The real reason DC is doing simultaneous Joker movies

Audiences everywhere can't get enough of the Clown Prince of Crime. At least, that's the impression that Warner Bros. is apparently operating under, now that news has emerged that not one, but two solo movies for the character are being developed by the studio.

Thanks in part to his many portrayals on television and film over the years, the green-haired, pale-faced comic book villain has gone from being a mere Batman rival to a full-on cultural icon — and now that the Justice League have had their turn in the spotlight, it's the Joker's time to shine.

The revelation that Warner Bros. is moving forward on multiple Joker movies raises a lot of questions for the casual moviegoer. Are these movies connected? Is Jared Leto still the Joker, or are we getting Joaquin Phoenix? And if they're both the Joker — how? We've got the answers to all of this and more.

DC development: "Maybe"/"Maybe not"

Warner Bros.' DC Extended Universe is hard to talk about without comparisons to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Launched in 2013 with Man of Steel, the DCEU is a direct response to the success that Marvel Studios has been having with the MCU since the release of Iron Man in 2008.

When it comes to Marvel, we generally don't know what they're working on until they officially announce something, meaning that by the time we hear about a movie, we can have a fair degree of confidence it's actually going to happen. 

DC takes the opposite approach, with leaks and rumors about a downright confusing number of movies in developmentSuicide Squad alone has spawned talk of more potential Harley Quinn and Joker-related spinoffs than even the actors can keep track of, making things extra confusing for the casual fan who just wants to see a decent movie. With so many different Joker-related projects having been floated in the press, the reader has to wonder — are any of these movies actually happening? And if so, which ones?

The joke book

Let's refresh our memories, and center in on the DC movies in development that we know about and are just related to the Joker, more or less in order of how likely they are to actually happen.

First off, there's Suicide Squad 2, which is reportedly set to feature Jared Leto returning to the role as part of an ensemble. Next, there's the most-recently announced Joker solo movie, also set to center on Leto's Joker. Then there's the Martin Scorsese-produced, Todd Phillips-directed, Joaquin Phoenix-led Joker origin movie, the only project that doesn't appear to involve Leto. 

Finally, there's the twisted romantic comedy featuring Harley Quinn and the Joker, which has been discussed under the name Harley Quinn vs. the Joker. Supposedly, this movie replaces the Gotham City Sirens movie we'd heard so many reports about, which also was reportedly going to involve Leto's Joker.

In other words, Warner Bros. could currently be working on no less than four different films involving the Joker, two of them solo movies with different actors. The obvious question is how that Joaquin Phoenix movie could possibly have a chance at fitting in with the tone established by Leto's Joker, much less the continuity of the DCEU. The answer is simple: It won't.

Elseworlds

Even before Justice League saw a theatrical release, the word was out that Warner Bros. was in the process of re-evaluating its DC movies, exploring the possibility that this whole shared universe thing might not be all it's cracked up to be. (Hey, they'd hardly be the only ones to screw it up.)

As was mentioned in the Variety report that first announced Leto's solo Joker movie, Warners is mulling a new banner for movies outside the DCEU continuity. Under this arrangement, Joaquin Phoenix (or, in theory, any actor) could play the Joker on the big screen in an alternate-universe, Elseworlds-style story, having no effect on the storyline of Jared Leto's Joker within the shared universe.

At the time of this writing, this separate banner remains untitled. Additionally, as of now, WB hasn't done a whole lot to make the general public aware that they're making this move, leaving the door open for what feels like an unnecessary amount of audience confusion. 

Joke-keen Phoenix?

So, what even is this alternate-universe, Elseworlds-style Joker movie? Here's what we know right now.

According to reports, DC is in the process of developing a solo Joker origin story movie, written and directed by Todd Phillips of the Hangover series fame. (8 Mile and The Fighter writer Scott Silver is co-writing.) 

It's being produced in part by Martin Scorsese — and Joaquin Phoenix is reportedly set to star. Fittingly enough, a lot of the information that we have about this movie's premise comes from former MMA fighter-turned-comedian Brendan Schaub, who spilled some showbiz gossip during an appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast

"It's dark," Schaub said. "It's like a dark Joker. As a kid, he had a permanent smile and everyone made fun of him. It's like on the streets of Brooklyn. It's super dark and real."

At this point, there's every indication that Phoenix really has signed on for the role, though he's publicly been cagey about his involvement so far.

Joker: A Joker Story

As we write this, not much is known about Jared Leto's Joker movie other than the facts that it's definitely happening and that this Joker is #Damaged. 

