As this forum is for film, I will be discussing the love we have for The Joker from that aspect, his on-screen persona and appearances. However, to do so, we need a bit of history and seeing as comics are another love of mine, I’m compelled to speak from that origin.
The Joker’s first appearance was in DC Comics, “Batman #1” circa 1940. “If they’re going to play with the Joker, they’d better be prepared to deal from the bottom of the deck” are some of the earliest words in Joker’s long history of word play and they encompass his character in such a complete and basic way that any reader, and later watcher, can relate to.
There have been several incarnations of the Joker in the comics for sure. He has origins as “The Red Hood”, he has been a comedic jabber, a villainous traitor, a mercenary, a leader of men, and many other more vicious portrayals, but he has always, at the root, been the same; A man of the people. In fact, he is most often in his origin stories portrayed as a man of little wealth and littler power.
The Penguin comes from similar origins, but he is so destructive to himself before all else and not all of us can relate to that. Catwoman (or in 1940 “The Cat”) was also never rich, but she is smart in a way of intrigue and deception we might have trouble relating too. She may not know what an isosceles triangle is, but she can definitely tell you how to crack a safe.
If we leave the narrative aside, and begin only in Joker’s filmography, we can successfully see our interest for him. Surprisingly, even though the character had debuted in the 1940s comics, they did not choose to use really any of the main villain’s in the 1940’s serial television series. It shows a definite difference in the height of the character, as one now couldn't imagine a batman storyline that didn't include the joker at least somewhere over its run.
1966 brought us “Batman: The Movie” and starred Burt Ward and Adam West. Caesar Romero portrayed the Joker and until Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in the 1990’s was what most Bat-fans would have as their film image of the character. This may have not been where we truly fell in love with him, but what we did get was a solid understanding of the character. He was a leader, quick witted, and ultimately more cunning then any of his cohorts in the “United Underworld” super group.
In 1968 and 1969 the story of batman continued on the small screen with Romero still set up in the clown suit. Though the series was beloved it likely still didn’t cement our affection for the Joker character but again, it helped to define the character leading us down the road to eventually fall in love with a villain. A very important aspect of the character that developed in the series is Jokers’ uncaring nature of his “friends”. He may have always had his sights set on killing batman or world domination, but he had no issue stepping over the likes of The Riddler or Penguin to get there. This is important, as it defined the character as an individual.
The Batman/Superman hour was our next visual of The Joker on television, but this time is was of an animated nature. Voiced by Larry Storch, who is uncredited in the series, the Joker was now a household name. Storch’s voical portrayal continued from the live action series and didn’t change the character or his origins. What it did do was begin to be accessible to children. Sure, kids were watching the live-action series as well, but this would be the ground roots for such shows as Super Friends and Batman the animated series. Shows that defined a generation.
The next period is the most silent for the character, from 1973’s “Fight Batman Fight” till the conclusion of two animated series’ “The new adventures of Batman” and “The Super Powers Team”. The Joker also had a couple stints with “Scooby Doo” and “Tarzan” along the way, again weaving the character into more television appearances and thus public realization of the character along the way.
In 1989 The Joker, after 49 years would finally make his largest impact when portrayed by Jack Nicholson in “Batman”. Jack Nicholson took the reins of what was at the time a franchise drowning. Michael Keaton put on the cowl and cape and with a great script and incredible soundtrack by Prince, a new following was born.
Jack Nicolson’s portrayal of the Joker was different than anything we had seen before. The first thing most notable is Joker’s beginnings. The actually physical change of the Joker comes when he and his gang our doing a heist from a chemical plant. Long story short, batman shows up, and essentially inadvertently, lets Joker drop into a chemical vat. This is taken almost directly from Alan Moore’s comic exploration in his famed opus “A Killing Joke”. The biggest difference between the two, is all of the other circumstances that surrounds that heist. In the movie, the Joker’s real life back story is not really gone into. Mostly just that he is involved in the mob and the head of the mob is no longer in need of his services so he gives the joker up on a silver platter.
In the graphic novel, The Joker quits his job to become a comedian. He ends up unable to support his wife and child. He becomes the Red Hood to save his family but before the heist occurs he is contacted by the police to be informed his family was killed. In a small way this is inferred in the film, but not really brought into full view.
