Editor’s note: The story below has spoilers for The Batman. Proceed with caution.
I had hope for The Batman, y’all. I really did. I was so excited when the trailers revealed that the movie’s Big Bad wouldn’t be the Joker, but, to quote Vulture’s Rebecca Alter, “that riddling little freak Paul Dano.” Finally! A solo Batman movie that didn’t need that ridiculous, overdone “hE’s cRAzY” laugh bookending every scene!
Well, now I’ve got egg on my face. Sure, I mostly enjoyed watching Dano’s take on the Riddler, despite the distraction of his very out-of-place glasses and multiple people in my screening last weekend straight up laughing at his rendition of “Ave Maria.” But I also could not stop thinking about the Joker the entire time. You could just have renamed this iteration of the Riddler “the Joker,” and nothing about The Batman would have changed. Sick sense of humor? Check. Weird laugh? Check. Shoe-horned musicality? Check!
I will be fair and say that at this point in the history of Batman movies, it’s actively difficult to avoid passing a Joker trademark onto a villain. While the Riddler’s main bag was his eponymous riddles, that’s the bare minimum for earning the right to call the Riddler, well, the Riddler. Dano’s version is basically what would happen to the Joker if he had taken high school Spanish classes and spent way too much time on Twitch. And not only is the word game–obsessed freak way too Jokerified, but director Matt Reeves also caved to the trend at the last possible second and still put the actual Joker on screen right alongside the Riddler—really driving home how little difference there was between the two characters.
Citizens of cinema-going, the time has come to face reality. We had Jack Nicholson in 1989, Heath Ledger in 2008, J*red L*to in 2016, and Joaquin Phoenix in 2019. Now, because Batman movie watchers will never find peace, we have Barry Keoghan putting on the face paint in 2022. Admit it! That’s too many Jokers!
Some collision of capitalism, culture, and caped crusaders aplenty has created a lot of armchair experts with Batman opinions. I don’t usually count myself as one of them, because I barely remember the Nolan trilogy and thus don’t think I have much cred, but I do know this to be true: The Joker did not need to be done again in mainstream film after 2008. My terrible memory aside, Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance is the definitive take on the character. Combined with his death before The Dark Knight’s release, Ledger’s Joker should have kept the guy off screen for a good long while—at least out of respect for a job well done. But if that wasn’t going to work, surely L*to’s reviled turn in Suicide Squad should have put the final nail in the cackling psychopath’s coffin. Alas, the movie that was solely about the Joker—you may remember it; it was called Joker—did gangbusters at the box office, won some Oscars, and solved social inequality, so here we are. Doomed to Jokerity for as long as we’re doomed to superhero movies.
Like most people who are wrong about themselves, I consider myself a realist. I won’t dedicate a ton of space to writing about the wider phenomenon of superhero or cinematic-universe fatigue, but I do feel it. Yet I acknowledge that sometimes these movies can be enjoyable, so I’ll still see at least a few of them. And I’d really, really appreciate it if I didn’t have to be jump-scared by yet another version of the clown prince of crime every time I cave and decide to go see the bat guy do his thing.
That said, the Joker is an iconic character that a lot of people love. When used effectively, he can act as a very much needed foil for Batman’s unrelenting brooding. Surely it must be possible to have a good mainstream, post–Dark Knight Batman movie with the Joker in it that isn’t really, really annoying!
Yes, dear reader, it is possible. Case in point: The Lego Batman Movie.
What Lego Batman gets right is that Joker isn’t yet another stand-in for how gritty, grimy, and unsalvageable Gotham is. Lego Joker, voiced by Zach Galifianakis, is a fun dude for whom taking over Gotham is basically a game—but not the sick, unpleasant kind that involves grotesque pencil tricks or leading questions about his scars. Instead, Lego Joker just focuses on having a good time. He causes trouble, but he skips the sadism, instead gravitating toward flashy theatrics and colorful chaos. He even helps save Gotham from his own villainy. He is partly defanged because this is a kids’ movie, but Joker has done some disturbing stuff in kids’ media too—this was a conscious, very welcome choice. The movie convinced me that Joker—or any other Batman villain—doesn’t just have to be a murderous psychopath, even if most filmmakers disagree.
Unfortunately, the current trend of Batman movies with Batman is forfeiting color and fun in favor of realism, death, and buckets of rain. And the current approach to the Joker is making a lot of money, so there’s not much of an incentive to try something new.
That said, there is still hope of freedom from grimdark Joker’s tyrannical grip on Batman movies. The Batman will probably get a sequel or (ugh) trilogy, but the future is not written yet, and Reeves hasn’t decided what he’s going to do next. There’s still time to correct course and get rid of the Joker, let alone his influence on his fellow evil Gothamites. I don’t know, focus on someone like the Penguin—His Waddling Eminence was right there in The Batman! Bring Mr. Freeze back and try to make that gritty and realistic; it would make me laugh very hard. Margot Robbie clearly loves being Harley Quinn; why not have her stop by more often? Or here’s a wild concept: Invent a new villain! Gotham’s a big place with a lot of possible scumbags, not just the same three or four that get recycled every few years.
Matt, you can still fix this. Be brave! Bin the Joker and let someone else have a turn. (I’m happy to hear you’re working on a show starring the Penguin, for starters.) And release Barry, who should probably know better than to join a superhero movie after Eternals.