“When villains want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories” – The Trickster
Over the past couple of years DC Comics has celebrated the 75th Anniversary of 2/3rds of their Holy Trinity in Superman and Batman, and next year will mark that anniversary for the other third: Wonder Woman. But while DC’s finest heroes are starting to turn 75 (Robin/Dick Grayson celebrates it this year too) it was time we turned our attention to a villain’s birthday. One year after Batman’s creation, his true nemesis was born, someone who would become as recognisable as Batman, as influential and as popular. 2015 marks 75 years of The Joker.
The crazy thing is that The Joker was originally only meant to be a one off villain. When he made his first appearance in Batman #1 in April 25 of 1940, he was killed off, until the editors had them include a final panel showing that he possibly survived. 75 years later and it is impossible to picture the Batman universe without a Joker that has been antagonising the Dark Knight and the city of Gotham for basically the entirety of its life. He is so intertwined, whether it is through the stories or the wider Bat-history that you can’t take one without the other.
But what it is about The Joker that has made him so essential to the Batman mythos? The easy answer is that he acts as the polar opposite to Batman, representing everything he isn’t. For all of the morals that Batman keeps, everything that makes Batman ‘Batman’, Joker acts as a counterpoint to it all. The ‘one bad day’ concept Joker claimed brought him to his current state in ‘The Killing Joke’ could easily have been Bruce Wayne when he had his ‘one bad day’ (we get further evidence of this in Earth 2 when his mother becomes The Joker after Bruce dies in Crime Alley instead of his parents).
This is true, and it is constantly mentioned when analysing The Joker and also Batman. But there’s something that tends to get overlooked which is important to stress here. The Joker is no doubt essential to the Batman story as it is, but just as Batman has evolved and continues to evolve over the years, so too can Joker. Anyone could be an iconic villain, but if the character becomes stale then he/she will go through periods of highs and lows, as do most Batman villains. But Joker is always at the top of the pile. And part of that is a self-fulfilling prophesy: The Joker is at the top because everyone believes The Joker to be at the top, because he always has been seen to be. Those who write want to put their stamp on the iconic villain, so they always punch out big stories for him, furthering his image. It’s a cycle that helps him stay relevant and important.
But he can continue to be relevant no matter the time or medium because he is at his bare interpretation an archetypal character, much like Batman. Creators can mould him to fit the story, rather than having to change the story to accommodate the character, without straying too far from what makes Joker tick. There is no finer proof to this than the medium of film.
Let’s look at the four live action examples we have (the point doesn’t change if you include animated, but it just takes more time). You have Cesar Romero’s 1966 Joker, Jack Nicholsons 1989 Joker, Heath Ledger’s 2008 Joker, and the upcoming 2016 Joker played by Jared Leto. Even from what little we’ve seen from Leto, as well as the other three movies we have, the ‘Joker’ character is played in completely different directions. Be it a goofy prankster as played by Romero, a deranged gangster ala Jack or the grunge looking anarchist from the Nolan universe. All three that we’ve seen (can’t comment on Leto yet) when taken on their own act as fantastic representations of what The Joker is, despite being so vastly different.
It’s the same in the comics. Over the 75 years The Joker has gone from straight up murderer to prankster and back, mixing in different amounts of both and bringing in new elements. We’ve seen him diagnosed as insane and even had doctors theorise he has a kind of ‘super-sanity’. Synder’s run even suggested he might be a nigh immortal supernatural being. None of these are considered ‘out of character’ for him. Recently the trend has been to have Joker really play on the idea of him and Batman being the ying and yang counterpoints to each other. Even in Dark Knight he says to Batman that “You complete me”. This wasn’t as prevalent in older versions of Joker, but it still meshes with what we identify as the character. These all could serve to separate The Joker identity, but it instead seems to work together to create a mythos surrounding the character much like there would be in-universe.
