Every hero has his foil. Without a villain to defeat, a superhero is worthless. Spidey has Venom, Mario has Bowser, and Superman has Lex Luthor. But perhaps no villain has been as memorable and captivating as The Joker.
Since The Joker’s first appearance, he has been a fan favorite and the benchmark of what a comic book villain should be. He is unpredictable, undeniably evil, and certifiably insane, and it’s these character traits that make him such a great villain.
To celebrate 75 years of insanity since The Joker first arrived, All That’s Epic is taking a look at the origins of the Clown Prince of Crime and his evolution, through TV and film, into the character that he has become today. So, let’s put a smile on that face and get ready for some of the Joker’s most memorable appearances. And here we go.
“Batman” #1 (1940)
The Joker first showed up on the scene in Detective Comics’ “Batman #1.” From the very first panels in which The Joker appears, he is already sporting many aspects of his trademark appearance and MO. He has the green hair and purple suit that have become Joker signatures, as well as a “mask-like” white face and burning “hate-filled eyes.”
For his first crime, The Joker steals a large diamond and replaces it with a fake. He has administered a slow-acting poison that will kill Claridge, the diamond’s owner, the following day. His plan, which is typical of the Joker, is to widely publicize the fact that he plans to do the robbery and murder and then watch authorities squirm as he seemingly does it right under their noses. Little do they know that the crime was committed the day before, and the Joker is long gone.
Throughout the years, The Joker has a knack for similar types of crimes. He will announce the crime to the city, and despite Batman and the police’s best efforts, he still manages to pull it off. From his earliest beginnings, The Joker is a criminal genius who loves to play with people’s minds.
Batman TV Series (1966-1968)
Kapow! Wham! Bang! In the 1966 TV series and feature length film, The Joker is portrayed by triple threat actor-singer-dancer Cesar Romero. In perhaps one of the funniest and creepiest compromises in TV history, Romero refused to shave his trademark mustache for the role. As a result, what we get is The Joker in his classic white makeup and purple suit, with green hair and an extremely disconcerting and uncomfortable white pedo-stache.
As a kid, the 1966 Batman film was one of my favorites to watch, and I really believed that, in case of a shark attack, a good ol’ aerosol can of shark repellent would be my first, and best, line of defense. Romero’s Joker is less crazy and more comical than other portrayals, but in a show that focuses on teaching kids the moral values of eating your veggies and treating the elderly with respect, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. But at least The Joker is supposed to be funny right? He certainly is when played by Romero. His crimes are silly and pretty much nonthreatening, and if things ever got really bad, Bats and Joker could always settle their differences with a friendly surfing competition.
There’s no question that Jack Nicholson is an incredible actor, and a master of his craft. Having received twelve Oscar nominations and three wins, he currently stands as the most nominated actor of all time. So, casting the famous actor in a huge villainous role probably seemed like a big win. While some people really enjoy Tim Burton’s Batman, I am not one of them. The sole stand-out factor for me is Nicholson’s role as The Joker.
One great thing about this Joker is the make up. The 1989 film cleverly pinches up The Joker’s cheeks and elongates his face and chin, making his appearance very faithful to the comic books.
Batman was released before my love for movies began, and the film itself hasn’t stood up well to the test of time. But Nicholson delivers a fine performance as the Clown Prince, especially compared to previous actors (for example, the one we just discussed). Again, though, like Romero, Nicholson doesn’t reach the level of psychopathy that defines who The Joker really is, and while he isn’t necessarily funny, he isn’t insane either. The best word to describe this character is probably ‘wacky’. What really gets me though is that it feels less like Jack Nicholson is playing The Joker, and more like Jack Nicholson is playing Jack Nicholson playing The Joker (and that’s not a typo). It just seems strange, kind of like every movie with Samuel L. Jackson, ever. Sam Jackson is usually just playing himself playing someone else. The character doesn’t seem as important as the actor, and that definitely feels true in the case of Nicholson and Batman.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
Mark Hamill is known primarily for two roles: Luke Skywalker and The Joker (in that order). Even before his role as Luke, Hamill was gaining a great reputation as a voice actor, and even though Batman: The Animated Series only ran for three years, Hamill quickly became the go-to guy to voice Batman’s most famous nemesis. He starred as The Joker in numerous other animated Batman shows and animated films, and also reprised the role for the majority of the Arkham video games.
Hamill’s perfect tone, inflection and crazy, maniacal laugh make him the perfect choice for a more flamboyant, animated version of The Joker. When he wasn’t available to voice the villain in the 2013 game Arkham Origins, the brilliant Troy Baker took over and, rather than create a new voice and character, delivered a spot-on impression and performance of Hamill’s Joker. This just goes to show how widely accepted and loved Hamill’s delivery has become.
What can I say about Heath Ledger’s Joker that either hasn’t been said a million times, or won’t start a fanboy riot? I’ll do my best.
Many people had their doubts about this version of the Joker, but those doubts were instantly quelled within mere moments of his appearance on screen. What I, and most people, love about this Joker is the quiet, menacing evil that is so apparent throughout the film. Ledger’s Joker is the perfect opposite to Romero’s. Ledger captures The Joker’s insanity better than anyone, and he isn’t so much funny as he is shocking. Shocking as in, “did he really just slam that pencil into that guy’s head?!” Or, “does he…enjoy being dressed like an old timey female nurse?”
Ledger elevates The Joker from a hypothetical madman to something horrifying and real. When I look at him, I think “this is the real deal. This guy is a legit serial killer. He is a bona fide lunatic, and will haunt my dreams for weeks.”
The Dark Knight isn’t my favorite Batman film (that statement probably deserves a Confession Bear meme) but there is no denying the brilliance and perfection poured into this realization of The Joker.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Last week, the world got its first glimpse of what The Joker will look like in the upcoming Suicide Squad film, played by Jared Leto. While the photo has been subject to brutal criticism and high praise alike, one thing is for certain: Leto’s Joker is new, interesting, and unique.
Personally, I love the new look. I think all the tattoos might be a bit much, but many of them will likely be covered up for the majority of the movie. That being said, I think the “HAHAHA” tats are a brilliant homage to “The Killing Joke” graphic novel. Leto’s short, green hair is perfectly modern, but still iconic, and the grills, though initially strange, just work.
The new Joker appearance not only captures the character’s insanity, but also mirrors the actor’s own personality. If I were to look at this Joker, with no knowledge of who Jared Leto is, I would think to myself, “if The Joker was the front man of a punk/alternative rock band, this is what he’d look like.” And then I’d learn about Leto and this little band called 30 Seconds to Mars, and my mind would be sufficiently blown. This Joker looks terrifyingly great. So, haters, have some faith!
What do you think of the new Joker look for Suicide Squad? What is your favorite version of The Joker. Is it from a show, film, game, or comic? What other DC villains are you excited to see in the future? Let us know in the comments!
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