A Short History Of The Joker On Screen

August 2, 2016
With Jared Leto putting his own deranged spin on The Joker in this week’s Suicide Squad, we take a look back at the diverse and dynamic iterations of The Clown Prince Of Crime on the big and small screens.

In just a few short days, we’ll be seeing a new Joker make his film debut, for good or ill: Jared Leto will be essaying The Clown Prince Of Crime in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, bringing a little West Coast barrio style and a lot of theatricality to the role. The casting and stylistic choices being made have made some folks unhappy, particularly those who think that Heath Ledger’s performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight is the be-all and end-all. “It’s a 70-year-old character, and the best-known villain in western fiction, in the world,” David Ayer told Rolling Stone. “There’s this giant pair of shoes left by Heath Ledger and what he did. But when you reverse engineer anything, you have an actor, you have makeup, you have wardrobe, and you have a script – so, how do you get there? What is the journey?”

Despite Ledger still being fresh in everyone’s minds, there have been many Jokers on the screen, actually (if you squint a bit) predating the rise of Batman himself, and each have their strengths. “I think had it only been portrayed by Heath Ledger and it was never a comic book, maybe I would have felt that would be inappropriate,” Leto told Rolling Stone of taking on The Joker. “But I thought that given the history, it was okay. The good thing about other people having done this is that you know what direction not to head in.”

Really, it’s only right that we’ve had multiple Jokers; the character himself is mercurial, malleable, and manic – how can any single performance be considered definitive? Better, then, to appreciate them all.

016-conrad-veidt-man who laughsTHE OPENER OF THE WAY: CONRAD VEIDT IN THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) While there’s still some…controversy…over the exact details of The Joker’s creation (long story short: credited Batman creator, Bob Kane, liked to hog the glory for everything, while Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson did most of the heavy lifting. Finger didn’t get a screen credit until Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice), it’s pretty much widely accepted that the direct visual inspiration for the Murderous Mummer’s appearance was Conrad Veidt’s turn as the disfigured Gwynplaine in the expressionist thriller, The Man Who Laughs. Adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel by German director, Paul Leni, the 1928 film tracked the tragic exploits of Veidt’s lovelorn orphan, whose face has been carved into a permanent grin. When the time came in 1940 for Batman to finally get a Moriarty to his benighted Holmes, the old movie became a point of reference. As Kane recalled, “Bill Finger had a book with a photograph of Conrad Veidt. He showed it to me and said, ‘Here’s The Joker.’” But Jerry Robinson, then a teenager working as Kane’s assistant on the Batman comics, contends that he conceived the character, drawing initial inspiration from the playing card. “Bill Finger knew of Conrad Veidt because Bill had been to a lot of the foreign films. Veidt had this clown makeup with the frozen smile on his face. When Bill saw the first drawing of The Joker, he said, ‘That reminds me of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs.’ He said he would bring in some shots of that movie to show me. That’s how that came about. I think in Bill’s mind, he fleshed out the concept of the character.” While nobody knows for sure (all three men have since passed), it seems most likely that The Joker was born out of a miasma of ideas and cultural touchstones, with Veidt’s tragic hero among them. He is, if nothing else, a dead ringer.

cesar romero jokerTHE CLOWN PRINCE: CESAR ROMERO IN BATMAN (1966-1968) When The Joker next incarnated outside of the pages of DC comics, it was in the campy but beloved Batman television series of the ‘60s, first appearing in the episode, “The Joker Is Wild”, where he was played by Cesar Romero. Drawing on the kid-friendly comics of the time (The Comics Code Authority had been established, putting strict controls on the amount of violence and mayhem that could be shown in the books), this Joker was more a merry prankster than a malevolent killer. Thanks to heavy syndication and a dearth of other Bat-related media in subsequent decades, Romero’s hooting, ostentatious interpretation was the definitive version of the character for more than three generations, much to the chagrin of your more self-serious breed of Batfan. It must be even more galling that The Clown Prince wasn’t even the most popular of the ‘66 series’ rogues gallery – that honour falls to Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. A veteran of stage and screen, Romero brought a Vaudevillian zeal to the role, leaping around the garish sets, and generally having the time of his life. It was, however, only a side gig to him, as evidenced by his refusal to shave off his mustache in order to wear the villain’s trademark makeup. The makeup department simply smeared an extra-thick layer of greasepaint over his upper lip, a trick that did the job in the early days of TV. Now, though, it’s easy to see Romero’s bristles on a high-def screen.

