Last week, Hangover director Todd Phillips began revealing his upcoming Joker origin story. It looked… pretty good, actually! Joaquin Phoenix, playing the titular role, morphs ably from a dejected everyman to a deranged everyman with clown paint on his face. Zazie Beetz, playing a single mother who serves as the Joker’s love interest, appears wrapped in a chunky sweater, gazing off-camera forlornly. All the imagery (as well as the guerrilla clips from on-set) have an earth-toned, ’70s New York grit to them, recalling the early collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, both of whom are involved with Phillips’ movie. Then, on Sunday, as if goaded by the positive response to Phillips’ reveals, the writers behind a separate Joker movie, reuniting Jared Leto’s screamo frontman Joker with his Stockholm syndrome-but-cute partner Harley Quinn, began leaking details of their own movie, a deranged comedy caper that couldn’t sound more different than the Phoenix project. It apparently begins with a Dr. Phil cameo, a quality it will share with Scary Movie 4.
So, why exactly are there two Joker movies in concurrent production? The obvious answer is that the DC Cinematic Universe, such as it is, is a mess. Launched in earnest with 2013’s Man Of Steel, it was intended to mirror the Marvel Cinematic Universe, creating clusters of mini-franchises that would ladder into a single, zeitgeist-dominating mega-franchise. It’s worked swimmingly for the Marvel movies, which have collectively earned $17.5 billion dollars and mostly positive critical responses, but not so hot for DC, which has earned almost exactly as much as the Despicable Me cinematic universe ($3.7 billion) and been mostly savaged critically. Last year, following the relative failure of Justice League and the success of Wonder Woman, DC began repositioning itself as a more director-driven company, less obsessed with the “shared universe” concept. A New York article revealing these plans hinted at “an as-yet-unnamed side label of occasional movies that are completely separate from everything else, set entirely outside the cinematic universe. Total stand-alones based on good ideas from big-name filmmakers.”
The two Joker films, then, represent these two ideas, with the Phoenix-Phillips project at the vanguard of the “side label” and the Leto-Hot Topic project a lingering vestige of the Zack Snyder-helmed Marvel competitor. The more interesting question, though, may be why DC is steering both strategies through this particular character—an antagonist—when it has two iconic good guys to choose from. But, at least in terms of film and TV, the Joker has sort of unexpectedly become DC’s crown jewel. Superman’s ineffable goodness hasn’t been capably captured in theaters since Christopher Reeve, although Dean Cain and Tyler Hoechlin have brought him to life winningly on the small screen. The character of Batman has endured listless manifestations by George Clooney, Val Kilmer, and Ben Affleck, and even the otherwise-superlative Christopher Nolan movies were more interested in broader themes and villainous arcs than they were their supposed protagonist. Hell, his name didn’t even make the title of two of those movies.
The Joker, though, has at least four iconic portrayals: the vaudevillian ’60s TV performance by Cesar Romero; Jack Nicholson’s unhinged preening for Tim Burton; Mark Hamill’s cackling cartoon rendition; and Heath Ledger’s art-damaged nihilist. Even Jared Leto’s reviled version popped out of the otherwise-incomprehensible Suicide Squad, and, in the currency of the internet at least, remains a viral fascination, bad tattoos and all. All those preposterous behind-the-scenes stories about Leto—mailing costars used condoms and anal beads and farting on them while they slept or whatever—played into the Hollywood appeal of the role. When Ledger was first cast, Nicholson’s shadow loomed large, but the actor responded by going method, spending weeks alone in a room perfecting the mannerisms and psychoses of his character. His death before the movie’s release cemented the certainty of a successor, but also a certain all-in intensity to its portrayal. Leto’s method affectations were an attempt to live up to not just the Joker, but to Ledger.
Phoenix, a brooding and committed performer, is better suited to the challenge, and there’s something darkly alluring about the notion of watching him go off the deep end here. “Mostly, it scares the fucking shit out of me,” he told Collider of the role. “It might as well be the thing that scares you the most.” The Joker’s as pure a sociopath as we have in popular culture, a manifestation of the human capacity for evil that keeps rearing his caked, cackling face in cineplexes. Other iconic nerd-culture villains are defined by a misguided philosophy (Magneto, Thanos) or an eventual redemption (Darth Vader), but the Joker is incorrigible, unchangeable. He’s Sauron but laughing. This is at least part of why Ledger’s performance was co-opted by a generation of edge-lords, not as some sort of antihero but as a philosophical guide. He’s the patron saint of doing it for the lulz. In a popular culture increasingly full of flawed antiheroes and comic book good-guys, the Joker is a pulsing black hole of malevolence, with just enough comic appeal to draw us in. Some men truly do want to watch the world burn, but the rest of us still enjoy watching him try to set it on fire.
On the other hand, there’s a reason the Joker tells Batman in The Dark Knight’s central interrogation, “You complete me.” The notion of two Joker movies sans Batman threatens to unmoor the character’s central appeal, the tension between an “unstoppable force” and an “immovable object,” as he puts it in the movie’s closing monologue. Both movies need him to be relatable, possibly even a protagonist. Both give him a humanizing love interest. Phillips’ gritty reboot threatens to turn him into some sort of antihero, and Leto’s ongoing collaboration with a can of Axe Body Spray will only centralize his madcap appeal while neutralizing the menace it facilitates. DC’s decision to take a few cues from the latter-day X-Men universe and let skilled directors etch out their own visions of these characters is laudable, but isolating the Joker could undo the qualities that have made the character so enduring in the first place.