Per Variety, the hunt is currently on for a director and a screenwriter, with it being unknown whether the movie will be produced before or after Suicide Squad 2. Either way, the earliest we'll see this is in 2019. As for the plot? Well, it probably won't be an origin story.

The fact that Leto is going forward with this movie would seem to indicate that whatever bad blood existed between him and Warner Bros. has more or less dissolved. If you'll recall, Leto seemed pretty peeved at the way his work was treated in the editing room while Suicide Squad was being put together, with most of his performance — a method-acting approach he tried really hard to perfect — ending up littering the cutting room floor. At the time, his words to the studio were simple — "f*** 'em."

Skwad life vs. serious business

If you put stock in one particular rumor that's been circulating since the critical and box office failure of Justice League, Warner Bros.' second DC label won't be completely random in its tone or purpose. 

According to one blind item gossip site, who alluded to the DC universe in an easy-to-figure-out post, Warners is specifically splitting its brand into one division for "kids" — e.g., the DCEU we're all familiar with — and another division for "adults," exploring comic book movies with more realistic approaches.

Of course, a rumor is a rumor, and who knows where those details came from. But if the Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie really is dark, gritty, and realistic, with future movies under the banner sharing those properties to successful ends, it could give Warner Bros. access to a serious-minded, more discerning audience for its comic book movies — one that it might not otherwise be able to reach.

Terms of surrender

Opinions differ on the quality of the movies in the DCEU, but the series has earned a reputation for underperforming — critically, commercially, or both. Justice League, the movie that the whole series was supposedly building to, somehow came in with the least amount of money.

Not a single one of the films in the DCEU has managed to break the billion-dollar barrier that Disney's Marvel movies breach by habit. They may gross hundreds of millions, but movies of this scale also cost hundreds of millions to make and market.

When Justice League premiered to critical and commercial apathy, many commentators wondered if that might be a wrap for DC's cinematic universe. While the franchise is continuing on with Aquaman and Shazam!, it's easy to wonder where the whole enterprise is going. The course can definitely be righted — all indications so far suggest that Aquaman is going to be a pretty good time — and having a whole other series of movies would presumably go a long way toward taking the pressure off.

Just like the comics

Comics have thrived for decades on alternate universes — and have, at times, gotten insanely weird. Y'all know Spider-Ham, right? Peter Porker? Comic books get away with all kinds of crazy stuff.

With audiences becoming more familiar with the way comic book stories work, the more willing they'll be to go along with bizarre stories. People understand that not all related stories are in a given shared universe. Heck — barely ten years ago, that used to be the default.

Alternate versions of comic book heroes and villains highlight character traits you might not have noticed. Spider-Man Noir shows us a Peter Parker with a flipped morality, using violence to punish his foes instead of acting like the stand-up guy we typically think of. The Flashpoint Elseworlds limited series introduces us to a Barry Allen who is paraplegic but still has an immensely fast mind. Could this sort of exploration be adapted for the big screen? It looks like Warner Bros. is dead set on finding out.

What else do we got?

There are many other stories in DC's stable we might see adapted into movies in the spirit of Elseworlds. One of those potential projects is something we might have heard about months ago. 

That project would be Superman: Red Son, which we know Warner Bros. was, at least at one point, gauging multiple directors' interest in. At the time, the news seemed a little outlandish — how could this movie co-exist with the current version of the Man of Steel? But now, with news of this new banner and the multiple Joker movies in the mix, it all starts to make sense.

If you haven't heard of it, Superman: Red Son is a hypothetical story that imagines how things might have shaken out had Kal-El's Kryptonian vessel crash-landed in the USSR rather than the heart of the USA. It's the perfect example of what this alternate world banner could accomplish, an idea that makes you think to yourself, "Wow, that's pretty interesting."

Jokers wild

If DC's move toward Elseworlds stories lets filmmakers take chances on comic properties, it can only be a good thing. By now, we're nearly 20 years into the superhero movie moment. Why not get a little freaky with it? 

Imagine a world where studios can take a flyer on the wildest possible comic book concepts — and filmmakers feel creatively uninhibited. Could studios be willing to do crazy, weird, just bonkers stuff like a story in which Bruce Wayne becomes Green Lantern, or a live-action Gotham by Gaslight? How much more fun would that make the landscape of comic book movies? 

If Warner Bros. hits on something, it could revolutionize the way studios approach this whole comic book movie thing. Over the last two decades, we've all become literate in the ways that superhero stories work. Maybe it's time to go to the next level, and wouldn't it be funny if DC was the one who leads us? It could work out for everyone. No joke.