There’s never been a better time to be alive, especially if you happen to belong to that small subset of consumers who prefer their Gotham City a little less Batman-y.
With “Joker” opening Thursday night in movie theaters and “Batwoman” premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday on The CW, viewers can soak in most of the hallmarks of DC Comics’ greatest hero
— sorry, Superman — without being burdened by the Dark Knight’s creepy, masked vigilante vibe and possible psychopathy.
He’s been portrayed as campy, demented and a walking cartoon who declared that Gotham was in dire need of an enema.
What the Joker never has been — at least in live-action TV and film adaptations — is terrifying.
By throwing aside almost all of the established Batman canon, “Joker” writer-director Todd Phillips (“The Hangover” movies) and star Joaquin Phoenix have created a masterstroke of villainy.
It’s a beautifully ugly film that — say a little prayer that nothing heinous transpires — should be able to overcome the glorifying-a-killer arguments that have, at times, overwhelmed the movie in the weeks leading up to its release. After all, “Joker” makes the point, quite clearly if you’re paying attention, that its subject isn’t a hero — except to other violent misanthropes, as the Joker always has been.
In the early 1980s, Gotham is a broken institution. Gangs run wild, garbage is piling up on the streets, and class warfare is becoming a very real thing. Yet, somehow, there’s still room for Ha-Ha’s, the rent-a-clown service that employs Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) and the co-worker who, after Arthur is assaulted by a group of teenagers, slips him a handgun to protect himself.
Arthur is not a well man.
He’s on seven different medications and asks for more.
He carries a laminated card that explains his outbursts of maniacal laughter are the result of a mental condition.
He’s easily fixated: on a neighbor (Zazie Beetz), a late-night TV host (Robert De Niro) and billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), who plays a much more prominent role than his young son, Bruce.
Despite all of this, Arthur is aware enough to know he shouldn’t have a gun. But when the city eliminates the funding for his weekly appointments with a social worker, as well as his meds, Arthur’s life spirals violently out of control.
In the hands of Phoenix, whose performance is nothing short of extraordinary, the character feels real for the first time.
There’s no “whoops, I fell into a vat of chemicals” origin story. His reign of terror is the result of mental illness, a broken safety net and a gun.
And the result is the type of can’t-look-away disturbing that few movies have ever achieved.
Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) left her hometown of Gotham to train with some of the world’s top combat and survival specialists so she could one day help protect the city’s residents. Not as a superhero, but as a member of the private security company her father (Dougray Scott) founded to fill the void left when Batman disappeared three years ago.
During a charity event where city leaders finally get around to turning off the Batsignal — A sentimental touch, but, seriously, after all these years, Batman hadn’t upgraded to a cellphone or even a pager? — one of those security agents is abducted. When Kate learns it was her ex-girlfriend, Sophie (Meagan Tandy), she interrupts her exile, returns to Gotham and eventually assumes the mantle of Batwoman.
Let’s get this out of the way now: Batwoman is a lesbian. And, before you get all upset about how Hollywood keeps messing with established characters to force liberal agendas down your throat, this isn’t a new revelation. Kate Kane has never been anything but gay since she was introduced in the pages of DC Comics back in 2006. Kate’s sexuality isn’t a big deal in the series; it’s simply who she is.
Anyway, while Gotham may have recently turned its collective back on Batman, Kate did that years ago, blaming him for failing to save the lives of her mother and sister before their car fell into a river.
Upon her return, Kate breaks into the abandoned Wayne Enterprises headquarters — her beloved cousin, Bruce Wayne, also hasn’t been seen in three years — where she discovers the Batcave and finally realizes Bruce and Batman are one and the same.
Kate has Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson), the son of Bruce’s ally Lucius Fox, modify the Batsuit here and there to be a little more form-fitting, then sets out to deliver her own brand of vigilante justice.
Her years of training have made her a formidable fighter. But, between a last-second reveal in Sunday’s premiere and the fact that she was never able to recognize the man she considered her “fun, irresponsible big brother” was also Batman, even though they both vanished at the same time … well, let’s just say Kate isn’t exactly the detective her cousin was.
Need more Batman-adjacent dramas in your life? Check out some of these:
In 1960s London, former special-forces officer Alfred Pennyworth (Jack Bannon) begins working with Thomas Wayne in this drama from the premium channel Epix.
A young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is a major character, but this recently concluded Fox series mostly focuses on Gotham City Police Department partners Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) as they investigate the villains Batman will one day battle.
Ad designer Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) drowns and is reborn with new catlike powers when an ancient Egyptian feline breathes on her.
Dick Grayson (Brenton Thwaites), the original Robin, rejects Bruce Wayne, leaves Gotham and mentors a group of superpowered young people in this dark drama available on the DC Universe streaming service.
“Suicide Squad” (2016)
Batman appears in a couple of brief flashbacks, and Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) pops up at the end. But the movie focuses on an array of his fearsome foes — namely Will Smith’s Deadshot and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn — as they’re forced to fight to save Midway City.
“Birds of Prey” (2002-03)
Oracle (formerly known as Batgirl and Barbara Gordon), Huntress (Helena Kyle, aka the daughter of Batman and Catwoman) and the telepathic daughter of Black Canary team up to fight crime after Batman leaves Gotham in this short-lived WB series that shouldn’t be confused with …
“Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” (Feb. 7, 2020)
Margot Robbie reprises her role in this “Suicide Squad” sequel/spinoff that finds Harley Quinn joining forces with Huntress and Black Canary.
“Harley Quinn” (later this fall)
The DC Universe original animated series, which will follow the villain’s attempts to strike out on her own, has a killer voice cast including Jason Alexander, Giancarlo Esposito, Wanda Sykes, Christopher Meloni, Tony Hale, Jim Rash, Lake Bell and Kaley Cuoco as Harley.