Whether or not you liked Jared Leto as the Joker in Suicide Squad, you can’t argue with a $746 million in worldwide box office. That 2015 movie once again reminded Warner Bros. that the Clown Prince of Crime is their most bankable screen villain, and not even anemic reviews could keep audiences away. For that reason, it’s no surprise we are on the verge of getting our first solo Joker movie, this time starring Joaquin Phoenix in a completely original concept from director Todd Phillips and producer Martin Scorseese.
The Joker is a character historically infamous for his theatricality; he’s a scion of chaos, the maestro of malevolence, and a twisty yin to Batman’s straight-laced yang. He’s a comic icon that was himself borne from the haunting visions of cinema’s earliest glories, as Bill Finger was in part inspired to co-create the supervillain after watching Conrad Veidt’s eerie transformation in the 1928 Expressionist classic, The Man Who Laughs. Perhaps that is why each return to the big screen is heralded as much as any caped or cowled superhero.
In both print and celluloid, the Joker has left an unforgettable imprint on pop culture that’s as grotesque as a mouthful of Smilex. So join us now as we revisit all the times the Joker got the last laugh after the movie house lights went out.
While the Caped Crusader made the jump to the big screen (in a fashion) with serials during the 1940s, the Joker didn’t follow from the printed asylum until he had already appeared on TV. Yep, Batman: The Movie may have been originally conceived by William Dozier as a way to pique interest in a coming TV series, but due to financial reluctance at 20th Century Fox to pay for the whole production, Bat-fans weren’t able to get their Bat-fix at Bat-theaters until after the first Bat-season was complete in 1966.
And on the silver screen to reprise his television role as the Joker was popular character actor and performer Cesar Romero, who had already worn the make-up in several episodes of the show’s first season. Coming from the golden age of Hollywood, Romero was the son of affluent New York socialites of Cuban heritage (his maternal grandfather was the Cuban patriot José Marti). So to Tinseltown, this was good enough for the self-ascribed nickname of “the Latin from Manhattan.”
Getting his start in the early ‘30s, Romero often played exotic supporting roles, such as his villainous turn in 1934’s original The Thin Man. Or, more kind-heartedly, he played Shirley Temple’s wise London neighbor who hailed from India in The Little Princess (1939). He was renowned for his dance routines with Carmen Miranda in 1940s diversions like Week-End in Havana (1941), at least until he volunteered for the Coast Guard in 1942—he’d go on to serve in the Second World War at both the Battle of Tinian and Saipan during 1944.
As the Joker, Romero maintained his Latin lover moustache even in the white makeup, apparently insisting that no amount of cackling would impede his trademark appearance. However, his Joker was a fairly pitch perfect adaptation of the Golden/Silver Age of comicdom’s purple suited huckster. More a harmless grifter with a clown fetish than a true menace to Gotham City, on both the Batman TV series and its movie spin-off, Romero oozed a childlike sense of mischief. Comic purists would say such over-the-top shenanigans were most inspired by the artwork of Dick Sprang, for Romero’s Joker was surely a live-action cartoon.
Within the context of the film, Romero’s Joker appears to be on equal footing with Burgess Meredith’s Penguin. The two fiends have convinced most of Batman’s rogues, including the Riddler and Catwoman, to join forces with them in order to kidnap the world’s leaders at the United World Organization’s Security Council (read: UN). They do this by dehydrating them into colorful piles of dust. Batman and Robin eventually rehydrate the diplomats, but end up mixing personalities and bodies—nobody notices.
Cue the Joker’s snare drum.
The most perfect casting imaginable to the Boomer generation this side of Harrison Ford as President James Badass, Jack Nicholson was famously tapped for the Joker in Tim Burton’s dark reimagining of the Batman mythos. For its time, Batman was an ambitious blockbuster spectacle, and even today has a unique individual identity thanks to its director, making it an aberration in its then-nascent genre. Presumably, casting everyone’s favorite choice for the role went a long way to giving Burton some latitude.
