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Hollywood’s Insatiable Hunger for the Joker

Joaquin Phoenix has reportedly been cast to star in a stand-alone movie about the villain’s origins—meaning Warner Bros. now has multiple Jokers on its roster at once

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Todd Phillips isn’t kidding around with his upcoming Joker origin story film (which, to be clear, will exist separate from Jared Leto’s Suicide Squad Joker). After rumors floated Leonardo DiCaprio as a possible choice to play Phillips’s Joker, Variety is now reporting that three-time Oscar nominee Joaquin Phoenix has agreed to the role, with negotiations with Warner Bros. on the way.

From so many angles, this is a weird one. Phoenix hasn’t made a big-budget Hollywood movie since 2000’s Gladiator, instead opting to work with auteurs such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze, and becoming a bearded outcast for an elaborate film project. He’s never shown any indication that he’s interested in leaping into one of the biggest mainstream machines that exists. From another perspective, not only is it bewildering that Phillips is spurning Jared Leto, but that Warner Bros. is happily allowing him to. Variety added that Leto is still expected to reprise the role in Suicide Squad 2 — there’s also a ton of other DC movies being floated around, including Gotham City Sirens and another project with the Joker and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn — so it’s not like he’s lost Joker privileges. Assuming that Phoenix does officially get to play the Joker in Phillips’s movie, and that Leto officially returns in a Suicide Squad follow-up, that means two Oscar stalwarts will be sharing an iconic role. It’s possible that within a calendar year, you’ll watch Leto clown it up as the Joker in Suicide Squad 2 — then watch Phoenix offer a more twisted, pensive take on the same character. That is deeply strange, to an unprecedented extent.

Phoenix’s looming deal is a sign of our moviegoing times, in which superhero movies are not only expanding, but folding over each other. But it’s also a sign of Hollywood’s desperate and fruitless chase to recapture something that was as magical as it was fleeting.

With respect to Mark Hamill’s voice-over work and Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is the definitive Joker. Ledger’s performance is magnificent, as compelling as it is horrifyingly unpredictable (just think about the first time you saw the pencil trick, or Why So Serious?). It’s not possible to count the number of memorable scenes featuring the Dark Knight’s Joker on two hands. The performance is, both because of Ledger’s acting and the grim fact he died of an overdose shortly after filming, one of the most iconic in film history.

By the time Ledger won a posthumous Oscar in 2009, the role felt sacrosanct. The Joker and Heath Ledger’s depiction of the Joker were inextricably intertwined, guaranteeing that every other future attempt at portraying the character would be picked apart in comparison. Superhero movies — thanks largely to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and the success of Iron Man to kick-start the MCU — are the biggest, most surefire moneymakers in Hollywood. This has ultimately expanded Ledger’s legend even more, if only because in the passing decade these movies haven’t come close to creating a memorable villain to stand up to the Joker.

Because Warner Bros. knows it has a villain problem (its last one was Steppenwolf, a hammerhead creature with vague, empty motivations whose own voice actor didn’t seem to know what the character was trying to accomplish), and because people are still dressing up as the Joker for Halloween, the studio is still trying to feed off of the hype. In that respect alone, Phoenix and Leto are pretty solid casting choices: established actors with penchants for chewing up scenery. But in execution — no matter how many Jokers are concurrently on the big screen — the result will always be a disappointment. Ultimately, nothing will live up to what we’ve already seen from the Joker, no matter who’s attached to the role. (The one exception: If we can coax Daniel Day-Lewis out of retirement.) Instead of trying to chase the most iconic performance in the history of superhero movies — one aided by unpredictable, haunting, real-life circumstances — DC should be looking to the horizon for the next great villain. Though it may seem like it, more of the Joker is not the answer to their problems.