Not since Michael Douglas discovered money doesn’t sleep on Wall Street has an actor reprised the role for which they won the Oscar. But Joaquin Phoenix, Todd Phillips, and Warner Bros. are not waiting nearly so long to revisit the billion-dollar well of Joker, their character study/origin story of Batman’s greatest villain. Rumors of Joker 2 have abounded ever since the original movie stunned the industry three years ago when a vast global audience turned up for a gritty drama… at least when it was based on a popular comic book character.
So confirmation that co-writer and director Phillips, as well as Phoenix, are moving ahead with a Joker sequel is not a total shock. Nevertheless, when the director shared the below images on social media last night it was a bit surreal to see the follow-up has a script and title that appropriately match the pretensions of its predecessor—Joker: Folie à Deux.
Calling on the terminology of 19th century psychiatry, Phillips and Phoenix sent fan communities scrambling across the web to research the term and get a glimpse at what Joker 2 might actually be about. The literal translation of the term means “folly of two” and relates to the way symptoms of a delusional belief, and sometimes even hallucinations, can transfer from one person to another. The modern understanding of this is called shared delusional disorder (SDD).
So perhaps not surprisingly many fans have jumped to speculating the movie will be about Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, aka the Joker, seducing and corrupting Dr. Harleen Quinzel, aka the future Harley Quinn. In a vacuum that is understandable, appealing even. The term is, after all, from bygone psychiatry and Suicide Squad’s pitiful attempt in 2016 to briefly adapt Mad Love, the comic telling of Joker and Harley’s twisted love story, left something to be desired. Why not pick up with Arthur still in a psychiatric ward and turning the screws on his own personal Nurse Ratched? It could even pave the way for a Bonnie & Clyde (or at least Natural Born Killers) influenced movie.
All of which would be on brand for Phillips, who not so subtly remade in all but name classic noirs and psychological dramas from Martin Scorsese’s early career, namely Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) when he co-wrote the first Joker screenplay.
So Arthur and Harley becoming Mickey and Mallory seems very on brand for Phillips’ recontextualization of notorious late 20th century cinema in early 21st century IP garb. However, both that fact and the National Institutes of Health’s definition for “folie à deux” makes us wonder if there is another direction the film could be going in entirely.
According to the NIH (via NCBI), “Folie à deux is defined as an identical or similar mental disorder affecting two or more individuals, usually the members of a close family.”
It can refer to people who are family. Or at least think they are. And if you recall in the original Joker movie, before calling himself Joker, Arthur Fleck presented himself to a young Bruce Wayne as his long lost brother. This is an idea (or delusion) that had to become quite horrible for Bruce after Arthur’s later anarchic rage against the machine caused a mob to murder his parents.
One of the very last things we see in Joker is Arthur, now devoid of his makeup, in a psychiatric ward laughing to himself at the thought of rich boy Bruce Wayne being orphaned by the have-nots of Gotham City. This is obviously a thread of great significance not only to this version of Batman and Joker mythos, but to the themes Phillips wanted to explore about the cruelties of a society where the wealthy practically get away with murder… until the Joker and his forces murder them.
So while pivoting to a Joker and Harley story has appeal, particularly for fans left wanting by the first Suicide Squad movie, I personally suspect Phillips’ interests lie elsewhere. Further Scorsese has left a few blueprints in this direction as well.
If you recall in Gangs of New York (2002), Leonardo DiCaprio first worked with Scorsese by playing the young son of a titan in his Irish immigrant community who was murdered by a rival gang (or mob) led by the proverbial warlord of the Five Points: Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher. The film thus becomes about young Amsterdam (DiCaprio) befriending Bill (Day-Lewis) and finding himself seduced by the gentleman thug’s charisma and bizarre moral code. Can he bring himself to kill his new surrogate father figure, and can he do so without becoming just like him?
This would not be the only Scorsese and DiCaprio collaboration to deal with the themes of fathers and sons, toxic masculinity, and duplicitous identities among the underworld. In the movie Scorsese finally won an Oscar for, The Departed (2006), DiCaprio again plays a proverbial rat who goes undercover within the crew of modern crime boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). While DiCaprio’s Billy Costigan is far less seduced by Costello than Amsterdam is by Bill the Butcher, in both cases a large amount of the tension becomes about the younger generation hiding their roots (and in Billy’s case pretending he is the straight arrow’s son who fell far from the tree and then spoiled) while the older generation looks at them like the son they never had.
It is not hard to imagine Phillips again looking to Scorsese for inspiration, and further exploring his own warped interpretation of the Batman/Joker dichotomy by making a sequel entirely about Arthur’s relationship with Bruce, and perhaps their shared delusion of being “brothers.” In this telling, Arthur could break out of Arkham maybe a decade after the events of the first movie and find a Gotham filled with gangland kids and anarchists who still worship what the Joker did to Murray on late night TV way back when. And among them is an angry young man who, like the Joker, feels the world hasn’t treated him fairly. A kid named Bruce.