Masks-&-Mobsters

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It’s Time To Elevate Gotham’s Jerome To The Full Joker

This Monday, Fox’s pre-Batman drama series “Gotham” wraps its winter run with the full, ferocious return of Jerome. Now, fans of the show are undoubtedly excited about the development, but casual comic book types are likely asking a simple question. “Who the Hell is Jerome?”

This is what you’d call a problem.

For three years, “Gotham” has worked hard to prevent itself from committing to any one portrayal of the Joker – the Dark Knight’s indisputable arch nemesis and perhaps the fan favorite supervillain of all time. But over the past two seasons, the show has also elevated recurring guest star Cameron Monaghan’s unhinged, circus-born serial killer Jerome Valeska to a major foe. With pasty-white skin, an ear-to-ear grin and a cackle that could curdle blood, Jerome has been one of the most memorable additions to a show that’s often in desperate need of crowd-pleasing moments.

So why not just call him the Joker? Despite “Gotham’s” insistence that it’s entire run will be an origin story for the Batman’s world, there are plenty of reasons that this one particular piece be put in place now. Below, CBR runs down six reasons why turning Jerome into the purple-suited Clown Prince of Crime will make the character and the TV show stronger.

Joker’s Nonexistent Past Is Hardly Canon

It can be argued that there’s never been a definitive origin story for who the Joker was before he gained his repulsive rictus. But don’t believe people who tell you that the villain has never had or should never have an origin tale. It’s not just that “Detective Comics” #168’s legendary story “The Man Behind The Red Hood!” gave us the most accepted version of Joker’s “thrown in a vat of acid by Batman” origin (written by co-creator Bill Finger, no less). Over the years, dozens of comic creators have filled in bits of Joker’s backstory, from Alan Moore to J. Michael Straczynski, though they’ve often left specific details vague.

Only since Christopher Nolan’s film “The Dark Knight” have people embraced the idea of a Joker who aggressively denies any true past as canonical. This may have been inspired by his initial, origin-less appearances, but back then, such things simply weren’t stated — like most comic villains of the era. So anyone who claims that Jerome’s origin of murdering his mother before going kill-crazy breaks some kind of rule established by the villain’s creators is missing a whole lot.

More importantly, film and TV versions of the character have been happy to create the character’s full backstory when it suits them – most famously the “mobster who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents” angle in Tim Burton’s classic 1989 “Batman” movie. And stories like that – while usually much more widely seen than any comic book – have done little to blunt the impact of the Joker as a character all his own. Nobody today expects that making Jerome the Joker full-on would somehow taint the character or irrevocably alter how he’s portrayed in the comics.

Every Other Faux-Joker On “Gotham” Has Failed

Aside from the “making Jerome the Joker wouldn’t really hurt the character” case, there are plenty of great reasons why making this happen is a positive thing. First and foremost is the fact that ever other attempt “Gotham” has made at channeling the Ace of Knaves has fallen way flat.

Longtime viewers of the show will recall that in its early episodes, “Gotham” peppered in “potential Jokers” all over the place from failing comedians to frustrated family men. It was such an awkward, story-killing bit of business that the producers soon dropped it all together from their creative arsenal. Later, when the series attempted to revive a piece of Joker canon with the Scott Snyder/Greg Capullo-inspired Red Hood gang, the resulting mask mobsters were completely devoid of personality. Recent attempts to revive the Red Hood angle have fared no better.

Worst of all, since Jerome landed on the show and totally stole the scene from nearly every other plotline, the writers’ initial premise that his (since overturned) death would inspire mass insanity across the city has been a dropped ball. Even when they picked that idea back up as a way to reintroduce Jerome, the story pretty much went out of its way to show how no one would ever be as good as him.

So if the acid-squirting flower fits this guy so well, why not let him wear it?

Harley Quinn’s Impending Intro Is Flawless Timing

The producers of “Gotham” have made it no secret that they’ll be introducing their version of DC’s most popular female character later this season (sorry, Diana, but you know that Truth is Truth). But with some version of Harley Quinn in the offing, the big question becomes, what is there even worth doing with this character before there’s a Joker on the scene? In almost every major Harley story of all-time, the character is played as mild-mannered public servant until Joker unleashes the crazy within her. If “Gotham’s” past is any indication, their solution could be something as bland as a forgettable psychiatrist who occasionally says things like, “I can’t wear red lipstick…that’d be crazy!”

