Demolishing A Mystery, Or: Why I Never Want To Know The Joker’s True Identity

I’ll admit, this wasn’t what I was originally going to write about this week. I’d been working on something else, but then I saw this article on a sidebar: We are Finally Going to Learn The Joker’s True Identity! The moment I saw the title I knew I’d have to save my original topic about revisiting a childhood TV show to see how it fared now, and talk about this instead. I know this article is from a few months ago now, but the idea of it still bears discussion.

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From my own personal standpoint, I don’t think revealing the Joker’s identity is a good idea. And contrary to how I usually approach writing on a topic, I didn’t research it to see what the reveal was, who he is, and how this particular story resolved. So I can’t spoil anything as far as this goes or even tell you whether this was legitimate or was somehow twisted at that end so that we still don’t really know who he is. All I know is that apparently the reveal was supposed to be over the summer in Justice League #50. So why am I opposed to this idea? Let me elaborate:

For some characters, who they are and their journey is integral to relating to the character. For others, their appeal lies in the mystery of their identities or motivations. Let’s take for example another comic character with a mysterious past: Wolverine.

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Wolverine had no memories past a certain point outside of brief flashbacks. And that was an integral part of his character, the fact that he didn’t know exactly who he was and how he’d come to be the way he was. Enter November 2001, and the beginning of Wolverine: The Origin, a six-issue run that told you the real story of Logan. And in a way, having that story fleshed out, makes the character lose the mystique that made people love him (no pun intended). One reason why Wolverine is as compelling a character as he is because he is a man that doesn’t really know himself, and is constantly looking for answers as to his past. That pulls you in because you go on that journey with him and you don’t know any more than he does. To suddenly have that information (even if he doesn’t), invests you less in his search because you already know the answer.

So, I know you’re thinking, how does that relate to the Joker? Well, it’s a very similar situation, if not for the same reasons. The Joker is also a character, much like Wolverine, that does best with a certain mystery about him. The appeal of the Joker is not that you are searching for his past, but that he doesn’t need one. The mystique of him is that he’s not so much a character as a force, bound by no rules or confines of origin. Batman himself is bound by origin, by the death of his parents and his need to avenge or atone for it somehow. Spider-Man is bound by guilt, by great power and great responsibility, The Punisher by revenge and an unending war on the criminal element. The Joker has no real motive: is it to cause chaos? Just for fun? A twisted obsession with Batman, who is his opposite image? Even when the Joker is given an origin, you never know if it’s true or not. The Killing Joke gives a backstory to him (though no name), but how much of it is actually true? Were any of the Joker’s reasons in The Dark Knight for how he got his scars based on truth? I posit that it doesn’t matter if one or any of them are true or not, because that misdirection is so much more a part of Joker’s character than whatever his true origin is. He’s something that we can’t figure out, but more so, he’s something that Batman can’t figure out.

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Mystery is all well and good, but is that alone a good enough reason not to divulge the Joker’s real past? Perhaps not. After all, character reveals can have a profound impact on a franchise and provide a plot twist not only to throw audiences a curveball, but change the story immensely. One of the biggest examples of this is obviously the revelation about who Darth Vader really is. In that case, it propels the story forward and makes you look at the previous stuff in a different light. In Batman’s own universe, look no further for character reveals than Red Hood, first teased in Hush before later expanded into Under the (Red) Hood. Yes, sometimes solving a mystery can be very satisfying, but then what do you do? Once the big secret of the Joker’s name is out, what do you do with it? Does it become a sidenote, forgotten and not mentioned again? What impact does it have not only on the story, but on the greater scope of the character? I would suggest that in a way, it kills the character you know. I know that sounds a bit overdramatic, but hear me out. Let’s go back to the Wolverine example. Prior to the The Origin, we knew his name was Logan, he was Canadian, and had taken or been given the name Wolverine, possibly while being experimented on by the government. Origin takes one of those fundamental things right off the bat and discards it by letting us know that the name we’ve known the character as for the last thirty-odd years is wrong, replacing it with James Howlett. Apply that now to the seventy-plus years of history of the Joker, who is now [insert name]. You will never quite be able to disassociate the character from this identity that he didn’t really need in the first place.

I have one final reason as to why I never want to know the Joker’s identity, and it’s probably the most important one. Strange as it is to say, especially for me, I don’t want that story because I don’t want a story that humanizes the Joker. Even worse, I don’t want a background that not only humanizes him, but makes him relatable or even sympathetic. That is the worst thing that you could do to a character like Joker. I said it earlier, Joker is a force, an embodiment of chaos. And you need those characters too. There are so many villains that you can understand the motives of, can sympathize with: Loghain Mac Tir from Dragon Age, Mr. Freeze (especially from Batman: The Animated Series), or the MCU favorite, Loki. Let the Joker remain who he is, and more importantly, who he isn’t. Being the Joker is exactly who he needs to be. Nothing more, nothing less. Because as he said himself:

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So what do you guys think? Do you agree that there are some mysteries better left unsolved, or are/were you interested to see who the Joker really is? Do you think it will be something that sticks, or is it a short-term gimmick? Leave a comment below, and let me know!

5 Responses to Demolishing A Mystery, Or: Why I Never Want To Know The Joker’s True Identity

  1. dead on, Melmo. When the Highlander went for explanations, a reviewer wrote of the sequel–

    “There should have been only one.” Best review ever.

  2. The Atomic Punk

    I thought that Jack Napier was The Joker?

    @melmo: I agree with your point that The Joker is a force of chaos and shouldn’t be tied to an origin. That’s what made Heath Ledger’s Joker so awesome. He just shows up out of nowhere, has no motive, tells nothing but lies, and just runs amok.

    @HerrD: Yes! Some sequels don’t measure up to the original movie. Highlander‘s nearly buried it!

  3. I wouldn’t worry about them revealing the Jokers true identity. DC will just retcon it all during their next reboot in like (looks at watch) oh, two seconds time. Either that or they’re going to make it a massive twist and reveal that he was Uncle Ben all along… 😉
    And am I the only person who didn’t really like Highlander. It was ok, but nothing special. So the second one didn’t really ruin anything for me, even if it was terrible.

  4. Did we forgot to read when GreenL asked Batman what the chair said. Bats said it said their was 3.

    So the article is in error. The chair didn’t give a name. It just said their was 3 different jokers.