There were many names who circled the role of the Joker in the run up to Nicholson’s casting, including Brad Dourif (purportedly Burton’s preferred choice), Tim Curry, David Bowie, Willem Dafoe, and most famously Robin Williams. In fact, Williams claimed WB used him as a bargaining chip to get Nicholson’s price down—which must have been substantial since Jack was paid $6 million for playing the Joker (and this is 1988 money, folks), plus a hefty backend on not only Batman but its direct sequels.
Still, Batman co-creator Bob Kane wanted Nicholson, as did the original producer on the project, Michael Uslan (who grabbed up the movie rights for Batman back in 1979). So this was probably meant to be. Makeup artist Nick Dudman even had an imperative to cook up multiple designs for the Joker’s maniacal grin with the goal of getting one that least disguised Nicholson’s recognizable mug.
One of the coolest movie stars of his generation (although he was born before the actual post-war baby boom), Nicholson broke out as both an actor and producer in the late ‘60s with counterculture hits like Easy Rider (he also co-wrote and produced Head, the Monkees’ ill-fated movie). By the time he was squaring off against an encased-in-rubber Michael Keaton, Nicholson had already been nominated for nine Oscars, winning two of them. Most famous then for playing a hardboiled, and ultimately hapless, private eye in Roman Polanski’s neo noir, Chinatown (1974), and the only sane man in a world gone mad in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson greeted the ‘80s with a string of high-profile villains. These included Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining where Nicholson played an alcoholic author with so much depravity before he goes crazy that Stephen King swore off the whole adaptation. And by the time he was the Joker, he had already played the Devil himself in The Witches of Eastwick (1986).
For the Joker, Nicholson, Burton, and screenwriter Sam Hamm took inspiration from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke where the colorful crook had been a small time hood who had his skin bleached white by a chemical bath. But whereas in the comics, this was possibly a story of tragedy (the Joker freely admits he remembers his origin differently every time), the film definitively veers the Joker in the direction of Chinatown, donning the big bad in fedoras and trench coats even before he went swimming in acid.
With his performance, Nicholson was every bit as anachronistic as Burton and production designer Anton Furst were at reimagining DC Comics’ generic Gotham City as an urban nightmare of Metropolis-esque Art Deco left to rust for 50 years. The very first sentence of the screenplay is that Gotham City looked “as if hell erupted through the pavement and kept growing.” Similarly, Nicholson’s pre-Joker persona, given the name Jack Napier, is a bit like classic wiseguy gangsters from yesteryear, such as James Cagney in White Heat with a little bit of Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo thrown in, mixed with Nicholson’s showy depiction of deviousness first mastered in The Shining. After finally taking the swan dive in chemicals, Nicholson played the Joker as unabashedly cruel but never anything less than hilarious and even seductively likable.
For modern audiences, Jack’s Joker could be viewed as every bit the showman as Romero, but in 1989, he stunned viewers and gave plenty of children nightmares when he electrocuted some hoods and stabbed others in the neck with pens. In fact, Romero was quite disturbed by the nastiness behind Nicholson’s perma-smile. Something of a performance artist with a predilection toward painting (similar to 1966’s Batman TV show), this Joker fed into the 1980s’ sense of narcissism. Obsessed with money, fame, and fashion, he would go on to kill the vain and vacuous members of society with their own beauty products (a future staple of Burton’s cynicism). And when Batman thwarts that action, the Joker goes on to entice Gothamites that he is a man of the people by flaunting his wealth (as well as his poisonous Smilex gas) at a parade.
The very definition of a star vehicle, Nicholson dominates the movie in a performance that not so much sees him submerged in a role, but rather bending a character to fit his mannerisms and style. Still, the case could be made that even with Jack’s signature flourishes—and the bizarre choice of making Joker the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents—this is the most comic book-like of the live-action Jokers. He is sadistic, sociopathic, and murderous, but also lighthearted, obsessed with comedy, and beholden to gags, such as acid hidden in his flower-lapel or guns that merely fire “BANG!” flags.
He really was a Jack for all seasons.
