Riddle Me This

Why Paul Dano's Riddler is the better version of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker

Paul Dano’s Riddler isn’t just an agent of chaos.

There’s been a lot of talk about the similarities between Matt Reeves’ The Batman and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Specifically, fans have written and spoken about how reminiscent the dynamic between Robert Pattinson’s Batman and Paul Dano’s Riddler is to the one Christian Bale’s Batman and Heath Ledger’s Joker shared.

But beyond a few surface similarities, the relationship between Dano’s Riddler and Ledger’s Joker is actually pretty thin. While The Batman villain does have a lot in common with a Joker, it’s not the version most fans seem to think.

How About Another Joke? — Paul Dano’s Riddler is the most terrifying comic book movie villain since the Joker in The Dark Knight, and over the course of The Batman he wreaks plenty of havoc throughout Gotham City. That said, when he’s finally unmasked it becomes clear that his driving motivation isn’t just to cause chaos but to escape his unshakeable loneliness.

Unlike Ledger’s Joker, who seems happy to be who he is, Dano’s Riddler is a man who’s spent decades boiling in his own bitter loneliness. He feels he’s been forgotten by the city he calls home, and he sets out to remind it he exists in as explosive a manner as possible. For those reasons, Dano’s Edward Nashton is less like Heath Ledger's Clown Prince of Crime and more like Joaquin Phoenix’s sad sack Arthur Fleck in 2019’s Joker.

Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck in 2019’s Joker.Warner Bros. Pictures

Much like Phoenix’s Arthur, The Batman’s Nashton is a villain forged out of loneliness and despair. While Fleck’s childhood was marred by abuse and lies, Nashton’s was defined by his city’s false promises of renewal. Both characters suffered from injustices out of their control, and they used those slights as excuses to unleash bloodshed on those they consider responsible for their misery.

Unlike Joker, which pities its central character more than it should, The Batman explores Nashton’s legitimate criticisms of Gotham without ever making him sympathetic. It allows you to understand his motivations while also making it explicitly clear that he’s not someone any audience member should sympathize with.

“What have you done?”Warner Bros. Pictures

In some ways, The Dark Knight was the first comic book movie to really expose the codependent relationship between Batman and many of his villains. The interrogation scene in The Dark Knight is charged because it’s the moment when the Joker and Batman’s relationship crystallizes, a shift marked by Ledger telling Bale “You complete me” as if they’re the leads in a romcom.

The Riddler and Batman’s conversation in The Batman echoes that scene through Nashton’s insistence that he and Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne are one and the same. However, Ledger’s Joker doesn’t start his crusade intent on forming an everlasting bond with Batman. He wants to murder Batman when The Dark Knight begins, and only stumbles upon their similarities in the film’s second act.

So while the relationship between Riddler and Batman may feel similar to the one shared by the Joker and the Caped Crusader, they’re ultimately very different. Dano’s Edward Nashton becomes The Riddler because he feels a kinship to Pattinson’s Batman, while The Dark Knight hints that Ledger’s Joker may have existed with or without Bale’s Bruce Wayne.

Paul Dano as Edward Nashton a.k.a. The Riddler in The Batman.Warner Bros. Pictures

In The Batman, Paul Dano’s Edward Nashton wants to destroy Gotham in much the same way Heath Ledger’s Joker does, but their motivations couldn’t be more different. For the latter, watching the world burn is a way for him to turn reality upside down. However, for Dano’s Riddler and Phoenix’s Joker, destroying Gotham is the only way they can think of to make other people feel how they do, which is what ultimately makes them more linked to each other than to Ledger’s agent of chaos.

Furthermore, by rooting both Dano’s Riddler and Phoenix’s Arthur in such legible emotional territory, Joker and The Batman succeed at making their central villains feel all the more real and terrifying. The two films manage to take the grounded aesthetic of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy a step further. They don’t just root themselves in worlds that feel real, but also populate them with villains that are eerily similar to the kind of toxic, violent male figures that are all too familiar to the 21st century.

Fans should start looking at The Riddler’s scenes with Batman not as retreads of moments from The Dark Knight, but as the closest they may ever come to seeing Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck share a scene with Pattinson’s Batman.

The Batman is playing now in theaters.

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