jack joker 2THE ART OF THE PRANK: JACK NICHOLSON IN BATMAN (1989) “The Joker is such a great character because there’s a complete freedom to him,” director, Tim Burton, observed. “Any character who operates on the outside of society and is deemed a freak and an outcast then has the freedom to do what they want. They are the darker sides of freedom. Insanity is in some scary way the most freedom that you can have, because you’re not bound by the laws of society.” Looked at from the calming distance of 27 years, everything about Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie seems overblown and strident, and there’s nothing more strident than Jack Nicholson’s puckish, Dadaist hitman-turned-homicidal artist. While many actors were considered for the role (Burton failed to convince Warner Bros to cast Brad Dourif, while Robin Williams was desperate for the role, and other contenders included David Bowie, Tim Curry, John Lithgow and James Woods), in retrospect, it could only have been Jack Nicholson, a renowned and heavily awarded actor just entering the “elder statesman” phase of his career and able, like Brando in Richard Donner’s Superman, to bring both gravitas and playfulness to the inherently goofy material. Nicholson also commanded a Brando-esque paycheque, with his total compensation package rumoured to be north of $100 million. He also demanded – and got – incredible concessions in terms of work hours (for one thing, he got time off for every Lakers home game during production). And it was worth it. Nicholson’s Joker is the absolute narrative, thematic, and aesthetic highlight of the film, eclipsing Michael Keaton’s more low-key Batman in almost every way (It’s not, to be fair, Keaton’s fault; Burton is clearly much more comfortable with The Joker than with Batman). Recontextualising the character as a “fully functioning homicidal artist” is a perfect Burton twist, with The Joker coming off as an art school revenge fantasy by a put-upon student (which, in this case, he absolutely is). Nicholson plays it to the hilt: his pretentious, preening, raspberry-blowing killer stands out against the stark, dark Anton Furst-designed Gotham City like the neon spray-paint that he disfigures art treasures with.

animated jokerTHE CARTOON CLOWN: MARK HAMILL IN BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992-1995 AND THEN SOME) “Definitive” is a word that gets bandied around a lot in conversations like these, usually as a more authoritative-sounding synonym for “best.” Bear that in mind then, when we say that the definitive screen version of Batman made its debut in the same year as, and parallel to, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Batman: The Animated Series drew together elements from the Burton movies, the full sweep of the comics of the 1940s to the present day (albeit ignoring the more outré parts of The Silver Age), wrapped them in a slick style that was very reminiscent of Max Fleischer’s old Superman ‘toons, and made the most mature, astute, and enjoyable non-comics superhero stories, well, ever, at that point. Part of the appeal – and pinning down everything appealing about Batman: The Animated Series is well beyond our scope here – was the decision by producers, Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, and Paul Dini, to cast several noted actors in the voice roles, in addition to career voiceover workers or impressionists (not that there’s anything wrong with them). Chief among them was once and future Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill, who essayed, as you may have guessed, The Joker. Hamill’s Joker is a gestalt more than anything else, combining the psychotic menace of his early appearances with the theatricality of The Silver Age/Romero years. Of course, Hamill was never actually onscreen – he did all his work in a sound booth. But while The Joker is largely defined by his bold, striking look, Hamill gave us the best sounding Clown Prince of all time. “One of the things that informs The Joker is his laugh,” Hamill has said. “His laugh should be like a musical instrument. It should illustrate his mood. It could be ominous and intimidating, or it could be gleeful with wild abandon, but I didn’t want to have just one rote laugh.” Hamill really threw himself into the role. “They used to kid me because I was the only one who used to stand up. I just thought, to energise the character, that I felt like I had to stand up. With The Joker, I imagined that I was in a 1930s radio drama.” Hamill’s take on the character is so popular that he has continued to give voice to The Joker for almost 25 years now, most recently in the animated movie, Batman: The Killing Joke.

