Rant: My Theory On The Joker’s Identity In The Dark Knight

It’s time for a rant about Batman.

OK, so I’ve been thinking this over for a while now and I’ve finally come up with enough evidence and clues to support my theory on the Joker’s identity in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love the character as a complete mystery, and he’s much more scary when you have no idea why he’s doing what he’s doing, or where he came from. But I just couldn’t get this idea out of my head, and I’d like to share it just in case people enjoy thinking about it as much as I do.

I’m not sure where to start so I’ll just state the theory first (because I’m terrible at foreshadowing) and then provide my supporting evidence/clues.

In Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”, the identity of the Joker is none other than Dick Grayson.

Try to spot the difference.

Try to spot the difference.

Let me explain:

Those of you familiar with the comics should know how Dick Grayson was first introduced. He was a young performer in a family of acrobats called The Flying Graysons, part of Haly’s Circus. The story goes that Haly’s Circus had ties to the criminal underworld, and when they arrived in Gotham a mob boss called Anthony Zucco confronted the ringmaster, demanding protection money as well as the use of the circus’ trucks and equipment to transport drugs. The ringmaster refuses, and in retaliation the mob sabotage the trapeze equipment of the Flying Graysons, Haly’s most popular act, causing Dick’s parents to fall to their deaths. Bruce Wayne happened to be in the audience, and takes young Dick Grayson under his (bat) wing, and under his care Dick Grayson becomes Robin The Boy Wonder.

Now, parts of my theory are completely the product of my imagination, but I like to think that even those parts aren’t so farfetched as to detract from the theory itself. Other parts of my theory are speculative obviously, and are possibly more opinion-based than pure fact. But other than that, I’ve spent a while on this theory and I’m incredibly happy with it, the more I think about it the more I’m convinced it makes sense. So, I’ll make my case now.

There was a book released as an in-universe reference for the Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy, called the Dark Knight Manual.

The Dark Knight Manual

It took me a while to notice because as a Batman fan I was mostly preoccupied with the Waynetech blueprints and schematics for Batman’s gadgets and vehicles. Also, the book came out around the same time as the final film, so I was less focused on The Joker at that time. But when I finally did get around to looking through his case file, I noticed something very interesting:

Joker Identity

That’s the majority of the foundation for my theory right there. The “Haley Brothers Circus” was in Gotham for a short period of time leading up to the events of The Dark Knight. If you use a little imagination, you can extrapolate that Dick Grayson origin story from before, and (only changing a few minor details), you can get a really good idea of how Dick Grayson fits into this world:

Dick was a young performer in a family of acrobats called The Flying Graysons, part of The Haley Brothers Circus. The Circus had ties to Sal Maroni, and when they arrived in Gotham, Maroni confronted the ringmaster, demanding protection money as well as the use of the circus’ trucks and equipment to transport drugs. The ringmaster refuses, and in retaliation Maroni sends a hit man to sabotage the trapeze equipment of the Flying Graysons, the Haley Brothers’ most popular act, causing Dick’s parents to fall to their deaths. In this version, Bruce Wayne was nowhere to be found, and Dick Grayson is left alone after witnessing his parent’s murder.

A couple things I’d like to make particular note of:

*Dick Grayson in this version is older (around the age he would’ve been when he became Nightwing in the comics), as the transition from grieving orphan to deranged killer is pretty short.

*I’m adding a few bits I completely made up from now on, but it makes sense in a weird sort of way.

Now, onto the next bit of the story:

Here’s where it deviates from the comic book origin story (obviously). Now, since Dick Grayson is much older in this version out of necessity, I like to think that he was the same kind of man that he would have been (as Robin/Nightwing) under Batman’s guidance. This means he would’ve taken a more active role in the events leading up to his parent’s deaths.

What I had in mind is that basically Dick actively helps with the running of the circus, being a huge part of the most popular act and being an intelligent, driven young man. So Dick was present when Sal Maroni threatened the ringmaster, and (being new to Gotham) decided to go to the police. Maroni knew this and sent a hit man to take care of Dick and send a message to the circus employees that it’s not OK to defy the mob in Gotham. The police in Gotham predictably did absolutely nothing to help Dick. Basically, this hit man intercepts Dick Grayson on his way back from the police and captures him. Now, Maroni wanted the Graysons destroyed well and truly, and gives this hit man leave to use some creativity. Unfortunately for Dick Grayson, this man was very, very creative. He had sabotaged the trapezes that the Graysons used ahead of time, and also set up cameras in the circus. He had tied Dick to a chair facing a set of monitors linked with the cameras. He then made Dick Grayson watch as his parents fell to their deaths. After that, the hit man cut a Glasgow Smile into Dick Graysons face, so that he would be forever laughing at his parent’s deaths, whether he wanted to or not. Before the hit man could finish his job, Dick fought furiously, and managed to escape from the chair and kill the hit man who killed his parents. But it wasn’t enough. The hit man was a monster, but Sal Maroni ordered the deaths of the Graysons, and the Gotham Police Department did nothing to prevent it.

So, irreversibly scarred both psychologically and physically, Dick Grayson dresses as a clown to remind the people he’s going after of the circus that created him, and starts to view life as a sick joke full of chaos and anarchy as a way to distance himself from the damage done to him. He targets the mob and the heads of justice in Gotham, and sets out to prove (mostly to himself, but also to Batman) that anyone else would’ve done the same had they been in his position.

