The Joker is among the most formidable and fear-inspiring villains ever to grace the screen. He has become incredibly versatile and adaptable, his behaviour impossible to predict, leaving viewers vulnerable to what is to come. His weapon of choice is sometimes a toy gun which shoots a flag reading “BANG!”, or it could be a sawn-off shotgun mercilessly shooting down anyone who gets in his path. The Joker has evolved over time, developed new behaviours and attitudes. His first on-screen exploit was very different from his most recent.
Batman: The Movie (1966) was the first time the Joker was seen on the big screen, portrayed by Cesar Romero – the man who played the character for 22 episodes in the TV show which began the same year. Romero’s Joker certainly laid down a blueprint for future versions to come; he was jovial and a prolific prankster, constantly shocking his accomplices both literally and figuratively. Hysterical laughter and shameless puns would often bellow forth from the kitsch red lips of his exuberant makeup. It was certainly of its time, and nervously underdeveloped.
In Batman: The Movie the Joker is part of a team made up of himself, Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman. Of all these notorious villains, the Joker seems to be the tamest and least involved in the scheming and world domination. The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) presented a much more typically Joker-esque performance; he was far more menacing and his laugh more shrill and wild. Nevertheless, Romero created a rich character and provided a wonderful foundation for others to build on.
Jack Nicholson has become one of the biggest names in cinema, having won three Academy Awards and featuring in such classics as The Shining and Chinatown. He is truly one of the greatest and most prestigious actors of all time, and his Joker was no exception. 33 years after the previous Batman film, Burton created a Gothic and sinister Gotham City, full of mobsters and crooked cops. Jack Napier (Nicholson) has an unfortunate tumble into an industrial slime, causing a reaction which turns him into the Clown Prince of Crime (physically at least). This is an interesting origin story of the Joker, having in this case been created, albeit through a stroke of bad luck, by Batman. This leads to the Joker becoming animalistic and vindictive towards the city of Gotham and its Caped Crusader.
A lover of the arts, the Joker modifies a gallery’s worth of paintings and sculptures apart from one: Francis Bacon’s 1954 painting ‘Figure with Meat’. The works of Bacon have been said to inspire the Joker characters we know today, often presenting surreal and demented figures. As this version’s catchphrase goes: “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” – Nicholson’s Joker certainly knows how to combine clownish, criminal insanity with a sense of poetic gravitas.
Made to tie in with Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995), 1993’s Mask of the Phantasm was Batman’s first feature-length animation, and Mark Hamill’s take on the Joker has become an iconic voiceover role across film, TV and even video games; a screeching, hellish villain, with a shrill laugh and sophisticated diction. The freedom of expression given in animation enabled Hamill and character designer Eric Radomski to bring the comic books to the screen and make them move, giving off an incredibly colourful and expressive world full of terror.
The style in which the Joker was drawn was horrifying, his yellow surrounded by black creating a beastly appearance, a look of sickness and decay. And his bright purple suit and yellow shirt offer us a sense of jovial security, often adding to the lightness and charm of earlier iterations of the character. But as a clown is meant to be harmless, the world of animation had been irrefutably tainted and corrupted. It became a world terrorised by this squawking, murdering menace. The Joker is large and perpetually intimidating; every gesture feels as if it could become an immediate attack. He degrades the most fearsome mobster into a shivering baby, just begging to conclude their business and get away from this tornado of a villain.
For what would tragically turn out to be his final role, Heath Ledger gave one of the most gut-wrenching, spine-tingling performances in recent memory. He recreated this iconic character with such extremity that he was virtually unrecognisable when he first revealed his Chelsea-grinning face. Never before had we seen a Joker whose makeup wasn’t impeccable, whose suit wasn’t finely cut. With his peeling face-paint and mucky fingernails, this Joker seemed more deranged than any we’d seen before, a violent killer who, in Michael Caine’s immortal words “just wants to watch the world burn.” Ledger’s Joker created a complete psychology that forces us to analyse the mental processes the character is undergoing.
Is he mad? Is he a calculated genius? There’s no easy answer here; the entire construction of the character begs you to obsess over him and become infected by his nature. That’s one of his key traits: he takes deep satisfaction from turning good into evil and nothing will stop that desire, not even his own mortality. This rendition of the Joker has inspired volumes of analysis, great clouds of mystery. Ledger created a timelessly tremendous performance that will never leave the memories of those who have experienced it.
And now we have a new Joker on the horizon, being played by the wonderful Jared Leto. Can he earn his place among the greats? After all, it’s a role that comes with a mountain of expectations – not least the promise of striking fear into audience’s hearts. We’ll know on August 5, when Suicide Squad is released in theatres.