There is no superhero without his supervillain, and while Batman continues to be one of, if not, the most popular superheroes to date, he could not be the hero he is without The Joker. Despite the huge success of the Marvel franchise, Thanos will never reach the acclaim of the Clown Prince of Crime. With his clown makeup, purple suit, and sadistic personality, The Joker is the master criminal, psychopath, and in some cases prankster that we love to hate. Without further ado, let’s discuss the most iconic supervillain of all time.
Brief Comics History
In 1940, the Joker was first introduced in the original Batman #1. He was supposed to die at the end of the issue but was saved due to an editorial decision. The character was conceived as a ruthless killer that preyed on his victims with “Joker venom,” a gas that left wide, smiling faces on the victims. “Joker venom” is still attributed to the character today. The character remained to be a serial killer for the next ten years, in a period that is known as the Gold Age of Comics.
Then came the Comics Code Authority, an organization that sought to censor comics, and the SIlver Age with it. If you didn’t get the seal of approval this organization provided, you would have a hard time getting your comic distributed. The Joker was transformed into a prankster in order to fit these guidelines, and would play practical jokes on Batman and Robin.
In the 1970s, the character was again changed in what is known as the Bronze Age of comics. The Comics Code Authority had gone through revisions and so the character regained his insanity. He became what he was in the 1940s again. In the ‘80s came the Modern Age and with it a change in comics’ demographics from children to adults. It was here that the Joker became an even darker villain, brutally killing his victims. These victims became well-established characters compared to previously where he killed random people. A famous example is (spoiler) Barbara Gordon in 1988’s “The Killing Joke”, which also established the most well-known origin story for the character, though this has varied across different adaptations.
Film and Television Adaptations
Cesar Romero: From 1966 to 1968, the wacky, zany Batman aired, starring Cesar Romero as a cackling, irreverent prankster. While this Joker wasn’t the most serious, Romero brought a fun take on the character. He looked more like “evil” Ronald McDonald than the Clown Prince of Crime. This became one of Romero’s most iconic roles, despite the actor’s many other film credits including as male love interests and historical characters. Fun fact: the actor didn’t want to shave his iconic mustache for the series so the white paint was smeared over it. You can tell if you look close enough.
Jack Nicholson: In 1989, the character was revived again in Tim Burton’s Batman. Nicholson’s Joker was a homicidal mobster, having a team working for him. While Nicholson’s Joker is not at the top of anyone’s “Best Joker” list it did serve as inspiration for many other Jokers to come. It was the first film to feature the Joker as he appears in the comic books, as a serious criminal and not as Romero’s prankster.
Heath Ledger: Ledger played The Joker in The Dark Knight, which served as one of the best live action performances of the character and one of the best interpretations. Here the character was portrayed differently than ever before: stocky with long hair and a purple overcoat. Ledger’s Joker felt more grounded in reality then previous Jokers had, having clear symptoms of a variety of mental illnesses, and childhood trauma that was described throughout the film. It’s no wonder every single performance since then has been compared to Ledger’s. Heath Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Joker in The Dark Knight
Mark Hamill: While Ledger’s performance is one of the best live action performances, Mark Hamill delivers the best animated performance. If you’ve seen a good Batman animated film, TV show, or video game, there was most likely Mark Hamill doing the acting, most notably in Batman: The Animated Series and the Arkham game series. Hamill brings wit and a sarcastic tone to the character, which works perfectly as a contrast to The Joker’s harsh and sociopathic actions.
Jared Leto: While Leto’s performance was short-lived and that’s arguably for the better given the many allegations made against him, his Joker was an interesting one. He became a tattooed, sports car driving gangster.
Joaquin Phoenix: The most recent Joker is the one who got his own film. Phoenix ended up winning an Academy Award for his performance of this character, and it’s easy to see why. We see the transformation of a mild mannered but troubled person into a serial killer. Phoenix’s character is poor, mentally ill, and forgotten by the system. And the actor portrays him perfectly, showing the full range of the character’s emotions and presenting a real, raw, and at times ugly portrait of someone with mental illness
The Joker has seen numerous developments over the years. I’ve never seen a version of the character I didn’t like. Even the barefoot, gorilla-like The Batman Joker was fascinating to watch. With new iterations being made, who knows what’s next for one of the most well known supervillains of all time.
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