Like his arch nemesis, the Joker has gone through many live-action incarnations, each one a unique take on the Clown Prince of Crime. But despite terrorizing Gothamites since April 1940, filmmakers continue to find fresh new takes on the enigmatic Harlequin of Hate; from Cesar Romero’s silver-age pop-criminal to Jared Leto’s flashy urban gangster. Ever since news broke of Joaquin Phoenix starring in an upcoming standalone Joker film produced by Hollywood titan Martin Scorsese, the internet has been tearing its figurative hair out trying to figure out what to expect out of this unexpected film. With much of the details surrounding the latest cinematic portrayal of the Joker a closely kept secret by Warner Bros., many media outlets are questioning if the inmates are running the asylum in the house that Batman built.
Aside from Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Napier in 1989’s Batman, the Joker’s origin has rarely been explored. What we know of Phoenix Joker thus far is that his real name is Arthur Fleck, his Joker makeup shows more clown aesthetics than any previous live-action Joker, his story is set somewhere in the 1980s, and at some point within his origin story Thomas Wayne will be present. Variety previously reported that the Todd Phillips (The Hangover franchise) directed and Scorsese produced Joker film would fall under a new origins banner that would be separate from the current DC Extended Universe, and also added later that the previously announced Jared Leto Joker film was still in the works and will act as a segue into Suicide Squad 2 and the Harley Quinn movie.
If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry, you are not alone. Although fan reactions to various footage leaks as well as Phoenix’s eerie Joker camera test have been overwhelmingly positive, having two different cinematic Joker timelines occurring at once seems like a huge gamble nonetheless. But what if the rumors that there will be no connection between Phoenix Joker and the greater DCEU are false? What if Warner Bros. is taking inspiration from the DC Comics series “Batman: Three Jokers” and Joaquin Phoenix represents the first incarnation of the Clown Prince and Jared Leto represents one of his successors? Sound far fetched? Perhaps, but it is hardly the first time WB has dropped a major plot-twist in their cinematic universe.
Here is my breakdown of evidence thus far.
“THE THREE JOKERS” AND A MULTIPLE CHOICE PAST
The Joker has repeatedly shown in comic books, cartoons, and live-action movies that he loves telling multiple origin stories of himself. “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” the Joker once said in the graphic novel “The Killing Joke.” But back in 2015 it was revealed in Justice League #42 that one reason the Joker has so many origins is that he is actually three different people playing the same identity.
During a panel at 2018’s San Diego Comic-Con Geoff Johns hinted that one specific Joker murdered Jason Todd while another shot Barbara Gordon in the spine, while the third Joker is the Bat-obsessed jester that readers have been following in Scott Snyder’s run on the Batman comic books. Coincidentally, there are also three films revolving around the Joker allegedly coming out over the next few years — the Todd Phillips/Martin Scorsese Joker film starring Joaquin Phoenix, the Jared Leto Joker film supposedly co-starring Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and rumors suggest that James Gunn’s Suicide Squad 2 will also feature some version of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Three Jokers in the comics, three Joker films… could it be that the Joker film we are about to see in 2019 is the start of Mr. J’s dynasty?
LOOK AT THE TIMELINE
The upcoming Todd Phillips “Phoenix Joker” film is supposedly set in the 1980s during what appears to be a bad economic recession. Leaked footage suggests that Arthur Fleck, the man to become the Joker, is somehow involved in a clown-themed protest taking place near a subway station. Protestors hold signs saying “Blame Wayne” and “Eat the Rich” as what appears to be Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne (Batman’s father) is beaten to the ground by members of the crowd. This would suggest that if Bruce Wayne exists at all in this timeline he would be younger than 12-years-old — far too young to ever interact with Arthur Fleck as the Dark Knight of Gotham.