The 1989 film is where our love for the character can be pinpointed and cemented. This Batman became immediately a household item which of course spurred people to seek out more information (say comics?) to learn more. The other thing is that Jack’s version of the Joker is loveable. There are even points where one might “root” for him. “Care to dance with the devil in the pail moonlight”, an infamous line to be sure is given in a jovial spot while attempting to seduce Kim Bassinger. But as soon as that levity passes the writer followed up with “I ask that of all my prey”. Cue maniacal laughter. This keeps happening throughout the film, where horrific situations are met with laughter and comedy, and in such, the Joker becomes almost endearing.
At the end of the film it is defined that this Joker killed Batman’s parents. This, a definite twist in the Batman story arc. The Joker says “You idiot, you made me,” referring back to when Batman let him drop in the vat but Batman retorts by saying that actually The Joker killed his parents and in doing so, Joker made Batman exist. The vicious circle comes to a close with Joker falling to his death and a strange laughter fills the streets of Gtotham. That laugh was remembered fondly by fans and is still notable to this day.
From 1993 – 2005, one actor took the reins for 12 years. We saw the height of the animated batman through shows such as “Batman, the animated series”, “Mask of the Phantasm”, “The New Batman Adventures, “Batman Beyond” “Justice League” and “Superman”. This Joker was performed by none other than Luke Skywalker himself (Mark Hamill) and done to perfection. In fact, Hamill’s portrayal is thought by some to be the truest performance and most in tune with Joker’s comic counterpart.
Concluding in “The Batman/Superman Movie”, the Joker gets his marching orders from Lex Luther to assist in taking down Superman but Batman comes along to take down the dangerous duo. With lines like “Don’t look now Sonny Jim, The plant lady’s gone whacky again” we saw a humorous, almost mentally ill Joker who has been by far the funniest of all the portrayals. Very interesting to note is that during the animated runs, because it was styled for children to watch, he could never kill anyone, so he just left them with the Joker smile on their face like a permanent tattoo, something mirrored partially in the 1989 movie. Mark Hamill once said “His laugh should be like a musical instrument, it should, sort of, illustrate his mood.” Not a better quote from the voice himself could explain the Joker in whole, and so simply.
The Joker shuffled around comics and animated series with several different voice actors over the next few years until Heath Ledger took the reins in 2008’s “The Dark Knight”. Again, his mob ties are referenced; “I don't, I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You... you... complete me”.
Ledger’s Joker is harsh, insane, murderous, funny, fixated, and in the end a flawed being. We lost Ledger during this time and his untimely death propelled the massive franchise even further. It was said that Ledger literally “was the joker” during the filming. He immersed himself in the character. He won awards for the event and the amazing gifts he brought to the Joker. His portrayal will likely be the most fondly remembered.
“Oh, you. You just couldn't let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren't you? You won't kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness. And I won't kill you because you're just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever,” Sites Ledger. We could only be so lucky that these two continue to tangle for the next ten centuries.
As the years have continued on we have seen the Joker be a flashback 50’s character in the “Brave and the Bold” series, Malice in “The Asylum”, purest of evil in “Batman Rising” and he’s been a goof-ball teen version in “Teen Titans”. Throughout the years he has met Mortal Kombat’s “Scorpion” on YouTube and “Robot Chickens” on the small screen. He has even begun harassing Batman’s prodigy, Nightwing, in “Nightwing, the series.” Isn’t it a blessing that The Joker can meet so many colorful characters in the world of animation.
The Joker will make another appearance in next year’s “Suicide Squad” where, if it is like the comics, the premiere villains of the DC multi-verse take government missions where they never have a guaranteed return. He will be played by Jerad Leto, and undoubtedly give another spin on the sad clown. The character, despite being killed over 100 times, endures.
And so in the end we still ask the question “Why do we love the Joker?”
He has absolutely stood the test of time. He is over 70 years old and yet always interesting and in some ways just getting started. He is like an old blanket. He might get worn and tattered and sometimes even spilled some coffee upon, but he washes up fairly well.
He has layers. He is both evil and yet happy. He is anxious at times and yet calm in the face of problems. He is funny and yet that comedy comes from am absolutely desolate and destructive place. He, in and of himself, is contradictory.
In the end. He is all of us. He is flawed. He is journeyed. He is destructive. He is thriving. He is…The Joker.