Matt Reeves’ superhero reboot film The Batman opens nationwide just twelve weeks from this Friday, after two release delays caused by the continuing COVID pandemic. With Robert Pattinson donning the cowl for Reeves’ iteration of the Dark Detective, and plenty of iconic rolls already cast in the new franchise — including James Wright as Jim Gordon, Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman, Paul Dano as the Riddler, Colin Farrell as the Penguin, and Andy Serkis as Alfred the faithful butler — and after much consideration, there’s a new name atop of my casting wish-list to play Batman’s arch nemesis: Tim Robinson should play the Joker in Matt Reeves’ Batman franchise.
I know this suggestion will feel far afield from what most fans and journalists are used to for Joker. Everyone still looks to Heath Ledger’s or Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning portrayals, and they were certainly iconic and perfect for their stories. Likewise, the comics have for decades leaned into the most popular modern approach to the Joker, which is generally “creepy sinister edge-lord who acts scary and intimidating.” But I feel after “returning to the well” so many times in various media and mediums, the character needs something different this time to really stand out.
Before I get into explaining why Tim Robinson would make a terrific Joker in the world Matt Reeves is building, let me address some other options that are floating around for Joker casting, as well as my own previous suggested casting ideas.
There’s always the option of using the multiverse concept to merge Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker from Todd Phillips’ 2019 film Joker into Robert Pattinson’s Batman movies. With the upcoming The Flash movie resetting the DCEU timeline in ways we’re not yet privy to, it’s entirely possible Phoenix’s Oscar-winning portrayal could find himself pulled into an alternate world alongside Pattinson’s Batman.
Or simply say the Joker origin film used a period setting because it was from Joker’s perspective and he’s an unreliable narrator — perhaps that origin story was inspired by his love of the films The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, and perhaps the “joke” he says the therapist would’ve “get” at the end is the idea (which he’s made up in his imaginary version of his origin) that he indirectly created Batman instead of Batman indirectly creating him.
If Joker’s crossover with The Batman were possible without retconning Joker’s events somehow, then that would surely be the way Warner would go. After all, a billion dollar Joker would fit nicely into a new and similarly-toned Batman franchise. It would be an obviously smart business choice. But I don’t think it will happen. I believe Phoenix’s Joker will get a sequel, set in its own separate world, and that Reeves would prefer to develop and debut his own Joker in a later film.
Besides, Phoenix’s Joker was excellent and I’d not complain if he appeared in the Batman movies, I also think it would perpetuate a particular element from the “edgy” Joker approach that isn’t ideal for this type of Batman world. If everyone is tonally dark, cynical, dangerous, edgy, and scary in overt ways, villains and threats start to feel the same and the whole world can seem less interesting in the long run.
Cate Blanchett, LaKeith Stanfield, and Paul Anderson were my other top picks for the role of Joker in Reeves’ Batman universe. Each could bring a different ingredient to the role and help move outside of the same box the character’s been in for years. But this still retains a lot of the previous incarnations’ tone and style, and doesn’t break the modern mold the way I believe is possible with Reeves at the helm.
What do I mean by “break the modern mold?” I mean the Joker should be funny. He should be silly. He should be a clown. Clowns are scariest not when they are intentionally made to look scary with smeared makeup and eerie eyes and crooked fanged grins, that’s just a monster with bad clown makeup on. A clown that looks like a monster isn’t as scary as a monster that looks like a clown. Just ask It.
Batman wears black, he’s serious and somber, he inspires fear with his silent presence and sinister monstrous appearance, he is edgy and dark. His arch enemy shouldn’t be a mirror, at least not an obvious mirror, but rather an entity whose existence stands in contrast to Batman, making Batman by comparison seem weak and overrated.
So the Joker doesn’t just want to challenge Batman or beat Batman, he wants to mock Batman. He mocks everything Batman stands for, he wants to force Batman out of his all-knowing all-powerful bat-god persona and make him simply, pathetically human again. He wants to take Batman’s greatest strengths — his persona, his legend and reputation, his darkness — and use them as weapons to bludgeon him with.
So how do you best mock a Batman like Reeves’ noirish crime fighter? You dress like a clown and humiliate him, embarrass him, make fun of his darkness, force him to engage you on absurd levels. You undermine his attempt to create an urban legend and a symbol of hope and justice, by turning him into a joke by forcing him to engage you. You make Gotham cringe at Batman, and make Batman cringe at himself.
Who, then, is better to make Batman cringe than Tim Robinson, the master of cringe comedy? Robinson’s brilliance is rooted in his ability to lay bare the raw, shameful truth of being human in society. His skits on the phenomenal Netflix series I Think You Should Leave are about embarrassment, humiliation, and the underlying desperate desire to be heard and understood. He forces us to watch others in awkward situations, empathize with them, and find some way to relate to their predicaments while also relating to everyone else in the room who thinks they should leave.
