There aren’t many comic book villains that have managed to remain so consistent and yet so fresh over 75 years. Yet The Joker is clearly in a league of his own. In preparation for a new chapter in his story next year, we look back at how this iconic screen presence has evolved over the years.
He’s one of the most iconic comic creations in human history, with a face so recognisable that it’s weathered more than 75 years of reinvention. Yet, The Joker was originally intended to make just one appearance before being killed off. What a change in fortunes that turned out to be…
Bursting onto the pages of Batman #1 from 1940, The Joker has blazed a trail of mayhem and unnerving laughter through Gotham City in a legacy that’s every bit as enduring and well-loved as the Caped Crusader’s own. Having flashed his scarlet smile across comic books, TV shows, cartoons, movies and video games, there have been many different interpretations of his unmistakable look over the years. Yet, in all that time, he’s remained a compelling character – one who fans show little sign of growing tired of any time soon.
With Jared Leto preparing a whole new iteration of the grinning, green-haired nemesis for next year’s Suicide Squad, we felt it was high time to take a look back at the killer clown’s history and the way others have chosen to interpret him. You may find some portrayals funny, some sad and some downright scary. Then again, The Joker really wouldn’t have it any other way.
Cesar Romero, Batman (1966-1968)
The first man to portray The Joker on any screen, Cesar Romero brought a dash of Hollywood to the classic ‘Harlequin of Hate.’ Previously, Romero had been cast as a ‘Latin lover’ of sorts in many of his earlier film roles, but when given the chance to play The Joker the actor fully embraced the campy, clown-like direction of the character. That said, Romero absolutely refused to shave off his mustache for the part, so the white face paint had to be applied pretty generously each time he appeared on screen!
The Joker first appeared in the episode “The Joker is Wild,” which sees him escape from jail via an over-the-top, spring-loaded machine that catapults him over the prison wall during a baseball game. He then goes on to develop his own utility belt to combat Batman and Robin, complete with strangling streamers and smoke bombs! The spirit of this episode perfectly captures how The Joker was portrayed in the comics during the 1960s, which was as an elaborate prankster more concerned with besting Batman rather than conducting any of the violent rampages he is known for before and after this period.
Romero would go on to make twenty-two appearances as The Joker during the show’s run, with his last appearance in the 1968 episode “The Joker’s Flying Saucer.” The episode features Joker launching rumors of an invasion from outer space in order to place himself in a position to take over. It’s safe to say that this version of the character, while iconic in its own way and no doubt well-suited to the twee Adam West-era Batman, is a far cry from where the Joker is today. But how exactly did the character make such a radical transformation? What took him from this unashamedly camp pantomime villain to the ruthlessly cold figure so loved today?
Jack Nicholson, Batman (1989)
While the Joker made appearances in several short-lived animated series from the 1960s through the 1980s, it wasn’t until Tim Burton’s blockbuster film Batman that The Joker returned to the screen in live action.
Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker took elements of those camp early years, including the gimmicks and garish dress of Romero’s version, and then veered them all down a frightening new path. The film relied on several tried-and-tested Joker hallmarks, such as a wildly erratic temperament and a tendency to juxtapose moments of humor with extreme violence, alongside more physical elements, like his deadly gas that leaves victims with a horrifying fixated smile on their faces. Nicholson also gave us the now legendary line, “have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight,” which went on to become almost the defining element of his more sinister side.
Nicholson’s dazzling white makeup, bright purple suit and a striking red lips cut a stark contrast to Burton’s grim, grey Gotham City — something that made The Joker’s demonic personality all the more unsettling. The portrayal was an instant hit with film critics and fans alike, many citing the actor’s performance as the standout aspect of the film. Even though The Joker (SPOLIER ALERT!) falls to his death in the film’s climactic scene, the character’s impact was so great that Nicholson was supposed to make a cameo appearance during a flashback scene in another planned Batman film, Batman Triumphant. However, due to the poorly received Batman and Robin the film was scrapped.
