History of The Joker In TV and Film

Opposing every great hero is a masterful villain. Any memorable character in any form of entertainment sticks out in the minds and hearts of millions because of their menacing adversaries. This was the whole concept of M. Night Shyamalan’s (when he was still good) 2000 film, Unbreakable. This was also the very foundation of comic books. Throughout the high-flying action and special abilities, every superhero had their traditional enemy. We all know Professor X has Magneto, Superman has Lex Luthor, Spider-Man has Venom, but one of the more recognizable ones in history was Batman’s rivalry with the Joker. The clown-faced maniac has been terrorizing the Dark Knight on illustrated pages for decades and the pair have had several heart-pounding encounters. Every time the caped crusader seemingly puts him away, Joker always comes back for more carnage. Not many details are known about this cruel prankster’s origins but if one thing’s for certain, it’s the lasting impression he leaves after every encounter with Batman. 

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Earlier this year, you might remember when I wrote a piece on the different actors who portrayed the phenomenal Batman in film and television. Well now get ready to root for the bad guy as I review the different men behind the paint.  

Cesar Romero (1966-1968)
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Like Adam West with Batman, the first memorable portrayal of the purple clad Joker was by actor Cesar Romero in the campy eponymous 1960s television series. The character was notable for Romero refusing to shave his signature mustache for the role which was still visible through the white paint. Still, Romero would do the character justice with his sinister laugh that would be synonymous with the Joker for many years to come. Although this version was a bit lighter than what my generation came to know, Joker still gave Batman quite a run for his money all through the show’s three seasons. A lot of the tactics that were used to tailor the persona such as Joker’s affinity for baseball and theater arts still make me crack up to this day. Romero would reprise his role for the 1968 film as he teamed with many of Gotham’s other baddies to try and take down our heroes but to no avail. Just like any role he’s had before and after, Romero went all in with this one.

Jack Nicholson (1989)
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As popular as they are, the Tim Burton directed films, Batman ‘89 and Batman Returns, get a lot of flack from fans. The biggest reason for that is because it’s felt that the movies don’t concentrate Gotham’s hero enough but on the villains. Just like how Catwoman and Penguin dominated Returns, Batman ‘89 is mostly remembered for Jack Nicholson’s representation of the Joker. Don’t get me wrong, Michael Keaton was pretty damn good but it’s obvious this whole comic book ride was catered solely to Nicholson. Don’t believe me? Look at the top of the film’s poster. Whose name is credited first? That’s right, Nicholson’s. Reportedly, Jack demanded a ridiculous salary and top billing in order to come on board as the movie’s bad guy and boy does he have all the fun in the world with it. In hindsight, the sacrifices were worth it as it’s glorious seeing Nicholson wisecrack his way into Bruce Wayne’s mind while mindlessly killing people with savage tricks like loaded joy buzzers and poisonous cosmetics. While many people will argue that this translation of the Joker is too flashy and humorous, it’s still held in high regard as one of the most solid performances in any comic book film ever. It’s also in this film where we view the widely accepted origin on how Joker became who he is: After a tussle with Batman, Jack Napier falls into a sea of toxic chemicals and develops a sick sense of humor when he survives and finds out that his skin has been permanently bleached pale white. While the comic book character of the Joker’s real identity is unknown, he was given the moniker of Jack Napier as a tribute to Alan Napier, the actor who portrayed Bruce Wayne’s trusty butler, Alfred, in the 1960s television series.

Honestly, my biggest gripe with this character isn’t even really Nicholson’s fault. When it’s revealed that Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents back when he was a gangster, even the most casual fan of the DC character knows that’s not what really happened. Thankfully, they retconned that whole thing in later pictures.

Mark Hamill (1992-Present)
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Yes, Luke Skywalker himself started playing the part of the Joker in 1992 and in fact, still does to this day. Sadly, Mark Hamill did not don the green hair or purple jacket but instead, lent his tantalizing voice to the villain in the popular 90s cartoon, Batman: The Animated Series. Prior to that, Hamill was mostly known for his role in Star Wars but that all changed when he decided to go into the world of animation and give children who ran home after school to catch the show a real thrill by voicing the character all throughout the show’s run. He filled the void left by Nicholson and soon, no one wanted to hear anyone other than Hamill take on the role of the menace. His interactions with Harley Quinn were untouchable and a true highlight upon re-watching the program. After the Fox cartoon aired its final installment in 1995, Hamill didn’t zip his mouth shut and go elsewhere, he continued to voice the character in subsequent Batman series, animated films, and video games until his trademark chops were interchangeable with the evil that is the Joker. Today, if you ever hear that trademark shriek from the big grinned killer, think of “I won’t fail you. I am not afraid”.

Heath Ledger (2008)
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Almost 20 years after Batman ‘89 first hit theaters, Jack Nicholson’s renowned live-action interpretation of the Joker was still ingrained in people’s heads. That is until the late Heath Ledger took on the role in Christopher Nolan’s second film in his trilogy, The Dark Knight. Now, the ending to 2005’s Batman Begins revealed that the Joker was coming and immediately, everyone speculated on who it could be. Fans were even rallying to bring Mark Hamill back into the limelight and have him finally wear the makeup. However, in the Fall in 2006, it was Australia native, Ledger, who was selected much to the chagrin of the internet. While he had proven to be a versatile actor over the years, people were expecting someone a bit more seasoned to stand tall beside Christian Bale and the rest of the cast. Soon, after months of complaining online, moviegoers started to shut their traps when trailers were released showing what this Joker was all about: the intimidating voice, the creepy movements, facial expressions, the laugh, it was all there. Now with people’s hopes at an all time high, another setback suddenly occurred. In January 2008, six months before the release of the Dark Knight, Ledger was found dead in his sleep in an apartment in New York City. Instead of caring for his well-being or paying tribute, tons of selfish people only thought “Oh my God, I hope the Dark Knight was completed!” Priorities. Well, it was and Ledger’s grasp of the character wound up being one of the best performances not only in comic book films, but in all of cinema. In death, Ledger was able to silence all the haters with his cryptic persona, stopping at nothing to terrorize Batman and all of Gotham. To prepare for the role, Ledger immersed himself completely in the underbelly of the character. He lived alone for six months and kept a journal with entries dedicated to the mind of Joker. He would posthumously win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and set an impossible precedent for the third film in Nolan’s trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, which had split reactions.

Don’t forget, Jared Leto takes over the reigns of the psychopathic Arkham inmate in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Time will tell if he’ll top Ledger’s performance or even Nicholson’s but if his method acting is any indication, he’ll give them a fight.

Written by Matthew Reine

is a New Yorker with a strong passion for film and television. Also the biggest Keanu Reeves fan you know.

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