But putting Harley center stage right when Jerome steps into the real Joker role not only solves these problems, it opens up some scary good story directions. Imagine a season of the show where fans get to see the famous Harley origin story “Mad Love” writ large – a mash-up of “Natural Born Killers” and Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie where Jim Gordon and company are hopelessly outmatched? It leans into “Gotham’s” very best tendency for absurd action (and over-acting) rather than more lame attempts at making this madcap world feel “real” (whatever that means).

The Show Is At Its Best When It Goes Full Comic Book

Cementing the argument for Jerome as Joker is the fact that “Gotham” only really connects with the wider fandom when it fully embraces comic book identities. Remember when Ed Nygma was a nerdy annoyance who just said the word “Riddle” three times in a scene before being totally forgotten? That all ended when he finally was given motivation to strike back at Jim Gordon and went all-in planting Riddler-inspired clues and bombs across the city. Since then, the villain has been one of the most enjoyable members of the show’s ensemble.

And it’s not an accident that Oswald Cobblepot has remained both the most beloved member of the show’s cast at the same time as he’s been the only character graced with his comic book alter ego of the Penguin. From his crafty takeover of Gotham’s mayoralty to the way he’s weaseled through a crime world that considers him an outsider, this Oswald is virtually indistinguishable form his four-color counterpart. (Okay, maybe add 60 pounds, but otherwise…)

When you compare these fully fledged supervillain turns to the numerous also-rans in “Gotham’s” history (Balloonman, that awful Wall Street reinvention of Black Mask, the dead end Scarecrow story), it’s clear that the show’s creators find more fun to be had when tweaking comic book character’s identities – not just teasing them. At this point, Jerome doesn’t have to be quite the dapper danger we think of when we see the classic Joker. But giving him a name and a “first draft” version of the purple costume would feel earned after so much pussyfooting.

The Supervillain’s Influence Would Cement The Need For Batman

From the first episode of “Gotham,” the show has been caught in a massive Catch-22 scenario. If the series main plot is ostensibly about Jim Gordon and company’s attempts to be white knights in a city full of black-hearted crooks, how could it possibly end in a satisfying manner? On the one hand, Jim fails, and the entire show is a tragic waste of the audience’s time. On the other hand, if Gordon succeeds there’s actually no reason for Bruce to become Batman.

Watching the Joker fully rise up as a new kind of criminal threat alters this landscape in a way that truly prepares viewers for the birth of the Dark Knight. If Jerome takes charge in turning the show’s drab mobsters into insane supervillains, then Jim Gordon totally realigning the GCPD into a fighting force for good still comes up short without totally undercutting its ultimate redemption arc. Plus, the young Bruce Wayne will be given sufficient motivation for taking his quest for justice outside the law (right now, he’s got a pretty good example of police work being a righteous path in Jim). It’s a win-win for the show’s ultimate endgame.

This Show Needs the Lift That Joker Could Provide

Finally, “Gotham” needs to make Jerome the Joker because it needs to finally give people a reason to care about it. The Fox network is traditionally pretty shifty on supporting genre entertainment over the long haul, and while this DC series has fared better than the average “Dollhouse” due to its comic book roots, the show has slipped in the ratings compared to the rock-solid (and admittedly more forgiving) numbers its CW counterparts pull. With an impending “X-Men” TV series that Fox will own a bigger part of in the works, there’s no reason for the network to support the Batman’s world over many more seasons unless it delivers something big for ratings and buzz.

Plastering a fully-fledged Joker on the side of a bus at San Diego Comic-Con might seem like a shameless cash grab (because it would be!), but in the cold hard facts of the crowded superhero TV marketplace, it’s also a no-brainer.

Plus, for all the reasons explored above, adding the Joker to the show full time will be a major creative boon as well, and “Gotham” needs that more than any other show in years. While the series has undoubtedly improved from its absolutely wretched first season, it’s never gotten more than mediocre in quality. Jerome as the Joker provides the wild energy that the series has always flirted with and a marketing shot in the arm that could let this series go down as a worthy piece of Batman storytelling.