heath jokerTHE KILLER PUNCHLINE: HEATH LEDGER IN THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) While The Joker was hinted at in the final moments of 2005’s Batman Begins (courtesy of a joker playing card held aloft by Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordon), it wasn’t until 2008 that the Ace Of Knaves made his return to live action glory (we’re ignoring the live action Birds Of Prey TV series, and you should too.) This time around, he was played by Australian actor, Heath Ledger, who died shortly after completing the film, but picked up a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Ledger went to great lengths to prepare for the role, isolating himself from friends and family, keeping an in-character diary, and altering his voice, posture, and mannerisms to create something not just distinct from himself, but distinct from pervious iterations of the character. There are touches of Alex DeLarge and Sid Vicious in there (both acknowledged influences) and a bit of Tom Waits’ carny tramp posturing (there’s an interview with Waits and TV host, Don Lane, available online which is definitely an influence) but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month,” Ledger said. “I locked myself away, formed a little diary, and experimented with voices – it was important to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath – someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts.” Ledger’s Joker is a self-described agent of chaos, but perhaps more accurately, he’s an agent of entropy. With his spidery, smeared makeup, and his facial scars, his frayed seams and seamed face, he’s a figure on the point of disintegration. He is the centre that cannot hold when things fall apart, and the cause of that dissolution. This is The Joker not as a character, but as a primal force, not of evil but of destruction. While initial reactions to Ledger’s casting were resolutely hostile, that changed once audiences actually saw the film (funny how that works), and Ledger’s work is now acknowledged as nothing less than masterful. His Joker also came along at exactly the right time in the evolution of Cosplay culture, with Ledger’s iteration of the character now a staple of the convention floor, embedding this version even more firmly in fandom’s collective consciousness.

Jared-Letos-Joker-in-PrisonTHE ALPHA PREDATOR: JARED LETO IN SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) And now for the latest: Jared Leto’s Juggalo Joker, etched with gangsta ink and dripping in bling. People decried Ledger’s Joker, performance unseen, because he clearly wasn’t Jack Nicholson; now people are decrying Leto because he’s not Ledger. But let’s look at this Joker, whose look and mannerisms harken to Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s 2008 graphic novel, Joker, which positions the villain in a more realistic and violent milieu. Director David Ayer’s made a habit of drawing on Californian Hispanic gang culture throughout his career too (see Harsh Times, which, coincidentally enough, starred Christian Bale), and that influence is clearly visible in what we’ve seen so far. It’s not The Joker of old, but every Joker is a new Joker, and this one looks to be Ayer’s Joker in much the same way that Nicholson’s is Burton’s. Echoing Heath Ledger’s extreme preparation, Leto immersed himself in the character, reportedly never breaking character for the entirety of the shoot (co-star Will Smith infamously noted that he didn’t think he ever really met Leto). “I don’t dabble,” Leto told Rolling Stone of his preparation for the role. “I dive in, 1,000 percent.”

Will it all be worth it? We’ll find out when Suicide Squad hits Australian cinemas this week. But one thing is for certain: when The Clown Prince Of Crime invades another movie series sometime in the future, he’ll be wearing a different face once again.

Suicide Squad is released in cinemas on August 4.


  1. Suzana Mirkovic

    Mark Hamill is the best voice in all movie of Batman combining of evil mind and patopsyclotic is very hard in a movie it be a Jack Nicholson I like see Mark in a movie not just in a cartoon

  2. Shaun Cowe

    Awesome work, Trav. I liked hearing about the history of this character. I was initially against the whole aesthetic when it first got announced but I came around to appreciate the conscious move away from Ledger’s Joker.

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