By Nick Maylor
“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”
– The Joker (From Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke)
The Joker was created by Jerry Robinson, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. While credit for the Joker’s creation is disputed, as is the case with Batman himself, Bill Finger’s writing contribution was likely not properly recognized at first. The character first appeared in the debut issue of the comic-book Batman (April 25, 1940). While originally a comic-book creation, The Joker’s inspiration traces its roots back to the silent film era; specifically, actor Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of the character Gwynplaine in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs.
The Joker was first portrayed in live action by Cesar Romero in the 1960s Batman television series. Fitting with the light and campy tone of the series, this Joker is more of a manic prankster than a maniacal psychopath. Romero famously refused to shave his moustache for the role and thus it was visible beneath his white face makeup in each of his appearances. Romero was the first actor to solidify a signature laugh for the character, something that would become integral to each successive portrayal. In addition to the television series, Romero appears as The Joker in the feature film Batman (1966).
The next cinematic incarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime was in Tim Burton’s gothic adventure Batman (1989), where the character’s backstory was elaborated upon. This version of the character is Jack Napier (played by Jack Nicholson), a mid-level gangster with an affinity for playing cards. Working under Gotham mob boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance), Napier encounters Batman during a heist at a chemical plant. The encounter results in Napier falling into a vat of acid that turns his hair green, bleaches his skin white, leaves him with an exaggerated, permanent grin. After some low-budget underground surgery, Napier looks in a mirror, driving him insane. Embracing his transformation, Napier assumes the identity of “Joker”.
Jack Nicholson was nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Actor (Musical or Comedy) for his role as the Joker.
Elements from Nicholson’s incarnation of the character (the chemical plant and falling into a vat of acid) take inspiration from Alan Moore’s graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), often considered one of the most important comics in the character’s history.
The Killing Joke would continue to be a chief source of inspiration for subsequent actors who would portray The Joker, although to different and varying extents.
Not long after the release of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) Warner Brothers began work on Batman: The Animated Series. It borrowed Danny Elfman’s iconic musical theme from Burton’s films and a film noir aesthetic. The series would become a critical hit and spawned an entire DC Animated Universe that spans several types of media. In Batman: The Animated Series, Tim Curry was originally chosen to voice the Joker but he developed bronchitis during the initial recording sessions. He was then replaced by Mark Hamill who would voice the character throughout several appearances in television, film and video games. In 2016, Warner Brothers released Batman: The Killing Joke as an animated film adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, with Hamill reprising his role as the Clown Prince of Crime. Having voiced the character multiple times over more than two decades, Hamill is often cited as the quintessential portrayal of the character, much like his counterpart Kevin Conroy is for Batman.
After Christopher Nolan’s successful reboot Batman Begins (2005) teased an appearance of the character by way of a playing card in its final scene, speculation immediately began as to what Nolan’s version of the character would be. Several actors were speculated to have been considered for the role including Steve Carell, Adrien Brody and Robin Williams.
After much speculation, Heath Ledger was cast in the role.
The Dark Knight (2008) featured a Joker of ambiguous origin and unrivaled intensity; a living conduit for chaos and destruction. Ledger became unrecognizable in the role. The voice, the face paint and the laugh were all created by Ledger himself. He reportedly isolated himself in a hotel room and kept a diary of the Joker’s thoughts.
Nolan updated the aesthetics of the Joker for his more earnest crime film. This Joker was not chemically bleached. He wore face paint. His hair had just enough green in it to make it recognizable. It was greasier than anything else. Certainly not died casino green, as Nicholson’s was.
And instead of the cartoonish, prosthetic grin of Jack Napier, Ledger’s mouth was adorned with a Chelsea grin (or Glasgow smile). This is when the sides of the mouth have been sliced open, widening the “smile”. This type of injury has historically been used as a torture method wherein the victim causes their own “smile” to rip from the screaming caused by subsequent torture and trauma. Combined with the haphazardly applied face paint (created by Ledger himself) the final image is ghastly and unsettling, to say the least. This Joker famously tells multiple, conflicting accounts of how he got his “scars”.
He reveled in uproarious laughter when getting beaten down in an interrogation room by the Dark Knight himself!
This Joker lived in chaos and pain. A Machiavellian, sadomasochistic, sociopolitical psycho-terrorist with the darkest sense of humour.
Ledger posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Supporting actor at the 2009 Oscars.
Despite the story elements not being used in the film, Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke was given to Ledger by Nolan as inspiration for his take on the character.
While the television series Gotham does not directly feature the character of the Joker, it does feature several allusions to the character and a small number of “prototype” versions of the Joker. Actor Cameron Monaghan portrays two characters obviously inspired by Joker. The first is Jerome Valeska, the son of a nymphomaniac circus performer who kills his mother out of spite and becomes a serious criminal element in Gotham City. Jerome’s mannerisms and sinister laugh are obviously based on the Joker and throughout is character arc, leading to the character’s death, several Joker-esque elements are used. During the series, Jerome’s face is removed and subsequently reattached in a grizzly, stapled fashion. This resembles a more recent comic book version of the Joker who undergoes a similar incident.
