The Joker, Batman’s most infamous foe, has been through many onscreen iterations over the decades: He’s been a jovial clown, a mobster, an anarchist, possibly a Juggalo, and a failed comedian. With the release of a deleted scene from Matt Reeves’ The Batman, which features Robert Pattinson’s Caped Crusader locked in a room with 29-year-old Irish actor Barry Keoghan, the Joker becomes something entirely new to Warner Bros.’ billion-dollar Bat-empire: a bonafide movie monster.
Such a turn might be old hat for Keoghan, who already effectively portrayed an unnerving fiend in Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2017 film The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and an equally cracked and calculating killer in David Lowery’s The Green Knight. For the cinematic world of Batman, however, his performance is a daunting first step into a far more disturbing, horror-tinged world. It’s all in the audiovisual language of the scene’s first few seconds: Within the confines of a small interview room at Arkham State Hospital, a series of formidable locks slam into place and alarms blare a warning to all within earshot. Before a word has even been spoken, it’s already been made abundantly clear that something dangerous is free from its cage.
[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for The Batman.]
This is where we find Pattinson’s Dark Knight Detective, who seeks advice about the Ridder (Paul Dano) from what turns out to be a well-acquainted foe. “It’s almost our anniversary, isn’t it?” Keoghan’s Joker asks, his face just out of focus. This is mostly how we view the Joker throughout the deleted scene: blurred, from behind glass, from behind the villain’s back, from over Pattinson’s armored shoulders. The camera just itches to snap into focus to reveal the villain in all his grotesque glory. Reeves and cinematographer Greig Fraser are hiding their creature in plain sight. He’s a sinister shape solidifying into a nightmare as the audience catches one harrowing peek after the other.
The reveal is effective through its construction. There are moments where Fraser’s lenses hold on the back of Joker’s head, where scars and other peculiar rifts in the flesh of his scalp cause his green hair to grow in sporadic patches. The camera also pauses fleetingly on his hands, which almost seem to pet at Batman’s gift: a sordid, Fincher-esque dossier detailing Riddler’s heinous crimes and clues. “His violence… It’s so… baroque,” Joker says, almost admiringly. His hands are covered in vicious burn scars, and his fingernails are ripped, bloodied. What kind of life does this to a man?
How Keoghan’s Joker originally reached his comedic apotheosis in the cinematic world of The Batman is left to the imagination, or to sequels to come. But there are devilish clues all over his design. The character’s signature hideous grin is seen only briefly, but one glimpse is more than enough. It seems to have been violently widened somehow. (Perhaps during his first scrap with Batman during the vigilante’s destructive Year One?) As for the red smears, which look to have come courtesy of those ripped-up fingernails, they darken around his lips to the point of appearing black — and those lips pull loosely around his teeth, a rictus echo of Joker’s cinematic inspiration from all the way back in 1928, Conrad Veidt’s character from The Man Who Laughs.
Matt Reeves is a genre-minded filmmaker, imbuing his high-profile projects with grace notes from legend-tier films while also constructing gripping narratives of his own. His 2017 trilogy-capper War for the Planet of the Apes took thematic cues from The Bridge on the River Kwai and Apocalypse Now, while providing a disastrous escalation from the already-fraught apes-vs.-humans crisis of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Reeves’ depiction of Ridder is itself a mimic of the real-life Zodiac killer, and The Batman is decidedly a serial-killer movie, influenced by Reeves favorites like David Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac. This deleted scene offers another obvious serial-killer movie staple: the flawed detective seeking advice from a seasoned professional killer, Will Graham or Clarice Starling seeking out Hannibal Lecter’s advice in Manhunter or The Silence of the Lambs. Reeves’ particular inspirations suggest some baleful portents for the future of his Batman series.
Where The Batman is a serial-killer film, Reeves’ planned sequel just might be a straight-up horror show. The deliberately disquieting presentation of Keoghan’s Joker, along with the startling makeup effects that power his performance, provides a tantalizing morsel of what’s likely to come in the inevitable sequel to The Batman, which is currently raking it in at the box office, with more than $600 million worldwide. (First things first, though: Reeves has his upcoming Penguin spinoff over at HBO Max to manage, with Colin Farrell reprising his role.) At present, Keoghan isn’t officially set to return as the Clown Prince of Crime, though if he does, we might see him in the role again anywhere between now and 2027.
And if Keoghan does return, his Joker is primed to be the most monstrous version of the villain we’ve ever seen in live action, a particularly vile kind of nemesis who clearly has some sort of demented affection for Pattinson’s Batman. (At one point, he cradles his face as he asks the hero the kind of personal questions Bruce Wayne would rather not answer.) Judging by the palpable dread Reeves wrung out of the Riddler, one thing’s clear: His vision for Joker will be far from a laughing matter.
The Batman is in theaters, and is slated to hit HBO Max April 19.