Everyone loves origin stories, especially those that explore the beginnings of beloved characters in greater detail. While storytelling structures of yore would often place the origin story at the beginning of the story – as usually happens in real life – modern audiences like to be introduced to characters who are already somewhat possessed of their unique talents/powers and making their mark on the world. Once these characters become an industry fixture (when there is enough audience demand and profit potential) then prequels are made, delving deeper into the characters’ backstories to plot the course of how they got to where they were when they were first introduced.
Nearly ever iconic character in modern memory has had their story told in this flip-flopped way: Darth Vader, Batman, the X-Men, James T. Kirk, John Connor, Vito Corleone, and on and on. We are introduced to a memorable character in their full glory and we say, “Wow! How did they get here?” Of course, prequels are also a safe bet because studios and publishers never know how audiences will receive the continuation of a story, but if it’s known that audiences loved the character so far, it’s easier to tell the story that led up the awesomeness. Cha-ching.
Probably the biggest entry into the pop culture prequel library this year will be The Joker starring Joaquin Phoenix. Numerous Batman films and shows have explained how the Joker got to be who he is, but only enough to make him a competent bad guy to trade blows with the Dark Knight. One of the goals of prequels is to make the characters sympathetic and relatable (did you ever think you would see Darth Vader as a chubby-cheeked kid?) and judging from the trailers, The Joker seeks to do that, at least to an extent.
Everyone knows that the Joker is a bad guy, and it would be in poor taste to make the audience cheer for him (though this approach strangely worked for Tom Hardy’s Venom). Since we live in a world that delights in evil, people will cheer for the Joker regardless of his depravity. The movie studio knows this, and I have little doubt they will try to make the Joker as charmingly perverse as possible.
My question is: why are the origins of evil so fascinating? Why do we crave stories about corruption? There is no simple answer, but I think it strikes at the heart of our human nature; namely, that we are all born into sin. This sin manifests itself in countless ways but we recognize that seed of sin in others more depraved than we are and think, “Could that happen to me?” After all, we share the same dark seed. It could grow into a penchant for lying, drug addiction, or a psychotic murder spree. We see a character like the Joker (although he is fictitious, we only have to look at the evening news to find twisted psychopaths) and we wonder if people like us, who would never dream of actually murdering people with a clown smile, could somehow morph into a monster. Origin stories and prequels outline those steps, sometimes with frightening implications.
If we are children of God, we are dead to our sin natures (Rom. 6:11) but we are still living in this body of death, which yearns for its old nature. This is the struggle that Paul talks about in Rom. 7:14-25. As believers, sin no longer reigns over us, yet we are still dragging around its corpse, so to speak. And sometimes, our dead sin nature can still exert a powerful influence over us. Christians have been caught up in depravity and debauchery as perverse and horrifying as anything the secular and pagan worlds have experienced. We need to follow Paul’s command in Rom. 6:11 – consider ourselves dead to sin. In other words, believe it, because it is true.
Personally, I have little interest in finding out how a psychopath became psychotic. I’d rather not dwell on exactly how the seed of evil blossomed into this particularly hideous flower. But if you do enter the warped mind of the Joker, remember that the power that controls him holds no sway over you. You are free. Believe it.