Warning: This story contains spoilers for The Batman
The Joker is back—again. In one of The Batman‘s final scenes, a foiled and jailed Riddler (Paul Dano) talks with an unseen figure in prison played by Barry Keoghan. Though brief, the scene leaves no doubt that Keoghan is playing Batman’s greatest nemesis, The Joker.
This is the third Joker Warner Bros. has introduced in the last few years. In 2016’s Suicide Squad, Jared Leto played an erratic Joker with “damaged” literally tattooed across his forehead. Then Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for playing the Joker in a dead-serious take on the villain in 2019’s Joker. So, currently, there are three different Jokers roaming three different Gothams, which is scary and more than a little confusing.
Here’s everything you need to know about the future of the Joker in the DC Entertainment Universe (DCEU).
How we meet an unseen Joker in The Batman
By the end of the film, Batman has captured the Riddler, though that was the Riddler’s plan all along. The Riddler is under the impression that he and Batman share the same goal: To team up and rid Gotham of corruption. But Batman sticks to his creed: He does not kill people.
He manages to figure out that The Riddler has taken to social media to amass a violent, fringe army of disempowered men who have armed themselves to attack a mayoral candidate who preaches hope, along with her followers. It’s not an accident that these radicalized men target a prominent Black woman.
The film’s parallels to the Jan. 6 Capitol attack are eerie—in the film, as in real life, a mob planned an attack on social media and armed themselves, and specifically targeted certain legislators, most of whom were women and women of color. Director Matt Reeves tells TIME that any parallels were accidental—the script was written in 2017.
Read More: The Batman Director Explains The Film’s End and Its Accidental Real-World Parallels
Batman and Catwoman manage to foil the attack, to the Riddler’s dismay. He begins to lament his failure in his jail cell, attracting the attention of another prisoner, The Joker. The two talk about their similarities—they both like a good joke. And to plot vengeance.
The setup suggests that the Joker doesn’t plan on taking on Batman alone. He may recruit the Riddler, the Penguin (played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell in this film), and a whole rogue’s gallery of heroes to battle the Caped Crusader.
Barry Keoghan has proven himself a compelling comic book character
Barry Keoghan is best known for playing another comic book character, Druig in The Eternals. Though that movie was stuffed with A-list talent (including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, and Harry Styles), it failed to dazzle critics or make history at the box office. While The Eternals may or may not get a sequel, and Druig may or may not return to the big screen, Keoghan proved himself a compelling comic book anti-hero and will likely make a compelling villain.
The Irish actor has big clown shoes to fill—both Phoenix and Heath Ledger won Academy Awards for playing the Joker. And legends like Jack Nicholson have previously put their stamp on the crazed character.
How The Batman and the Joker fit into the DC Entertainment Universe
The DCEU has grown complicated in recent years. In order to sort through its many parallel universes, it’s helpful to compare Warner Bros.’ production of superhero movies with Disney’s Marvel Studios.
Marvel carefully laid the foundation for movies operating on parallel timelines within a multiverse introduced in Loki and expanded upon in Spider-Man: No Way Home. When three different Spider-Men swung into action in Spider-Man: No Way Home, we understood that each Peter Parker came from a different parallel world.
Read More: The New Batman Is Deeply Unsettling. The Director Says That’s the Point
Warner Bros. by contrast, has produced superhero movies that seemingly exist in several different universes without any in-film explanation. Robert Pattinson’s Batman does not live on the same earth as Ben Affleck’s Batman. Nor does Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker seem to operate in the same universe of either of those Caped Crusaders. Logic would dictate that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, who starred together in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, might pop up in each other’s movies but never interact with the Pattinson version of Bruce Wayne. And, by extension, Keoghan’s Joker is a wholly different person than Phoenix’s Joker.
Things get even more muddled when you consider the remakes and reboots. The first Suicide Squad movie involved a cameo from Affleck’s Batman and introduced Jared Leto’s Joker. But the reboot-slash-sequel that came out last year, The Suicide Squad (note the article), picked and chose what lore to carry on from the previous movie and what to abandon. So it could conceivably still exist in the land of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Or not.
Warner Bros. executives have explained in interviews that these characters exist on separate, parallel universe planets, Earth 1, Earth 2, Earth 3, etc. The upcoming Flash movie will reportedly unite at least some of these universes. Both Affleck’s Batman and Michael Keaton’s Batman from the 1980s are set to appear in that film.
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