Regardless of whether or not you’ll flock to theaters to see Suicide Squad this weekend (hint: you probably shouldn’t — see our review), it’s undeniable that the Joker is one of film’s greatest villains, easily capturing the screen of every movie he appears in.
The Joker received his first appearance in Batman #1 in 1940, as the series’ major antagonist. At the time, the writers probably didn’t realize that they were creating one of the most famous rivalries in history. As a true and pure foil for each other, Batman and the Joker embody the best and worst of each other; as Heath Ledger’s Joker said in The Dark Knight: “you complete me.” The Joker is the personification of irrational, maniacal and illogical, a true opposite to the order, calm and justice that Batman stands for. Their existential struggle is why we keep coming back for more.
It’s not hard to see why the Joker is such a classic villain, for general societal phobia of clowns is often exploited in comic books and horror movies (i.e. Stephen King’s It). A sinister but joyful psychopath with a singular clown-like aesthetic, the Joker’s maniacal laugh as he violently beats and kills people is terrifying. While it may seem a little clichéd now, this characterization of villains is completely original to this character.
There are been four major big screen adaptations of the Joker: Cesar Romero in Batman (1966), Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989), Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008) and Jared Leto in Suicide Squad (2016). All four have been wildly different, with each actor and writer developing their own distinct interpretation of the Joker. Below I take a look at each portrayal of the Joker from the writing and characterization to the actor’s performance of the Harlequin of Hate.
Cesar Romero, Batman (1966)
Batman (1966) is a film adaptation of the 1960s television show, with most of the main actors reprising their roles including Cesar Romero as the Joker. In the movie, the Joker is a member of the United Underground, a coalition of the most powerful villains in Gotham with the Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman.
Romero is great as the Joker, and his performance continued to endure long after his death. He was the first one to bring life to the Joker, and created his iconic look and laugh. Romero does give the movie his all, spouting out the nonsensical dialogue in fits of absurdity. However, the entire performance and character is layered in campiness and silliness, since the movie itself is one small step away from becoming a Scooby-Doo episode. instead of the violent psychopath that we will come to know and love, the Joker is more of an innocent criminal and a source of gags.
Jack Nicholson, Batman (1989)
Tim Burton’s adaptation of Batman was the catalyst in comic book movies that turned our superheroes from campy goofballs to serious, badass characters. Burton changed the way the public perception of superhero movies, revealing that they could be dark, nuanced, stylistic but still enjoyable and a lot of fun. Part of Batman’s success is due to the characterization of the Joker.
At times the Joker seems like a homage to a 50s film noir villain, with his long trench coat and surrounding shadowy visuals. Burton takes the Joker’s sinister nature and gives it a comedic twist that includes everything from murder to simply defacing classic works of art (one of the best scenes of the movie). The Joker’s introduction in Batman is the perfect characterization of Burton’s interpretation of the character. As the Joker taunts and threatens the mob boss who made him who he is, we are subjected to happy smiles and circus music as soon as he shoots him.
Jack Nicholson thrives as the Joker, since most of his most iconic roles revolve around his descent into gleeful madness. Channeling a more comical Jack Torrance, Nicholson chuckled and punned his way through Batman, stealing the show from Michael Keaton’s dry and dull performance and Kim Basinger’s constant shrieking. Nicholson plays the Joker with such glee and cheerfulness that soon becomes contagious, even if he’s killing and maiming people at the same time. Referencing Cesar Romero’s classic performance and Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, Nicholson’s scenes are more fun and entertaining than the entirety of Suicide Squad.
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)
Widely considered one of the greatest written villains and performances, Heath Ledger’s Joker captivates every scene. A heck of a lot crazier and more dangerous than any other portrayal, the Joker in The Dark Knight made you forget about the iconic titular character. While the first Batman Begins and the last The Dark Knight Rises focuses on Bruce Wayne’s journey, Nolan somewhat forgot to include more character development in The Dark Knight for Batman since the Joker was too compelling of a character.
Nolan’s design and direction of the Joker cut any ties with the goofy, campy villain from the 1960s. In The Dark Knight, the Joker stalks, threatens and plots with an exploding amount of venom, violence and vengeance, epitomized by his two differing stories of how he got his scars. Threatening two characters as he tells his tale, the Joker creates a true sense of fright that we don’t always see in superhero movies.
However, Nolan was able to achieve something with the Joker that few writer-directors could: he created a character with almost no character development or backstory — and that character turned out great. In most films, villains need to be written not too differently from heroes; they usually need a sense of direction and history that makes sense and is interesting, with some small amount of character development as well. The Joker in The Dark Knight achieves none of this. We never really figure out where the Joker came from. We never see any character development from him. Nolan gives us just the bare amount of information: his purpose. The Joker solely exists to reveal the senselessness in order, the madness in everyone and the fragility of society. Oh, and tormenting the hell out of Batman (that’s just for fun!). Not giving the Joker a real backstory or character development rounded out his villainy, and gave us a great speech from Michael Caine’s Alfred to boot (“Some men just want to watch the world burn”). It is a true testament to Nolan’s writing that he was able to create such a great villain when it could have been very easy for him to fail.
Finally, the cherry on top of The Dark Knight’s Joker is Heath Ledger, who won a posthumous Academy Award for his performance. I remember watched the Oscars before seeing the movie. I was completely surprised that they have even nominated him — a character in a superhero movie (which is often tragically overlooked by the Academy). Upon seeing the movie, I was in awe. In one of those rare Daniel Day-Lewis-like performances, Heath Ledger was utterly unrecognizable as the Joker. He took Nolan’s script and made it his own, giving a performance that no one has since matched.
Jared Leto, Suicide Squad (2016)
Leading up to the debut of Suicide Squad, the image of Jared Leto’s Joker has been highly controversial, with many fans griping that he looks like a gangster who bought his clothes from Hot Topic. And, unsurprisingly, that is how David Ayer and Leto portray him. This makes it sound like Suicide Squad’s Joker is bad — and that’s not necessarily true, but he sure isn’t very good either.
Part of this stems from the choppy editing of the movie; Leto recently revealed that many of his scenes were cut from the movie. Again, the Joker is such a great character that shunning him and “putting him in a corner” ruins the chance to make him truly memorable. His relationship with Harley Quinn is also off-putting, and seems a little out of character for a villain who’s supposed to revel in the meaningless and brutality of life. Ayer’s Joker is more of a mix between a brutal Jack Nicholson and a Sin City knockoff. Like the movie itself, the Joker could have been written better.
Leto does a fine job as the Joker, and I mean fine as in “okay.” While he does his best to embody the Joker in the manner of Heath Ledger, Leto is ultimately forgettable. Unlike the actors before him, Leto does not make a strong impression as the Joker. Someone could have replaced Leto and the character would have been the same. All of his method acting practices were for naught, since it clearly was not help in his final performance. The Joker is a great character, and could have been a wonderful outlet and opportunity for Leto to show off more of the talent that got him an Academy Award.
I guess no one could have replaced Heath Ledger, and I will continue to rewatch The Dark Knight endlessly whenever I feel the itch. Although people probably said that about Jack Nicholson’s performance, so maybe someday we will get another great reincarnation of the Clown Prince of Crime.