An exploration of Batman’s most famous rogue through time.
Villains. They come in many different shapes and sizes. An iconic villain is capable of overshadowing the hero and winning over fans of their own. The Joker is one of those villains for sure. From his debut appearance in Batman, Joker has been one of the most recognizable and greatest comic book villains ever created. Not only has his comic book persona been seared into our collective conscious, but his portrayal in television and film has been equally revered.
The Joker has had many incarnations over the years, but he first made his mark on the world in 1940 with Batman #1. In the comic, he had a persona of pure evil, killing at will. Joker was almost a one-off villain in the world of Batman. The editors at the time believed that Batman should overcome most of his foes with ease, but according to whatculture, DC editor Whitney Ellsworth thought the character was too good to toss aside. Thank goodness.
Throughout the 40s and 50s, the Joker would be a mainstay in Batman, becoming the Dark Knight’s signature adversary. It wasn’t until 1951 that the Joker was given an origin story. The comic, Detective Comics #168, depicted the Joker as a masked criminal known as Red Hood. His face gets disfigured after falling into a chemical vat. In the mid-60s, the comic book finally was given the green light for a television adaptation.
The directors of the Batman television show needed a signature Joker to be the foil to their masked crusader and they went with a former “Latin lover”. Cesar Romero played a lover for plenty of films from the 30s-50s and had his fair share of television credits to his name when he signed on to Batman. Like many of the elements of the Batman 1966 TV show, Romero was given the freedom to play Joker with an over-the-top, campy persona that brought a certain kind of madness to television audiences.
Romero would make his first appearance in the fifth episode of the television series in the episode titled “The Joker is Wild”. Showcasing the Joker’s more athletic side with a mean underhanded baseball pitch, Joker escapes asylum by springing to freedom. Of course, after a cliffhanger where Batman and Robin were in their biggest crisis yet, the Joker would be defeated in the next episode. Such is life as a villain.
Many of the gadgets the Joker used throughout his appearances in the comics showed up in the show, but the character had to be tamed for prime time TV audiences of the 1960s. There was far less actual murder and a lot more failed attempts to unveil Batman’s identity. When the Batman show ended a few years later, so did Romero’s time with the Joker. Joker would continue to appear in the comics, but in 1989 he made his first appearance in multiplexes.
There were many names attached to the Joker for his big picture debut, but producer Michael Uslan and Batman creator Bob Kane had one actor in mind, Jack Nicholson. The Oscar winning actor brought a certain pedigree to the character that cannot be understated. Nicholson brought an unhinged version of Joker to the screen, one that exemplified the deranged and ruthless villain. Gone were the campy undertones, replaced with a man who relishes killing his victims. The film also gave the filmmakers to include some of Joker’s most recognizable weapons, including his “Joker Venom” which left his victims with a permanent smile.
Roughly adapting the Joker origin story from the 1950s, Jack Napier (Nicholson) starts off as nothing more than an ambitious two-bit criminal. When a scuffle with Batman lands him in a chemical vat, he becomes the arch-criminal known simply as “The Joker”. Nicholson brings his adaptation of the character to literal new heights, finishing his role as the Joker at the top of cathedral. For years, Nicholson’s Joker depiction was without equal, but luckily there were actors up to the task.
With the success of the motion picture, Batman was a hot property once again. The franchise would make its return to television, but this time as an animated series. The actor who would have to follow in the footsteps of Nicholson, was none other than Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill.
Hamill has been voicing the Joker for the past twenty four years, whether in video games or more recent adaptations such as the controversial The Killing Joke animated film. Although fans have a hard time imagining another voice behind Joker, Hamill has said in a Reddit AMA, “ I thought no way would they have the person that played Luke Skywalker cast as the Joker – they are the quintessential extremes of good and evil.” His depiction of the character certainly would border on appropriateness for the family audience the show was gunning for.
Joker of the Batman animated series would hearken back to the golden era of comics (late 30s to early 50s), while also incorporating elements from Nicholson and Romero. The trademark purple jacket and sinister smile were there for all to see, but this Joker was not fooling around. In one of the signature episodes of the series, “Joker’s Favor”, TV audiences get a taste of the madness this Joker is capable of. Joker will spare a life if it suits his agenda, but don’t be surprised if he comes to claim it later.
Director Christopher Nolan was given the reins to bring the Batman movie franchise back to life in 2005, but it wasn’t until his 2008 feature, The Dark Knight, that the Joker made an appearance. When it came time to cast the Joker, the decision was met with a disdain from DC Comics faithful. They couldn’t imagine Heath Ledger, a “pretty boy” kn0wn for his roles in Brokeback Mountain and 10 Things I Hate About You, could play such a sinister villain. Thankfully, Ledger was up to the task and then some.
Ledger brought his Joker to life with the trademark phrase “Why so serious?” and accelerated at full blast from there. Along with Nolan’s vision of a hopeless Gotham City, came a villain that brought equal amounts of nightmare fuel to his victims. Ledger’s Joker had absolutely no limits and that brought forth a loose canon. The late actor would unfortunetly pass away before the film’s release, although fans and critics universally applaud his depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime.
Another actor is set to give his own unique spin to the Joker in the feature film, Suicide Squad. Where Academy award winner Jared Leto will be on pantheon of Joker performances before him remains to be seen. Although the character seems poised to shatter expectations and reinvent the wheel of what audiences require from the Joker.
The seriousness from the DC Universe seems to be wearing thin and this could be a return to a character who is more like the animated series Joker. Jared Leto might not share that vision though because he recently told Rolling Stone, “If the Joker did this interview, he’d definitely castrate you and make you eat your own testicles. Just for fun. That’s if he liked you.” That doesn’t sound like a guy who seems contented with anything less than murder.
Whether or not Leto succeeds with the Joker, he will be judged on the iconic performances before him. That kind of pressure might be the madness an actor needs to embody a psychopath.