Why would WB make a Joker film set in a universe without Batman? It probably wouldn’t. If Phoenix’s character represents the Sean Connery of the Three Jokers, his story would exist in an era where metahumans do not yet exist… unless you count Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman sequel that also coincidentally takes place in the 1980s. Phoenix being Joker #1 allows the DCEU to tell a Joker story without being hindered by previously established continuity (because it’s the 80s) while still weaving in a new piece to the mythology of Gotham. This piece of evidence does potentially poke a hole in the three Jokers theory, as Thomas Wayne is being played by Brett Cullen rather than Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice star Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
WARNER BROS. COULD REPLACE LETO JOKER WITHOUT BREAKING CONTINUITY
When audiences across America first laid eyes on Jared Leto’s tattooed and grilled take on Mr. J in 2016’s Suicide Squad, it became immediately apparent that he would not be nearly as beloved as Heath Ledger was for his take on the character in The Dark Knight. But if Phoenix represents Joker #1 and Leto represents Joker #2, then that would mean a third Joker will eventually be on the horizon. This would allow Warner Bros. to replace Leto with a new Joker at any time, either through death or inheritance, without scrapping the pre-established DCEU continuity. I am not suggesting that the Brothers Warner WILL replace Jared Leto, only that they could if they choose the “Three Jokers” story route.
THE LETO JOKER FILM IS RUMORED TO BE BASED OFF OF “MAD LOVE”
It has been hinted that Leto’s Joker film will be loosely based off the mega popular “Mad Love” storyline that depicts the origin of his on-again-off-again girlfriend/partner/patsy Harley Quinn. While glimpses of Harley’s early relationship with the Joker (including her baptism at Ace Chemicals) were shown in Suicide Squad it sounds like Dr. Harleen Quinzell (Harley’s pre-Joker identity) might be showcased more heavily in this film. In “Mad Love,” young psychiatrist Harleen Quinzell is an intern at Arkham Asylum where the Joker is being held prisoner, and the naive doctor slowly falls under the inmate’s sociopathic charm, sympathizing with his stories of childhood abuse and fond memories of clowns and the circus.
If Phoenix is Leto’s predecessor, perhaps he plays a role in Leto Joker’s childhood trauma and fondness for clowns, something he then shares with Harleen to transform her into his harlequin sidekick. From what leaked footage suggests Phoenix’s Joker has some kind of connection to the circus, which is made further apparent by the added clown features to his makeup. Harley’s exploration into the Joker’s circus-loving past in a “Mad Love” style storyline would allow for the two Joker stories to overlap without requiring much effort in regards to continuity.
THE RED HOOD | A MANTLE OF MADNESS
In Scott Snyder’s comic book series “Zero Year,” the Joker’s alter ego the “Red Hood” is a mysterious anarchist who eventually takes a dive into a vat of chemicals leaving him bleached ghastly white with shock green hair. Since this same vat of chemicals is shown in a flashback scene in Suicide Squad, we can assume Jared Leto’s albino gangster was at some point a Red Hood figure. Almost nothing is known about the Red Hood, but it is rumored that the title passes from person to person as depicted in the Fox TV series Gotham.
Phoenix’s Joker is similar to Ledger’s take on the character in that he does not have bleached skin, but instead wears clown makeup and appears to be part of some greater anarchy inspiring anti-elitist movement in Gotham, making his origin vastly different than that shown in the comics. But if the title of Clown Prince passes in the same manner as the title of Red Hood, then it could stand to reason that Leto may have taken up the mantle of Gotham’s Agent of Chaos shortly before his infamous encounter with Batman at a chemical plant.
As you may have noticed, much of my “evidence” rides almost entirely on “ifs” and “maybes.” The fact of the matter is, like many Scorsese films in the past, The Joker is being kept under fairly tight wraps. Regardless of what fate awaits the Clown Prince of Crime in the chaotic DC Extended Universe, it is guaranteed to raise some eyebrows as only the Joker is capable.
Perhaps this is WB’s way of trolling fans who have grown accustomed to always getting their way and still complaining — rather than let fans tear down every photoshopped press image like the angry Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, DC has decided to go with mystery, unpredictability, and an odd level of loyalty to specific facets of the source material. But as far fetched as the “Three Jokers” theory sounds, are there any more plausible explanations to what is going on in this insane asylum?