Nevertheless, the quintessence of what is considered the “comic book Joker” remains in Mark Hamill’s vocal, and seemingly never-ending, performance as “Mistah J.” At this point, Hamill has been playing the Joker almost as long as his other iconic character, a certain farm boy from Tatooine. First appearing as the Joker in Warner Bros. Animation’s masterful Batman: The Animated Series, which ran originally from 1992 to 1995 and then was revived in 1997 to 1999, Hamill has voiced the Joker in several straight-to-video animated films, the much more mature (and violent) Arkham video games, and most recently in 2016’s animated adaptation of The Killing Joke.
Yet only once was he able to bring his chillingly infectious laugh to the big screen with 1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Much like the Adam West TV series before it, this film was the by-product of surprise success on the small screen. And for some Batman purists, it remains the benchmark of the Dark Knight’s cinematic adventures, not least of all because of the purple one.
Hamill came into the role after a near decade of frustration following the completion of the Star Wars trilogy. Despite appearing in projects like the World War II drama, The Big Red One, Hamill found Hollywood uneager to hire the typecast thespian. He had better success on Broadway, starring in plays like The Elephant Man and Amadeus, yet he never appeared in the movie adaptations that followed. For example, he lost out on the Mozart role in the latter to Tom Hulce in 1984. By 1990, he was appearing in such projects as The Flash TV series where he played the Trickster in a costume as unflattering as you’d imagine. Yet it did lead to him finding his way as a voice actor with what is arguably the greatest American animated series of all-time.
As the Joker on Batman: The Animated Series, Hamill instantly became a celebrated voice talent, developing a cadence and cackle that would still be unrecognizable to Star Wars fans. While in the earliest episodes, the Joker was fairly unthreatening (the series was intended for children), Hamill imbued the character’s inherent playfulness with palpable malice, hinting at darker things than the scripts might allow. His Joker never killed anyone in the show’s original run, but his sinister intent came through all the buffoonish attributes added to the persona. Plus, he is the only Joker on this list who actually can tell some pretty funny jokes… especially of the gallows variety!
After the first season, however, he was allowed to add dimension and danger to his audible alter-ego when the Joker was included in Mask of the Phantasm. Despite mostly focusing on a new villain created for the film, the eponymous Phantasm, as well as the origin of how Bruce Wayne became Batman (recall that Christopher Nolan hadn’t offered his arguably definitive take on the subject yet), the Joker’s sideshow attraction still stole everyone else’s thunder. Influenced by Burton and Furst’s Gotham, the animated version resembled 1939’s World’s Fair in Queens after going the opposite of strong for 50 years. Likewise this version of the Joker was also a fedora-adorned gangster who marked the wrong chemical factory oh, so many years ago.
But unlike Nicholson’s Joker, there are no obvious mannerisms associated with a star highlighted in the animation (apparently, animators took inspiration from Hamill’s physical gestations in the recording booth). In fact, despite being a cartoon, Hamill’s voice alone instills the character with a sense of unpredictable randomness and spontaneous violence. And with the animated film, he was allowed to act on it, driving corrupt politicians crazy, murdering mob bosses, and laughing all the way to hell in his ambiguous and fiery ending.
Much like how The Animated Series introduced the world to Harley Quinn, Hamill has introduced multiple generations now to a Joker who is every bit as conceited and cartoonish as Nicholson’s whimsical mugging. But Hamill’s Joker is so much more happily heinous and unknowable in the way he can either sing or hiss his lines, each with a dissonant quality from the other. Watch his above final howl into the flames from Mask of the Phantasm and try not to smile along.
However, no matter how much stock you put in comic book fidelity, there is little debate that Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight transcends its genre. As much as any other legendary turn of villainy in cinema, Ledger’s take on the clown is immortal and still lingers in the culture to this day.
As the main villain of the second, and ultimately most beloved, part of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the Joker was long expected to make his return to the big screen before Ledger was even cast. A part that saw actors as varied as Robin Williams (again) and Adrien Brody openly campaigning for it, Nolan apparently always had Ledger in mind, eager to work with the young and gifted actor. He’d even courted Ledger in 2003 in a failed attempt to get him to play Batman in Batman Begins.
