Spoiler Warning: This article reveals plot points about The Batman.
Towards the end of The Batman, the new Matt Reeves-directed film starring Robert Pattinson as reclusive billionaire Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, there’s a scene that both puts a button on the story—and sets up an inevitable sequel. His evil plan foiled , the serial killer who calls himself Riddler (Paul Dano) despairs in his Arkham cell. Except he’s not alone. Another inmate, who’s apparently had a little time to settle in and get used to the place, offers a riddle of his own, one that doubles as a pledge of friendship. The prisoner goes unnamed but overt dialog about clowns, a fleeting close-up of his scarred face, and a high-pitched cackle doesn’t leave much room for ambiguity. Played by Barry Keoghan, he’s unmistakably the Joker, Batman’s most famous foe.
Did anyone else let out a little sigh of disappointment?
Part of what makes The Batman so exciting is Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig’s decision to eschew the obvious, either by reconceptualizing familiar characters (like Dano’s Zodiac Killer-inspired Riddler) or via thoughtful performances from Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz (as Selina Kyle/Catwoman), Jeffrey Wright ( as not-yet-Commissioner Gordon), Colin Farrell (as The Penguin) that make them seem fresh. The absence of a well-worn antagonist like the Joker helped give the film — and Gotham citizens on both sides of the law — more breathing room as it unspooled a killer clown-free mystery.
It also spared the film from dwelling on a character who’s become as nearly as overexposed as, well, Batman himself. It speaks highly of The Batman that the movie makes Batman feel vital despite the heavy echoes of David Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac and the debt it owes to the battle-for-the-city’s soul themes of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. We’re ten years removed from Nolan’s final film, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. In the ensuing decade we’ve seen Ben Affleck’s Batman in Batman V Superman: The Rise of Justice and Justice League (and in the upcoming The Flash). We’ve also seen a plethora of other Batman and Batman-adjacent projects like the TV series Gotham, Jokerand The LEGO Batman Movie. That list doesn’t even include many direct-to-streaming animated movies released in the same stretch, to say nothing of Batman’s inescapability in the medium that made him famous in the first place: comics. That’s a lot of sneering, Batarang-throwing, and parent-morning. It might even seem like too much, if we didn’t keep coming back for more (and The Batman‘s $128.5 million dollar opening weekend suggests we’re not yet tired of him).
But does a new Batman necessarily mean we have to revisit the Joker? There are plenty of reasons not to tell another Joker story, at least not yet. For starters, Batman’s rogues gallery goes much deeper than the familiar names featured in The Batman. Nolan’s Batman Begins, which featured Ra’s Al Ghul and Scarecrow, proved that Batman doesn’t have to be pitted against household names for a movie to work. Why not bring in a villain who’s never had a moment in the movie spotlight instead, like Mad Hatter, Red Hood, or, going even deeper, Professor Pyg? (HBO Max’s Harley Quinn has found unexpected depths in perennial Z-lister Kite Man. It can be done.) Or maybe it’s time to give a villain who didn’t have the best introduction a second chance. Should Poison Ivy suffer forever because of Batman & Robin?
There’s also a bigger question: Is there anything left to do with the Joker? Created in 1940 by some combination of writer Bill Finger and artists Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson (who exactly did what remains a murky issue, though Kane’s history of taking credit for others’ work has been well established), Joker began as a crazed, merciless killer. In the decades since he’s been interpreted a campy, cackling clown (as played by Cesar Romero on the 1960s TV series) a calculating nihilist (as played by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight) and everything in between, including, the needy, co-dependent Joker voiced by Zach Galifianakis in The LEGO Batman Movie and the abusive boyfriend played by Jared Leto in Suicide Squad. No one’s created the definitive Joker, but at this point how much is left to explore?