Think back to the 1960’s Batman TV show. Remember Cesar Romero’s Joker? The bright suits, the goofy pranks, the laugh that wasn’t crackling or menacing but rather playful and full of joy at his own shenanigans. Joker’s crimes were, often as not, just an attempt to pull an elaborate prank and get the better of Batman to amuse himself. He would scoff, stick out his tongue, and generally act like an actual silly clown who just happens to also be a criminal mastermind.
Now imagine if his pranks still seemed like party jokes and gags, but people also died horribly from them. Imagine if, instead of Batman and the rest of the cast also being campy and fun, everyone else was edgy and dark. The Joker would stand out, he would stare Batman in the eye and say, “Nope, the harder you try to make this all dark and serious, the more I’m going to screw with you by being even more outrageous and stupid.”
Bear with me as I set a hypothetical scene for you. This is a Joker who, after days of Batman trying to hunt him down, might show up in the middle of a Gotham street naked, covered in vaseline to make it impossible to hold onto him, playing the Survivor song “Eye of the Tiger” on an oversized boom box and challenging Batman to wrestle him. Batman would of course arrive to take Joker into custody, but the Joker would have an ace up his sleeve (maybe his goons took a pet store hostage and threaten to shoot puppies). So Batman humiliates himself, wrestling a naked clown who’s bad at fighting but who shouts, “Stop smacking my butt!” and slips out of Batman’s grasp. Batman would notice people (including children) are watching, and the worst part is many of them are laughing.
Joker might also electrify urinals at a school, he might hand out balloons at the state fair that are full of cyanide gas (or even better, there’s implication they are full of gas, but it turns out Joker simply flatulated into each of them). Joker should plan his crimes for the sole purpose of perpetually trying to crack through the “dark and gritty” world of Gotham and Batman, and often his crimes should be relatively harmless even if they sometimes contain false claims of danger. But other times, the impression of another stupid prank is shattered when a harmless thing suddenly turns out to cause mass casualties. (These examples are from fun conversations I had with my screenwriting cowriter Philip Moe, who shares my enthusiasm for casting Tim Robinson as the Joker and came up with lots of these great Joker prank ideas.)
Contrast. Irreverence. Cringe. The Joker has to be a clown-clown. The Joker wants to ruin Batman for us, he wants to make it impossible for Batman to be cool. That’s the best nemesis for an edgy dark knight, not another equally edgy dark character.
Clown makeup properly applied, hair combed back (pushed back or slicked back, Robinson would know which works best here), a bright violet-purple suit like the one Jonathan Majors wore in the preacher skit on Saturday Night Live a few weeks ago (see the video clip of the skit below), and an almost contagious childlike laugh.
At first, in the early days of his crimes, his appearance gains him access to various places — schools, hospitals, businesses — pretending to be a singing telegram, or a birthday balloon clown. Eventually, his infamy and terror make the incongruity between appearance and behavior more disturbing than if he wore “scary” makeup.
This approach for the Joker — the tone, the appearance — is in fact inspired by a comic story that is relevant to Matt Reeves’ plans for Batman, because it’s one he’s using as inspiration in the first place. I’m talking about a Joker story from the DC Comics series Gotham Central, written by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka, and drawn by Michael Lark. The cover features the Joker’s mug shots, in which he sticks out his tongue at the camera and frequently acts playful toward the police… when he’s not massacring them and cracking up about it, that is.
Gotham Central is one of the inspirations for the upcoming HBO Max spinoff series Gotham PD, set in the world of Reeves’ The Batman. So taking further inspiration from the comic when it’s time to cast the Joker would be consistent with the other inspirations for this new bat-world. A companion series about the Penguin is also in the works, with Colin Farrell reprising the role from the film.
Joker could start out in the films as a supporting background villain, trying to get Batman’s attention and mess up a bigger case Batman is working on. If the Joker showed up a couple of times like this in one or two films, then it could lead to a big story with him as the main villain, proving Batman has gravely underestimated him. The whole time, his crimes should alternate between pranks and pure embarrassing tricks and false alarms, and seemly confusing or smaller crimes that are revealed to have horrible consequences.
That’s an important part of this Joker concept — although clownish and intentionally playing the buffoon, he can turn on a dime and reveal that oh by the way he also . Despite his seemingly childish sense of humor and pranks, it should slowly become clear Joker is extremely smart and knows exactly how to push everyone’s buttons. And the initial impression that he’s harmless or incapable of really challenging Batman gives way to the realization that he is psychotic and willing to burn down the entire city for his own amusement.
While there are many other good and great suggestions for Joker casting, I believe Tim Robinson represents the best option for a significant departure from what the Joker’s been in comics and films for the past two to three decades. Jack Nicholson’s 1989 performance in Tim Burton’s Batman is similar in some ways to what I’m describing, but his was a gangster whose sillier moments were offset by his twisted appearance and a degree of coolness and self-confidence that still kept a foot firmly in “sinister, scary, and dark” territory.
Take a few more steps toward the 1960s TV series Joker, and let Tim Robinson go wild with ideas for hilarious, inappropriate, humiliating crimes and gags to pull on Batman and the police, and that’s an arch enemy worthy of Matt Reeves’ Batman.