a painted smile

About That Cameo in The Batman

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Spoilers follow for The Batman.

Bringing Batman to life onscreen in a post–Adam West age requires maneuvering a certain set of characteristics that define who the Dark Knight is. His parents will always die. He will always live in a Gothic mansion with a butler named Alfred. He will always wear a Batsuit and drive the Batmobile. In his moodily grandiose The Batman, Matt Reeves follows the likes of Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, Christopher Nolan, and Zack Snyder in sticking to those rigid archetypes. But it would have been nice if he strayed from tradition and left one Batman mainstay out of it: Can we get a break from the Joker already?

We live in a time of constant reboots, revamps, prequels, sequels, and ever-expanding cinematic universes, a deluge so constant it’s transformed nearly everything about the movie industry as we know it. The combined critical and box-office successes of Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy with Christian Bale and Warner Bros.’s decision to ease up on the interconnectivity between DC Extended Universe films has turned Gotham into fertile ground. It’s how we’ve come to have another Batman movie in theaters not even a full year after Zack Snyder’s Justice League debuted on HBO Max and only two and a half years since Todd Phillips’s Joker featured a tween Bruce Wayne. The churn doesn’t end.

This isn’t to say The Batman is a failure; as Vulture’s own Bilge Ebiri wrote in his review, the film is “sad, scary, and even a little sexy … Reeves loves these dead-end apocalyptic environments and delights in tales that toy with the moral calculus of typical hero narratives.” Robert Pattinson is effectively brooding as Bruce Wayne and Batman, the production design and cinematography are immersive and impressive, and through the gory schemes of Paul Dano’s Riddler, the plot honors and challenges Batman’s comics reputation as the world’s greatest detective. It’s mostly pretty great! Like Nolan’s Batman Begins, The Batman stands on its own as a portrait of Wayne’s conflicted mission, and it centers a villain whose plans for Gotham reflect the city’s corruption and decay.

… Until the last five or so minutes, when a seemingly tacked-on scene featuring a new Joker suggests the film is hedging its bets and losing faith in its own vision. By this point, the Riddler has succeeded in setting off a series of bombs around Gotham that destroy the seawall and flood the city, but his incel army of look-alikes has been defeated by Batman, police detective Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), and Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz). You win some, you lose some. While the Riddler thinks about what he’s done in his Arkham Asylum cell, the guy locked up next to him strikes up a conversation. We can’t quite see much of his face through the door’s tray slot, but the glimpses show some scarring and what are clearly Barry Keoghan’s eyes. His line deliveries are a little melodical and a little unhinged, and he assures the Riddler he’s not alone. They’re going to be friends, this character promises, and they’ll be on the upswing soon enough: “Gotham loves a comeback story.”

At no point does this character identify himself as the Joker. In an interview with Vulture, Reeves calls him the “Unseen Prisoner,” but up until Wednesday, Keoghan’s role was listed on IMDb as Officer Stanley Merkel (whom Batman comics readers will recognize as Gordon’s first partner in the police force). Still, the character’s maniacal laugh is a tipoff — and an exhausting one. Reeves’s film is already driven by dualities: the unexpected-but-revealing connections between Wayne and the Riddler, the vigilante ideology shared by Batman and Catwoman, and the familial bond Alfred (Andy Serkis) impresses upon Master Bruce. Introducing the Joker into the mix for only a few seconds is a distraction as well as a dampening of what the preceding minutes had established: that the problems plaguing Gotham are more systemic, more intrinsic, and more difficult to battle than the chaos caused by one man with a painted-on sneer.

After butting heads with Snyder and Suicide Squad director David Ayer, Warner Bros.’ decision to let directors adapt iconic characters (mostly) as they please has proved a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, that loosening has allowed for the noirish, dryly funny vibe of The Batman, which runs counter to Ayer’s garishly neon-flecked vision and Snyder’s almost oppressive self-seriousness. On the other hand, it has bloomed a bevy of actors taking on the Joker in Heath Ledger’s wake, including Jared Leto, Joaquin Phoenix, and now Keoghan. Reeves shared in interviews that Keoghan’s character was originally featured in a longer, deleted scene, but why keep him in at all? The only purpose of his brief appearance is to remind us the Joker exists. And after the last five years of Leto’s grill-wearing domestic abuser and Phoenix’s smirking Robert De Niro copycat, who needs reminding?

The Batman proves there are creative rewards in imagining new challenges for Batman and new obstacles for Gotham. Even if one were to argue that Batman and Joker are as viscerally tied together as Superman and Lex Luthor, and that one simply cannot make a Batman movie without the Clown Prince of Crime, why rush it? At least build some tension. Continue world-building with the HBO Max spinoff show about Colin Farrell’s Penguin, expand Gotham’s criminal milieu, and then introduce the Joker in a way that feels fully realized rather than narratively skimpy. The Joker’s fearsomeness is tied to his unpredictability. Reminding us He’s here, don’t worry, you’ll see him soon at the end of a film that had nothing to do with him is antithetical to the potential for such chaos.

Keoghan may become a memorable villain, but his first scene as him feels like a misplaced character in one of Riddler’s ciphers — separate and unconnected from the whole. The Batman should have listened to the Joker’s own advice to the Riddler: Less is more.


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