Dick Grayson – from young go-getter, to part of the Flying Graysons, to broken, psychotic killer clown

Dick Grayson – from young go-getter, to part of the Flying Graysons, to broken, psychotic killer clown

Also worth mentioning is this little throwaway comment on the Joker’s MO:

Joker MO

“The Joker’s go-to tactic involved putting his enemies’ loved ones in peril.”

That’s a nice little parallel to what I’m proposing is the Joker’s backstory, right? Since a part of his motivation is trying to prove that “madness is like gravity, all it needs is a little push”, I think he’s trying to inflict upon his targets the same trauma he went through himself to show that if anyone else had’ve been in his shoes they would’ve turned out the same way.

A few more things that I feel add up in the movie:

*A travelling circus performer would be very difficult to identify. This would explain why the GCPD couldn’t find any trace of the Joker’s name or any aliases.

*The Joker’s apparent death wish in the scene where he’s egging Batman on: “Hit me. C’mon, hit me, I want you to do it… HIT ME!”, while this is a bit morbid, it sort of works that after losing everything and after causing a lot of damage to the mob and the justice system in Gotham, he has nothing left to live for.

*There’s a scene in the interrogation room where the Joker says “who did you leave him with, hmm? Your people? Assuming of course they are still your people, and not… Maroni’s.” The emphasis the Joker puts on Maroni’s name shows his distaste for the man, which links nicely to Maroni being the one who caused all the trouble for the Haley Brothers Circus.

*”I don’t wanna kill you! What would I do without you?” – To me, purely in the context of this theory, this could be the Joker saying that he knows Batman will bring the mob down and actually enforce justice, which is his ultimate goal (in a much more selfish and amoral way). This is a bit weak but I think it kinda works.

*Another line from the interrogation room: “you COMPLETE me.” He puts a LOT of emphasis on that one. Batman and Robin, Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, for a very long time in the comics, inseperable. You could say they COMPLETE each other…


Now, for those of you thinking “Dick Grayson could never go THAT bad, you’re totally bullshitting everyone here!”, I’d really like to point out it actually TOTALLY FUCKING HAPPENED IN THE COMICS.

Also he looks like this, because Frank Miller never wants you to sleep soundly again.

Also he looks like this, because Frank Miller never wants you to sleep soundly again.

In Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Series (has the same name, weird right?), Dick Grayson becomes the second Joker after a massive falling out between him and Batman. It’s incredibly important that you know that Nolan’s series of films was heavily influenced by Batman: Year One AND The Dark Knight Returns, two of the graphic novels in Frank Miller’s series. So obviously Nolan knew about this interesting little twist.

Also, there are several references throughout the movies to other characters that Nolan couldn’t give proper screen time to:

*A certain Wayne Enterprises employee who figures out Batman’s real identity, and is referred to as “Mister Reese”, aka Mysteries (kinda like how The Riddler is called E. Nygma, aka Enigma)

*Victor Zsasz has a small role in Batman Begins, you can see the “tally marks” on his neck

*The obvious and painfully unnecessary “my legal first name is Robin” scene in TDKR

*Blake’s throwaway line about “Giant Alligators” in the sewers of Gotham, a fun little joking reference to Killer Croc

*Lucius Fox says “what brings you out of Cryo-Sleep, Mr Wayne?” – a possible (albeit weak) reference to Mr Freeze

* Roland Daggett of Daggett industries has a minor role (although he was renamed John Daggett) – Daggett industries is the company responsible for the creation of Clayface

*Henri Ducard is actually a separate character in the comics, one of the experts who trains a younger Bruce Wayne while he’s travelling the world before becoming Batman

*Barsad, Bane’s right-hand-man, is a sniper and heavy arms expert. He is always shown wearing a bulletproof vest which has large bullets on it and a red scarf – a possible reference to DeadShot (although Deadshot’s real name is Floyd Lawton)


So you can see there are a lot of examples of Nolan making subtle references to characters within Batman’s world. My theory may be a little wordy, but it would make sense that Nolan would want to reference such a huge character, and the fact that the Haley Brothers Circus is specifically mentioned (albeit in a tie-in book rather than the actual films) is a huge tip off to me since the only time Haly’s Circus shows up in the comics is during Dick Grayson’s origin story.

Another reason I feel this story fits in with the movie (and the whole trilogy) is that a running theme throughout The Dark Knight is heroes turning into villains, as perfectly summed up by Harvey Dent (who goes through a similar trauma and emerges a villain also): “you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. I also think it’s a wonderfully tragic reason for Batman to have no idea who the Joker really is: He wasn’t present at the circus the night it happened, and was not aware of what Dick Grayson was going through. In the comics, when Joker was finally given a backstory, Batman was directly involved; but I like that in this case, The Joker was created from a distinct lack of Batman. Again, it’s just amazingly tragic that Batman could have turned him into a hero despite Dick going through the exact same horrible trauma, if he’d only been there.


So there you go, that’s my take on the Joker’s origin in the Nolanverse.

Thanks for reading, let me know what you think in the comments section!

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