Only 28-years-old when he smeared the white pancake powder across his face, the Australian-born Ledger was a classic case of an immensely talented performer who enjoyed (and suffered through) having a movie star’s good looks. Making the jump to the States at an early age in heartthrob roles like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), The Patriot (2000), and A Knight’s Tale (2001), Ledger was an instant idol for teen audiences. It was a hat he wore uncomfortably. Soon, however, he was appearing in the kind of roles that fed into his ambitions with projects like Monster’s Ball (2001), Lords of Dogtown (2005), and his rather amusing kinship with the idiosyncratic Terry Gilliam in The Brothers Grimm (2005) and 2008’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (the latter of which would be his last role). Also, he was one of the many actors to take a turn at playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.
During this period, he also broke through into the awards circuit with a poignant and surprisingly raw performance as the bitter and closeted gay man, Ennis Del Mar, in Ang Lee’s enduring Brokeback Mountain. He did not win the Oscar that year but he grabbed Hollywood’s attention.
This makes his acceptance of the Joker role all the more perplexing from the outside, especially after Ledger had gone on record saying he was not a fan of most superhero movies. But Nolan wasn’t making just any superhero movie. In the wake of Batman Begins rebranding the Dark Knight as a masked do-gooder for our perilous post-9/11 times, Nolan may have crafted the definitive Bush Years film about the paranoia and despair that crept into American life during the inception of the War on Terror. And he did it all with a man dressed as a bat and another as a clown.
Ledger’s Joker more than simply pulled from comic books from inspiration. While Ledger, on Nolan’s recommendation, read Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke and Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, he also admitted to taking inspiration from the likes of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the punk rocker turned murderer Sid Vicious (he also likely took some vocal cues from Tom Waits). But by his own admission, he soon went far afield, locking himself in a hotel room for a month honing both a voice that sounded nothing like previous Jokers and a nihilistic psychology singular from any monster ever put on 35mm (or Nolan’s preferred IMAX 70mm alternative). He kept a diary for that month written in the Joker’s hand. It included anecdotes, such as things that would make his Joker laugh—like AIDS and blind babies.
In the finished film, Ledger and Nolan took Alan Moore’s idea of the Joker hellbent on proving a philosophical point-of-view about the meaninglessness of life to its breaking point. This Joker went beyond the realm of comics’ supervillains; he was a demon that appeared out of thin air to test the morals of an ambiguous American society that pretends to have absolute virtue. And more than a madman, he was an extension of Nolan toying with specific Western phobias. In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) was a masked man who lived in the mountains that wanted to destroy an American city. Later in The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy’s Bane was a militaristic demagogue who sought to destabilize civilization with explosives and by executing American servicemen in graphic ways. But Joker… he was something else. The lone gunman, the homegrown and unaffiliated psychopath, who, as Michael Caine so dryly extolls, “wants to watch the world burn.”
And he’ll just laugh in your face the harder you hit him to think otherwise.
Ledger embodied that to terrifying effect. Unlike Nicholson, who made the role an extension of his silver screen persona, Ledger disappeared into the character. His Joker was not scarred by chemicals, but from a Glasgow smile carved onto his face. And like The Killing Joke, he has multiple stories about how those scars were earned, each a lie meant to unsettle victims he soon plans to carve equally grisly grins into. Atop that horror show, this anarchist in a purple suit has green hair that’s gone stringy from the accumulated grease of not showering for years. His teeth are as yellow as the school buses he steals, and his makeup his hastily self-applied, burying the actor’s natural good looks under red, white, and crazy.
After his passing, filmmakers have been mum about how Ledger entirely created this beast, but he would apparently play every take differently, and personally filmed the shaky cam terrorist videos the Joker sent out to cable news channels. He was so immersed in his character’s jittery and spastic movements that Nolan chose not to be even in the room when Ledger filmed the Joker’s final video threat to the “bridge and tunnel crowd.”