The Joker enjoys the most leniency in defining his character because of this. When fans were debating who we’d seen in the ‘Nolan-verse’ the common knock on super-powered foes like Ivy or Clayface was that they ‘would not work’ in this imagining of the universe. Arguments have been made on both movie versions of Bane (which are vastly different interpretations) that neither capture who Bane truly is. I’m not the only one who consider Burton’s Penguin to be an abomination of the character, and both villains in Batman Forever were lambasted for being too ‘Jokery’ compared to their normal selves.
This doesn’t really happen with The Joker. There was an initial backlash when the Ledger Joker was first shown, but after seeing the performance the dissenters are very much in the minority. Popular culture has certainly embraced this version well enough – just type in ‘The Joker’ into Google images and see how strongly Ledger’s interpretation features. The version I’ve seen endure the most criticism is the animated version from ‘The Batman’, and mostly that comes down to his weird, almost Blanka-from-Street-Fighter-esque look to him. But The Joker is afforded the most space to bend alongside the medium and creators interpretation, and it allows him to stay fresh and interesting after 75 years. Because we can get him in (soon to be) four different vastly different movies, as a fresh character without sacrificing what makes him ‘Joker’. Most other villains have to walk a thinner tightrope when being adapted.
There’s really only one downside to The Joker, and that is that he is too popular. He dominates the mainstream Bat-verse. He has appeared in every iteration of Batman out there, and sometimes that can be a problem. No matter how many reboots or new Batman movies we get, everytime it is restarted we are guaranteed to get a Joker. Say that averages out a trilogy for each ‘universe’, you automatically have to sacrifice one movie for Joker to be the main antagonist. At least one – it’s plausible Ledger would have returned for ‘Rises’ if he didn’t pass away, and Leto is already potentially involved in the DC-verse before we’ve even got a Batman solo film.
Because of this, we simply aren’t getting to see many of the other villains have their spotlight, which is a shame because while Joker is at the head of the table, Batman’s Rogues Gallery is the strongest in comic history. There are plenty of great Bat-villains yet to enjoy a cinematic take (I’m hoping the Bat-fleck run introduces the mainstream to the Court of Owls), not to mention that of those who have made it to the big screen, you could argue for half of them needing a re-do because of how they were portrayed (Mr Freeze I’m looking at you).
But one character’s strength shouldn’t be held against him. The Joker has become THE most iconic villain in comics, if not all of entertainment (he’d be on the short list alongside Vader), and one of the most important characters in comic history. Whether he’s mutating Fish to match his signature smile or killing the second Robin Jason Todd, The Joker is as iconic as they come, with some equally iconic portrayals.
For all of the (deserved) Ledger love, my favourite Joker will always be the one portrayed by Mark Hamill. His voice acting work in Batman: The Animated Series (which was my introduction to the Batman universe) and then the Rocksteady ‘Arkham’ games is for me the definitive Joker voice, and perhaps the best combination of various comic versions of Joker into one complete package. He was a crazy murdering psycho but he never lost his comedic flare or sense of fun. The animated series also introduced us to another of The Joker’s gifts to the comic world: Harley Quinn, who now has become one of the biggest female comic names in the mainstream media in her own right.
Whether you grew up as a Marvel guy, DC guy or neither, you know the name Joker. He doesn’t have to be your favourite Batman villain (I’ll always be a Riddler guy myself) but only The Joker has become synonymous with the Bat mythos in a way no other villain could. 75 years on and he’s still as big a deal as he ever was. We’re about to get a new version of him with Jared Leto, and even though we’ve seen barely more than a glimpse or two of his portrayal people are already clamoring to give their opinion. Leto’s may be the most controversial yet, if based strictly on his look. But while he may not look like any Joker we’ve had yet (you can see where the influences come from though) it feels like another interpretation of the archetype character we’ve come to know and love. If for nothing else, the laugh is downright spine-chilling. It doesn’t matter which Joker you prefer, because he’ll be ok with that. One of the best lines ever uttered to help describe The Joker came from the Clown Prince of Crime himself in ‘The Killing Joke’. I’ve included the panel below for you:
We don’t know his past, we don’t know how he came to be. He simply is. He might tell us that he was a failed comedian, or that his dad used to beat him, but he is simply feeding us possibilities. There is no origin story, he is simply The Joker.