the night his face was pounded into the fibers of his hideout; the same look the unlucky man at the bar saw hours before.
Jack: "What're you doing?"
Wife: "I'm not going to let you hurt me anymore! I'm not going to let you hurt our kid anymore! You're just a nobody with nothing! You're a loser who tries to blame everyone for all your problems! There's no one to blame but yourself, Jack! Because you're nothing but a joke!"
With those final words, Jack's wife lunged with the knife but wasn't quick on her feet nor had she ever engaged in a fight, the most she landed on him was a cut on his cheek, right where his lips come together, causing a crude, disfigured, unnatural smirk on the side of his face.
But the knife falls to the floor and Jack catches his wife by the hair and shoves her head into the cabinets and causing her vision to blur. He wipes the back of his hand against his cheek and looks at the blood. He begins to mumble to himself:
Jack: "I'm a joke. I'm a joke. I'm nothing but a joke. Why's everything got to be so serious? Why does everyone have to be so serious?
As the mumblings of a mad man continue, he bends over and picks up the knife, but before he stands up he looks and sees his son standing in horror at the scene in front of him. He says the words we all know:
Jack: "Why so serious?"
He stands up all the way and walks over to his wife, lying bloodied on the ground. She has no strength or will to fight back, mumbling the words over and over again as he begins to speak incoherent words under his breath and as he carves a bloodied smile in the cheeks of his screaming wife before plunging the blade in her chest.
Jack stands to his feet, the bloodied knife dripping on the floor, there's no emotion in his face at all, not at first. But as he continues to gaze down at his dead wife, he sees something: the odd mixture of glassy dead eyes starring at him that show nothing but horror and fear, but the bloody smile across her face is a contradiction. He begins to laugh maniacally, mumbling "why so serious" over and over again as he turns to his son. He grabs him by the throat and puts the blade in his mouth.
Son: "Dad, no!"
Jack: "Why so serious?"
Jack: "Why. So. Serious?!"
Ruthlessly, he carves two quick slits into the side of his own son's mouth when suddenly there's a crack like thunder. The world goes silent as Jack's son falls unconscious to the ground, blood trickling down both cheeks. Jack steps away and turns to see police officers, the one in front with a smoking barrel. Following the trajectory of the man's pointed gun, he looks down to see a hole in his chest. He looks back up at the police officers, whose eyes are filled with horror at the monstrous scene before them, and he chuckles and speaks his last words:
Jack: "Haven't you ever heard of the power of laughter?"
Then he falls to face first into the ground. The end of the first horrific chapter in a life full of horror for his son, who would one day be known as the Joker.
After the events of Jack's death his son was taken back to Gotham and lived a life with his aunt and uncle for a short time, but since they were deemed unfit to take care of a child, due to very disturbing domestic issues, Jack's son was placed in a Gotham orphanage. In this orphanage, he found himself getting into many scuffles with other kids. The kids would bully him due to the faint scars on his face from where his father'd cut him. They'd call him "smiley," "clown," and "joker."
There was never even a glimpse of hope that anyone would come and adopt the poor scarred child who was almost always covered in bruises and cuts. He learned to adapt though, most of the bullies at the orphanage were just meat-headed punks, but he was smarter and more cunning. He often found himself orchestrating cruel little traps for the other kids that hurt him to fall prey to. Life went on like this even into his teen years, he became the child that all the other kids feared, and even the adults felt strange around him due to his hostile aura.
Everyone now and then, someone would get brave and try to stand up to him but they found themselves at the ruthless end of this "joker's" mercy. Traps, fights, manipulation all only caused minor injury until the age of 17, when one of the adults in charge took to making this "punk-teen", whom now everyone was calling "Joker", answer for all of his offenses. He was taken outside in the middle of the night by this adult and some of the other kids who Joker had victimized. The anger in their kicks and punches was only increased when Joker began laughing maniacally.
Given up out of irritation and exhaustion, the Joker's attackers left him outside, bloodied and swollen, laughing like a mad-man. His laughs kept them up all night, gave them nightmares. But it was a few nights later that the nightmare became reality. Those involved woke up to find themselves in an unfamiliar ghetto in the Narrows. They were all stripped down to their boxers in an alley way with their hands tied behind their backs. Then, out of the shadows a came a clown with crudely painted make-up. He was dragging a tank of some sort with a mask attached to it. He forced the mask on his victims and doped them up on nitrous-oxide (laughing gas) and finally cut their bonds free and sent them stumbling through the Narrows...many didn't make it out alive. Some were so scared they'd committed suicide others, just simply disappeared.
The 17-year-old maniac had gone too far and was apprehended by police officers. He was then admitted into Arkham Asylum despite his age due to the horrendous acts of violence and terror he had been accused of. He spent five years there, constantly reopening the wounds with a broken piece of plastic from his bed and he would use the blood to paint smiles not only on his face, but on the walls, while writing things with the blood like "who's laughing now?", "this joke's a real killer", "why so serious?", and sometimes just writing a bunch of "ha! ha! ha!"'s on the walls.
Now let's piece another part of the puzzle of Joker's scars together by watching another clip from The Dark Knight.
It was at his six year anniversary, whenever Joker was given a new psychiatrist, she was prettier than even Joker had expected, but he wasn't going to be swayed by someone just because of their looks. He was too mentally strong to allow someone into his head like that.
But over time, he became familiar with this new psychiatrist and began to allow her to reach out to the darker and deeper parts of his past. In all of their years of closeness, a relationship was beginning to form. It was ethically, morally, and professionally wrong for the two to become romantic in any way, but things were changing for the better. This new psychiatrist didn't see Joker the way others there did, she knew the hurting boy underneath the facade. Joker was making changes to his own life and routine. He washed the writing on his cell walls as best he could and stopped cutting his scars open.