Despite this, both Nicholson’s Joker and the film itself had a profound impact on the evolution of the character, leaving behind a legacy that hung around long after the clouds of laughing gas has cleared.
Mark Hamill, Batman the Animated Series (1992-1994) and The New Batman Adventures (1997-1999)
Mark Hamill has the unique honor of being a bona-fide legend in two different, yet equally huge, fandoms: Star Wars and Batman. Coming off the success of Burton’s Batman, Bruce Timm’s animated cartoon series debuted in 1992 to widespread acclaim. And, in just the second episode, Hamill made his debut as the Clown Prince of Crime.
This new Joker took all the flair for drama and violence from Nicholson and threw in a dash of Romero’s gleeful laughter to create a Joker made up of equal parts mayhem and dark humor – all dolled up in that signature purple suit and green coiffure. Hamill’s trademark laughter made the Joker the standout character of the series, which also saw the birth of his very own sidekick: Harley Quinn. Equally manic, yet markedly less malicious, Harley provided the perfect counterpart to Joker’s darker moments on screen.
Over the course of its four-year run the show saw Hamill’s Joker try to patent a fish with his own smile on it, create an army of machine gun-equipped toy soldiers, try to stage a bombing on New Year’s Eve and try to electrocute Batman live on TV, alongside a host of other madcap acts that struck a fine balance between being appropriate for children while keeping more adult fans engaged.
The show’s universal popularity, distinct visual style and well-executed characterization saw Hamill’s Joker rise to such fame and notoriety that he went on to voice the character in several subsequent video game adaptations as well. However, while undoubtedly well-loved, this enduring vision would end up serving as the catalyst for a big change in The Joker’s epic personal saga. With three iterations having so successfully toed the line between mischievous prankster and criminal kingpin, by the time Joker returned in 2008 it was time for an entirely new direction altogether. One that came to be defined by just three simple words…
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)
Why so serious? Such a simple question, and yet so frightening when delivered with such chilling subtext. The irony, of course, being that Heath Ledger’s now infamous re-imagination of The Joker was the very definition of “serious” itself…
To say that this version of the Joker wasn’t the darkest and most violent one to date would be, well, nothing short of a joke! Bringing a sense of chaos, mayhem and genuine sociopathic lack of empathy to the character, Ledger developed his own take on the role by studying important Joker stories such as 1988’s graphic novel The Killing Joke, which focused on how the Joker became the mentally deranged criminal he is. While the clownlike purple suit, green hair, white skin and penchant for games and trickery all carry over to this version as well, ultimately Ledger’s is a Joker whose punchlines all have a cruel sting in their tail. Meanwhile, his trademark laugh became a terrifying signifier of his anarchic take on the world – one in which rules are routinely disregarded in pursuit of pure mayhem.
Ledger’s portrayal was met with unbridled critical and commercial success, although sadly he passed away before the film’s release. In recognition of the truly original spin he brought to this most legendary of comic book figures he became only the second actor to win a posthumous Academy Award for his performance. Many saw Ledger’s Joker as a return to the character’s roots (in the comic book, not Cesar Romero) and welcomed the portrayal as being true to the character and his murderous origins. None could deny the way Ledger embodied the spirit of this unsettling icon, turning a giggling clown into an object of abject horror.
So where exactly will Jared Leto’s Joker end up on the scale of great Joker performances when he makes his debut in Suicide Squad next year? Based on the first trailer, along with a handful of leaked images of him sporting tattoos all over his body, it looks like we could be in for another turn in the unpredictable super villain’s career. While, at present, fans appear divided over the Joker’s new look — complete with gaunt body, tattoos, and silver teeth — the ability to provoke strong reactions is perhaps the Joker’s most quintessential calling card. And, in that at least, it looks like Leto will be every bit as successful as his forebears.
The only question that remains is: will that card turn out to be an ace up his sleeve, or something far lower in the pack…
Words by Nick Winstead for Highsnobiety.com