With a sing-song-y voice that would unexpectedly become guttural, and a posture that hunched forward like a man thrice his age, Ledger created a cinematic ghoul of 21st century America’s greatest anxieties, which all the better fed the formula of a villain that sought to destroy the world not with a MacGuffin or a bomb, but by purely taking a beloved civil servant and pushing him to his breaking point until he snapped. Ledger is unrecognizable in this monumental achievement, both within its genre and in filmmaking itself.
Tragically, Ledger did not live to see the finished film. On Jan. 22, 2008, he died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. The actor, suffering from insomnia, sadly mixed too many sleeping pills. A father and still only 28, he did not live to see the Oscar he won for his performance. But he deserved it. Ledger took comics’ greatest villain and made him just as insidious and inescapable in a medium that has given us Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge, Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates, Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, and Darth Vader. His Joker is in that pantheon.
Jared Leto’s Joker is one that is as much a departure from Ledger as Ledger was from Nicholson. Every bit resistant to the “classic” iconography of the Clown Prince of Crime as Nolan’s take—perhaps even more so despite having bleached skin—director David Ayer and Leto created a virile Joker who is excessively fabulous and obsessed with embracing “thug life” stereotypes.
Often described as a marriage of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana from Scarface and James Franco’s dimwitted Alien in Spring Breakers, Leto’s Joker is just as likely to be found making it rain at the club in Suicide Squad as he is in a funhouse. Ayer’s entire take is about candy colored nihilism masquerading in a superhero origin story’s formula. But in truth, Joker is a supporting player in it since the film marks the long overdue and theatrical debut of Harley Quinn, perfectly embodied by Margot Robbie. Nevertheless, snagging Leto for the role just after he’d won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club was a major “get.”
Leto has been on the movie and music scene for well over 20 years at this point. First coming to prominence for his supporting work in TV’s My So-Called Life with Claire Danes, Leto quickly graduated to major roles in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), and Darren Aronofsky’s searing Requiem for a Dream (2000). He also has a humorous showdown of sorts with future Batman Christian Bale in 2000’s American Psycho—Bale, in very un-Batman like fashion, plants an axe into Leto’s head. Then again, Ben Affleck’s Batman might be game…
Leto eventually stepped away from acting to focus on his music career, but throughout the last decade has sporadically appeared in films before losing 30 pounds to play an HIV-positive transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club, earning him that aforementioned Academy Award.
As the Joker, Leto went more method than even Ledger to dubious effect. Reports from the very secretive Nolan set suggest that Ledger was not “in-character” between takes, however Leto more than just wanted to be the Joker at all times; he needed his co-stars to treat him as such. For example, during her first day on set, Viola Davis said that Leto had a dead pig dropped on her desk, which scared the hell out of her. Similarly, he sent Margot Robbie, who plays Joker’s lover, a live black rat in a giftwrapped box. He would go on to send her and other cast mates used condoms and anal beads. You know… to get in character? I guess…
Whatever energy it might have created on set, it is somewhat muted in the final film since the Joker is barely in it. Mostly an extraneous subplot as he chases after the titular Squad to get Harley back, the Joker has little screen time with any of his co-stars besides Robbie. In fact, despite being far more extreme than the comic book or The Animated Seriesversions with his tattoos and metal grills, his Mistah J is also more loving and committed to Harley. Traditionally in the comics, he and Harley are in an abusive relationship with him never caring what happens to her. When she even captures Batman on her own, he famously threw her out a window and put her in the hospital, because only he was allowed to kill the Batman. But in the film, he desperately seeks to have Harley back. And when he isn’t on the quest, he is hanging out in tuxedos with mobsters and going to strip clubs to collect his 10 percent. Quite honestly, he is the most small-minded Joker ever put to film, even if he is played the broadest.
If Leto ever gets a second chance, hopefully he’ll get those tattoos removed and have more to do because he does ooze a certain animalistic energy, sliterthing around the other actors like a shark deciding who to bite. However, that might be a mixed metaphor because his performance is so broad that it lacks much bite at all.
While Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is about to hit theaters, he’s already captured the public’s imagination. As the only Joker to get a whole movie to himself, no Batmans or Suicide Squads required, Phoenix stars in a deconstructionist piece set in the early 1980s instead of 2019. Returning to the amateurish appearance of self-applied make-up used by Ledger, there is something even more insidious in Phoenix’s countenance that just as much resembles serial killer John Wayne Gacy as it does the comic book character.
Writer-director Todd Phillips’ dream casting for the role, Phoenix took it in large part due to how much of a departure it is from what we associate with comic book movies. Aesthetically and even narratively owing more to Martin Scorsese character pieces like Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982) than modern superhero movie tropes, Joker depicts its central character as a mentally ill and isolated man suffering from debilitating loneliness and an unhealthy relationship with his mother. He, in short, feels like the profile of many a serial killer and lone wolf mass murderer, which he is. Joker, which we reviewed in-depth here, follows Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck as he comes out of his shell and embraces his misanthropic ideas that result in a series of brutal killings culminating with “the Joker’ becoming something of a national boogeyman that drives Gotham City to the edge.
A performance that mixes introverted tendencies, Phoenix doesn’t play Joker as a showman. Rather he is a mid-20th century loner who is trying to emulate what he thinks is style. His movements are inspired, literally as seen in the movie, by the likes of Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Carson, the latter reimagined by Robert De Niro, who plays Franklin Murray, a late night comedian in the Carson vein. It also is a notable tribute to De Niro’s work in The King of Comedy. A gruesome portrait of entitled rage, Phoenix’s Joker is scarily closer to our real world monsters than Nolan’s supernaturally brilliant anarchist or the traditional comic book villainy of Nicholson.
As for Phoenix himself, the fact that he is playing the Joker is a bit of a surprise. Marvel Studios courted Phoenix hard for the role of Doctor Strange back in 2015. But the actor walked away, apparently wary of a multi-film contract. He has since given vaguely diplomatic comments about Marvel, saying he thinks “they keep the fucking industry going in some way,” but he remains a bit removed from the superhero and blockbuster aesthetic.
Perhaps that is because Phoenix’s career more resembles that of a charismatic character actor who unexpectedly became a movie star. The younger brother of the taken-too-soon River Phoenix, Joaquin came to Hollywood as a young child actor, appearing in films like the children’s movie SpaceCamp and the TV series Murder She Wrote in the 1980s. His major breakthrough as an adult was in To Die For, Gus Van Sant’s darkly comic thriller from 1995 that starred Nicole Kidman as a femme fatale in a small town who dreams of fame… and gets it by brainwashing a local teenager (Phoenix) into murdering her boring husband. The film premierred at Cannes and began an early career of supporting roles as usually unsavory individuals. This occurred again in Joel Schumacher’s 8mm, Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, and most satisfyingly in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. As Commodus, a Roman emperor who at least in the film is depicted as murdering his father and suffering from vast insecurity and envy of his father’s favorite general, Maximus (Russell Crowe), Phoenix gave a tour de force in snivelling self-loathing and high-concentrated camera mugging.
He received an Oscar nomination for his performance, which has led to more popular leading work ever since. He played a much more likable co-lead to Mel Gibson in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs in 2002 and soon was appearing as Johnny Cash in James Mangold’s Walk the Line, in which Phoenix did his own singing (lowering his natural singing voice a whole octave) and received his second Oscar nomination. He also broadened his leading man credentials by focusing on working with auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson, for whom he’s led both The Master and Inherent Vice. In this era, he drifted toward art house work, even feigning his own retirement from the industry when he pretended to be an out-of-control alcoholic actor who wanted to begin a music career as a rapper… it turned out he was only a slightly-in-control actor pretending to be drunk and retiring so as to star in Casey Affleck’s bizarre attempt at a mockumentary, I’m Still Here.
It is safe to say Phoenix has led a versatile and eclectic career, going from supporting heavy to movie star to more of an artful performer who likes to lean into gravelly mumbling. And in the process, it’s led to divine work, such as Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. All of which makes him donning the purple suit all the more strangely satisfying.
So that is it for the movie Jokers. Do you have a favorite? A least favorite? Let us know in the comments below!