There was even a moment when this sweet psychiatrist pulled some string to get some plastic surgery done to Joker's face, all expenses paid by the Asylum. The surgery was pretty successful, the scars were barely visible, but due to the constant reopening of the scars and the infection that had set in time and again, there was always something hiding beneath the surface of the skin. I secret grin that you can only see if you looked hard enough.
Joker, now going by his real name, which remains unknown to us even now, was released from the Asylum after that surgery and he and his previous psychiatrist, Harleen Quinzel, were now free to become romantically involved without any rules or regulations.
The two got married a year after his release and things went well for the first year, but Harleen's husband began having nightmares, he was dreaming of the laughing clown in purple who kept writing on the walls the words of his father: "Why so serious."
Now, the man who was once known as Joker in the Asylum, had found a little job as a tailor, he wasn't bringing in the money to bring in the bread and butter for him and Harleen, but Harleen's pay was more than enough to get them by. But there were issues that both husband and wife were dealing with; he was becoming obsessive over his work, it was one of the first things, besides torturing and killing, that he was ever good at and would stay late and do work, plus it helped him keep his mind off of his vivid nightmares. Harleen on the other hand had begun to gamble. Harleen's father ran a casino in the Narrows under the supervision of Carmine Falcone and that was a life she never really wanted for herself growing up, but with her husband so preoccupied with distracting himself, she went began to play the stakes, often.
Arguments over each other's faults had ensued when Harleen had lost too much money and her husband had came home too late. She told him that he worked too much and that he needs to not be so serious all the time, she wants to see him smile more but she felt like she was totally disconnected from the man she fell in love with, the broken man who had found peace with his past. She went out in a rage began to gamble carelessly when she found herself in a heated mess. Her father had been "removed" from ownership of the casino whenever it was found out that he was going to start tipping the scales of the game in his daughter's favor. They killed her father and cut her face up.
When she came home, she was crying and screaming. She was so upset and her husband tried to do everything he could to calm her down, but nothing did. Days, weeks, and months went on with the two becoming completely distant, it was an ironic sort of "funny" that she now, was the one who bore scars across her face.
Then, one fateful night, the insanity takes over. The man we'd all come to know as the Joker has one of the most real dreams in his whole life. The blurry clown in purple who has been writing "why so serious" in blood now reveals himself and says the one line that Jack had said so many years ago, a line said with such viciousness that it made his son shove it out of his mind:
"Let's put a smile on that face!"
He woke up the next morning and he went into his bathroom before Harleen woke up. He took all the razors and removed the heads and shoved them in his mouth and rolled them against his cheeks, breaking the wounds that had been in healing for years. He made sure to provide a nice, defined cut on the outside as well. He stared at his reflection, the mad clown, the Joker. He began to laugh softly until it grew to a cackle.
Harleen, woken by the sound of his laughing, stumbled drowsily into the bathroom and asked:
Harleen: "What's so funny?"
Joker: "I realize that I've not been the nicest person to be around. I realize that you need someone who can make you laugh. Someone who can make you smile."
His back was still towards her as he hunkered over the sink. Harleen couldn't see past his should in the mirror to reveal the horror of Joker's face, but she saw the blood on the sink, she saw the blood on his fingers, and the bloodied razors that he had spit out carelessly onto the floor.
Harleen: "Oh my god, what have you done?!"
The Joker turned to her, his smile enhanced by the wide bloody scars carved into a malicious grin.
Joker: "I just want to see you smile. I want hear you laugh!"
Harleen: "You're insane!"
Joker: "No, darling, I'm in love."
The laughter that followed insinuated that that love was not true and possibly not even a love for her.
Joker: "This is who you fell in love with isn't? This is what you really want!"
Harleen: "I never wanted a freak! I never wanted a monster!"
Joker: "I'm not a freak. I'm the Joker!
Harleen: "No. No! Not again!"
Joker: "Harleen, come here...let's put a smile on that face!"
The Joker stalked towards her with a razor blade still clutched between his fingers. But Harleen took off running and screaming:
Harleen: "Stay away from me!"
She got down the stairs of her apartment complex but not before getting nabbed by the Joker and thrown against the wall. He pressed his weight against hers, holding the blade next to her face. She squirmed, her eyes clenched but the Joker just shushed her into a temporary calm.
Joker: "Harleen, look at me...
Harleen: "No, I don't want to!"
Joker: "Harley look..."
Joker: "LOOK! AT! ME!"
Harleen slowly turned her head to face her mad husband and she unclenched her eyes. There he stood, the Joker, her worst fears come to life. He smiled, deceptively lovingly at her before saying:
Joker: "Would it kill you to smile?"
The screams were heard all through the apartment complex, disturbed tenants stepped out of their apartments to find a dying Harleen lying on the stairs, her face carved with a smile. The insane laughing they heard when they found that poor woman, dying on the steps, would haunt them for the rest of their lives, which would unfortunately be very short as their apartment complex would go up in flames later that night.
Records of who Joker was have gone missing, anyone associated with him was either found dead or disappeared and thanks to the Scarecrow event near the Asylum, records were lost, torched, and trashed; that only left the orphanage the Joker grew up in. The place was set aflame and all its previous occupants who knew who Joker were, were hunted down and found dead with the same crudely drawn smiles carved into the sides of their faces.
Well, there's my origin for the Joker in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight universe. I have to say that I hadn't expected it to be as dark as it ended up, but it felt natural as I was writing. I know it was mostly written in story form, but that too, felt natural. The scars mentioned in the title, although an allusion to the facial damage the Joker has in the film The Dark Knight, are actually in reference more to the broken and scarred man underneath the face paint. I took a lot of inspiration from different elements of horror and suspense and thought it worked real well here, especially since it's all speculation.