[This story contains spoilers for The Batman.]
“One day you’re on top. The next, you’re a clown.” Those words, spoken by a character known as Arkham State Hospital (Barry Keoghan) in the closing minutes of batman, has fans speculating about the next installment of the series. Filmmaker Matt Reeves has confirmed the character is none other than the Jokerwho strikes up an unlikely friendship with Edward Nashton/the Riddler (Paul Dano).
Reeves have said it’s unclear if Joker will appear in a sequel, and that the scene was meant to illustrate just how unstable Gotham will become given the power vacuum following the fall of Carmine Falcone (John Turturro). However, there’s evidence Reeves is not done with the Riddler. The pairing of Riddler and Joker has been fertile ground in recent comic book history, and could provide a guide to Batman 2.
The two villains have shared any number of stories in their lengthy comic book careers, but until recently, it’s been relatively rare to see the two share substantial story time. Sure, they worked together to transform Bruce Wayne into Bat-Hulk in 1966’s The Brave and The Bold No. 68, and yes, they worked together as part of a grand scheme in 1983’s Detective Comics No. 526, celebrating Batman’s 500th appearance in that comic. But it’s not as if they’ve been best buddies at any point during that time. (Well, maybe in the 1960s TV series, but who wasn’t best buddies back then?)
In recent years, their connection had dwindled even further as both characters became so iconic that their very appearance would be an event in and of itself, and creators would shy away from crossing over the two for fear of overshadowing one or the other. Credit should go to writer Tom King and artist Mikel Janin, then, who managed to turn that situation to their benefit with the 2017 storyline in DC’s main Batman comic book series, “The War of Jokes and Riddles” — a run that feels like the perfect follow-up to Matt Reeves’ first visit to Gotham City.
As the title suggests, “The War of Jokes and Riddles” centers around the conflict between the two villains, as they fight for control of Gotham after forming a working relationship that goes bad. It’s the Riddler who drives the potential friendship, suggesting the two could kill Batman together to seal the deal; Joker, disinterested and distracted by what appears to be the loss of his sense of humor from him, responds by shooting the Riddler and leaving.
As the conflict grows, “The War” abandons the idea that Batman is truly at the center of things. At one point, he even chooses a side in the fight, which has expanded to include multiple supervillains and is rapidly destroying Gotham City in the process. Batman himself is driven to such lengths that he tries to kill at one point to end the conflict. (He doesn’t succeed, thankfully.)
Item is this attempt to kill that ends the war. Watching Batman fall to such a low makes the Joker laugh, breaking the tension that threatens to upend everything. As explained in the story’s framing sequence, the entire period represents Batman at his lowest ebb of him, early in his career: “I have lines, right? I can stop. I have limits. They can’t control themselves. I dog. I’m good. They’re bad. They kill. I no. That’s what everyone thinks. But it’s not true.” (He is, it’s worth noting, saying this to Selina Kyle, in a continuation of the intensifying romance between Batman and Catwoman that’s the heart of Tom King’s larger story throughout his time on the comic. In that way, it also fits with what Reeves is doing in the movie.)
The Batman on display in “The War of Jokes and Riddles” is early in his career, like Robert Pattinson’s new incarnation; he’s neither as skilled nor as psychologically shielded as the character is traditionally portrayed, and that’s ultimately the crux of the story: the failure of the hero, and how it shaped him going forward. Add in two iconic villains going at each other without seemingly caring that much about the hero of the story, the unfolding romance between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, and a psychological focus that employs pyrotechnics in service of the emotional and intellectual story being told, and it feels like the ideal follow-up to batman‘s introduction to Gotham and its very particular nightlife.
While we wait for a Batman 2it’s worth pointing out that “The War of Jokes and Riddles” is available to read digitally — it’s in Batman (2016) Nos. 25 through 32 on the DC Universe Infinite service — or in collected form as Batman: The War of Jokes and Riddles. Even if it’s not the basis for a big screen sequel, it’s still more than worth checking out for anyone who enjoyed the new movie.