Jerome is revealed go have a twin brother who is driven insane by Jerome and becomes another prototype version of the clown prince of crime. Jeremiah Valeska wears clothing resembling that of the Joker and features pale skin and red lips. By the series finale, Jeremiah Valeska even more closely resembles The Joker after suffering a similar chemical accident, after which he appears grossly scarred and near bald. Again, taking elements from The Killing Joke, the character also pretends to be comatose for ten years awaiting the return of Bruce Wayne (having now become the Batman). This is similar to the story line presented in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, wherein the Joker lays dormant in a psychiatric hospital, only coming back to lucidity after the announcement of Batman’s return. Cameron Monaghan’s various portrayals of these prototype Jokers was critically praised.
In Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), a graffiti-laden Robin suit can be seen in the Batcave. The taunting messages spray-painted on the costume was suggested to have been written by the Joker. This falls in line with the famous Batman: A Death in the Family (1988) comic-book where the Joker tortures and murders Jason Todd (the second Robin), something that would haunt the Batman thereafter.
Taking place in the same cinematic universe, this new Joker was played by Jared Leto in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016). This Joker was notable for being the first cinematic incarnation to appear with Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) his on-again/off-again “love” interest. Leto’s Joker was relegated to the background in this actioner but Leto showed some promise in the role. He did, however, take a notable backseat to Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and to a lesser extent, Will Smith’s Deadshot.
David Ayer’s Joker once again featured the bleached skin and died hair due to a chemical accident (a process duplicated for Harley Quinn) but Leto’s portrayal featured several controversial tattoos. This Joker was a new type of gangster. Cleaned up with lots of bling and jewels; a hip-hop Joker. This was a far cry from Health Ledger’s vagrant psycho. Ledger’s hair was greasy. Leto’s was full of product. It goes to show that the character may have some immutable characteristics, but there is still room for interpretation, depending on the filmmaker.
The inter-connected DC Extended Universe (modeled after rival studio’s Marvel Cinematic Universe) suffered some setbacks after the death of Zack Snyder’s daughter; forcing the director to abandon the post-production of Justice League (2017) and future plans for the shared film world.
In the midst of this, director Todd Phillips approached Warner Brothers about a solo Joker film; a one-off origin story set in the 1980s, taking inspiration from the works of Martin Scorsese, particularly Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983).
While the origin story presented in the 2019 film takes certain elements from The Killing Joke, specifically Arthur’s aspirations to be a stand-up comedian, it is not directly based on any comic books and the character of Arthur Fleck is essentially an original creation of the screenwriters.
Joker (2019) tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an awkward loner living in low-income housing with his mother. Arthur works as a clown for hire during the day, getting jobs at various shopping outlets and children’s hospitals. One day, he is busted with a handgun while working at a hospital and is promptly fired from his job. On the subway ride home, he is accosted by three men who mock him for his clown outfit and physically assault him. Having reached his breaking point, Arthur kills the men in cold blood with the weapon he was fired for having. He is a wannabe stand-up comedian whose first outing on stage goes poorly enough that footage of the event is broadcast by Gotham late-night talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). Arthur is invited onto Murray’s talk show where he will presumably be made fun of more than anything.
Prior to his talk show appearance, Arthur ceases taking his many medications and starts to embrace his darker impulses, eventually leading to him cultivating the persona of “Joker”, one he debuts on the Murray Franklin show to the world.
This Joker is no criminal mastermind (yet?). While he embodies many of the typical characteristics familiar with the Joker, he is no gangster or crime boss. He feasibly could grow into a more familiar version of Joker but Arthur Fleck explores the psychological and societal factors that can push a man to embrace such a bizarre and chaotic persona.
Once again, the aesthetics of the character were changed for Todd Phillips’ film. While Fleck is seen throughout most of the film in civilian clothing and without makeup, his eventual look as the Joker takes inspiration from several previous incarnations while adding some original ideas. Fleck’s Joker has long green hair much like Heath Ledger’s Joker (although Fleck’s hair is fully died green and not greasy or unkempt). Arthur Fleck’s Joker does not wear purple like most versions. His suit is a pinkish-red, more like Cesar Romero’s Joker although all traces of Purple seem to have been removed. Unlike previous versions of the character, Fleck’s Joker wears more traditional clown makeup, including a red nose and blue triangles around his eyes, something not seen in previous incarnations.
Joker received massive critical praise, particularly for Phoenix’s performance. He is currently considered a likely nominee for the Best Actor Oscar. This could potentially make him the second actor to win for portraying a version of the character, after Health Ledger. Previous Joker actors Jack Nicholson and Jared Leto are also Academy Award winners, although they did not win for their roles as the Joker.
There have been no announcements regarding a sequel to Joker and thus, the character’s cinematic future is speculative at this point in time.
Nevertheless, the Joker has become an iconic movie villain multiple times over and there seems to be limitless potential for the character and he is sure to resurface in one form or another.
Todd Phillips’ Joker will receive a wide release on October 4, 2019.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor