It really is amazing how many things Batman: The Animated Series got right. Whether it was the fantastic writing, art design, or voice acting, it always got right to the soul of its characters. Mr. Freeze was in an issue of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man with the joke being that he was a forgotten relic lost to obscurity. Two years later, “Heart of Ice” defined him as such an interesting character that they went on to put him in a movie.
Not a good movie, but still! Arnold Schwarzenegger played him! That’s huge!
The Joker was already popular thanks to many factors, but Mark Hamill brought some extra life to the character and gave us what many would consider the ultimate take on the Clown Prince of Crime. He was the right level of charismatic, psychotic, funny, crafty, and flat-out dangerous. If it wasn’t for Clayface being a thing, he would have been the most animated villain on the show.
To celebrate the new Joker movie, we thought we’d take a look back at the Joker’s appearances on Batman: The Animated Series and the New Adventures of Batman and Robin to rank them from worst to best. Of course, this is only the core Batman show. Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, and the animated movies are off the table.
I’m also going with episodes where Joker has at least a supporting role. Merely hearing his laughter in Lock-Up doesn’t cut it.
19. LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT
On its own, Legends of the Dark Knight is a great episode. It’s about how Batman is a concept that’s seen many incarnations and at the end of the day, he’s a marriage of silly, badass, and flamboyant concepts. But as a Joker episode? Eh.
The first chunk of the episode is a hearsay retelling of a Batman adventure in the style of the old 1950s Dick Sprang comics. Batman takes part in ridiculous fight scenes, calls Robin “chum,” and has the voice of the original Space Ghost. While the Joker gets voiced by Michael McKean instead of Mark Hamill, he’s otherwise…not that different?
Other than the art direction, there’s nothing really dissimilar about this Joker. Even the part where he intimidates his goons into laughing at his joke is the kind of behavior we’ve seen him do.
18. OLD WOUNDS
I recall how when they did the Green Hornet crossover episode of Batman ’66, they originally intended to bring in the Penguin as the villain. Then they realized that Burgess Meredith was going to be wasted because viewers only cared about Green Hornet showing up (and retroactively, everyone only cares about Kato being there). So instead they just had Batman, Green Hornet, and their sidekicks take on some guy whose supervillain gimmick was that he really liked alphabet soup and stamps. Bruce Lee still kicked Burt Ward into another timezone, so viewers were happy.
“Old Wounds” is a very important episode. Not only does it show that Batman knows Batgirl’s secret identity and makes it so that she knows about Bruce and Dick’s dual lives, but it’s all about Dick quitting his life as Robin in a fit of rage. Less important stuff includes Tim Drake Robin being part of the framing device and a subplot about a father who dips his toe in crime and then gets a second chance via Batman’s compassion.
Meanwhile, Joker is the main villain and his big plan is something with radar disruptors. He just feels unnecessary here. He’s the fifth or sixth most important character in this episode and that’s no place for Mr. J.
Oh, and that awful pager noise early on helps vindicate the low ranking. Yikes.
17. HOLIDAY KNIGHTS
It’s another anthology episode and of the four segments that make it up, Joker’s is the least interesting. It doesn’t help that we already have a holiday-based Joker story. At least this part takes place during New Year’s Eve to make it slightly fresh.
It’s an excuse to show us Joker’s new animated design and introduce Tim Drake Robin into the mix. It doesn’t do much more than that.
It is pretty nifty that they decide that now’s the time to explicitly show that Joker’s been killing people to the point that we see close-ups of their smiling corpses. Ah, the stuff you can get away with in children’s entertainment sometimes.
16. THE LAST LAUGH
This feels like the most generic Batman vs. Joker story you can tell. On April Fools’ Day, Joker has a garbage boat filled with gas that’s turning everyone into laughing lunatics so he can rob them. Batman has to stop him, though they do a good job raising the stakes by having Alfred affected and put in danger of permanent insanity.
Really, the best thing this episode has going for it is Captain Clown, a creepy robot programmed to drive Joker’s boat and crush Batman. Before we find out what Captain Clown’s deal is, he’s really, really unnerving due to both his creepy default look and the very Michael Myers way he stalks Batman while taking excessive damage.
The rest of the episode just looks at its watch and waits for Batman to have survived the Joker’s machinations long enough that Joker can trip over a wire and almost die. This is the Joker’s second appearance on the show and the second time he loses because he trips over something while running away. Maybe the censored death scene from Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (where he runs away and stumbles into puddle with an exposed wire nearby) was more fitting after all.
Good little moment worth mentioning is when Joker makes a joke about “laughing stocks” in regards to the stock market. He does his usual cackle while his two henchmen look like, “Ugh. This fucking guy…” If only he had a lackey who really understood his sense of humor. If only.
15. THE MAN WHO KILLED BATMAN
This one’s always felt a little half-baked to me. Maybe because of how ridiculous Rupert Thorne comes off in the way he insists Sid the Squid is a criminal mastermind in spite of everything. Joker, on the other hand, plays the part well. He knows that Sid’s so-called victory over Batman was pure luck. He’s just pissed about it enough to kill the poor man.
For his time in the episode, Joker’s great. His eulogy for Batman is the highlight of the episode and Harley’s involvement gives us a made-it-past-the-censors joke about Harvey Bullock having a tiny penis. Thumbs up.
Still, there’s this push that Sid barely surviving Joker’s murder attempt is somehow “making a fool out of him.” Enough that criminals idolize him. It feels unearned to me.
14. CHRISTMAS WITH THE JOKER
It’s an episode I can easily watch every December. It’s a fine introduction to the idea of Batman and Robin vs. the Joker. There are some decent crime clown gags thrown in there. That said, the episode really runs out of gas about halfway in. After the wonderful setup and the scene where a crying Summer Gleeson points out that Joker’s put her mother in peril, the episode just kind of happens until it’s over.
Seriously, the reason Joker loses is because he trips on a roller skate when running away. That’s it. Right after Batman is able to swing across a vat of boiling liquid death and catch Commissioner Gordon, Summer Gleeson, AND Harvey Bullock at the same time. A lot of little things mix with the finding-its-footing animation to make this one of the less grounded installments of an otherwise grounded series.
Also, I can’t help but obsess about the candy cane gags used to keep his prisoners silent. Were they covered in crazy glue? Why were they so good at keeping everyone’s mouth shut when they weren’t tied to anything? Why didn’t it hurt like hell whenever Joker briefly removed them?
13. BE A CLOWN
Props to Mark Hamill for taking the concept of “play a clown pretending to be another clown” and hitting it out of the park. He voices the HELL out of Jekko.
This little adventure is like a prototype for a way better Joker story. Namely, the idea of Joker taking a kid under his wing and showing him the ropes is a really good one. It’s a promising idea that will ultimately lead him to his own death one day, but that’ll be a while. Instead, we’re stuck with Jordan, who is a total wiener.
I get it. It’s still a kids’ show. You aren’t going to get away with having Jordan consider being a maniac’s sidekick. I just wish he had more of a mean streak in him to add some extra conflict. Otherwise, you’re left with a basic Batman vs. Joker story with a peppered subplot of, “Wait, you mean the creepy clown living in an abandoned building is EVIL?!” Jordan’s so lucky he didn’t get Georgie’d, the little dumbass.
On the upside, it ends with the old Batman thumbs up animation. It’s really sweet when you realize how much of a win it is for Batman that the rich kid gets a second chance to connect with his father.
12. THE STRANGE SECRET OF BRUCE WAYNE
Gritty or not, Dr. Hugo Strange is a hard fit for a Batman cartoon, but this episode does a good job incorporating him. The way the episode is written, the inclusion of Joker, Two-Face, and Penguin is a bit of a crutch. About 2/3 in, once Batman screws over Strange, the episode is practically over. Batman’s third act mission is not about his own survival but the decision that Hugo Strange probably shouldn’t be killed by mutated criminals.
For the time he appears, Joker makes the most of his screentime. He’s the right amount of goofball and ominous. I also like that whenever the two share an episode, Joker and Penguin strangely seem to get along. Penguin, one of the sanest arch-criminals, never seems annoyed with the Joker’s behavior and Joker never really antagonizes him like the other villains. I guess when it comes to style, game respects game.
That part with the villains pooling their monetary resources together as part of an auction never really made that much sense to me. But whatever. It’s the Joker.
Joker’s plan here is as simple as it is excessive: blow up Gotham with a nuke. Batman makes a deal to bring Harley Quinn in to track him down and the team-up goes better than it has any right to. This is really more of a Harley episode than a Joker one, but he has his moments.
On a writing level, I do like that Harley controls the situation. Batman and Robin have Joker and his goons beat until Harley double-crosses them. Then Harley turns things around again once she turns on the Joker. She even asserts herself against him more than any other episode and shows full intent to kill the guy.
In the big picture, it’s a fitting ending, since a gun with a bang dart would be Joker’s ultimate undoing. It’s just that Harley doesn’t get the honor.
Otherwise, there’s not much to say about “Harlequinade.” Decent episode but not really a stand-out.
No superhero series would be complete without the “shitload of villains team up” episode. It’s done in a way that’s very loosely based on Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth comic, but also works against the tired argument that all these psychos exist because Batman exists. Being the villain known for having a lax backstory, Joker sidesteps the proceedings by playing judge. The perfect role for THE Batman bad guy.
A fun game to play here is figuring out which voice actors they didn’t feel like hiring for the story. Don’t think I didn’t notice you sitting in the background and doing absolutely nothing, Riddler!
Sometimes it’s easy to wonder why various villains don’t just band together like this and the finale really shows why a Batman revenge squad doesn’t work out. Sure, putting a bunch of Superman villains up against Superman is a good idea. The Sinister Six going after Spider-Man makes sense. Batman, on the other hand, has a bunch of villains who are just normal folk in colorful outfits. Unless your team has the steroid luchador or the unkillable mud blob, you’re just throwing bodies against a high-tech ninja who can take out a dozen men with little problem. Who would you rather have on your side when fighting Batman: a regular henchman built like a linebacker or a scrawny guy whose superpower is that he’s good at Sudoku and tells on himself?
After Batman deals with two of the most physically imposing enemies (the guy with a skin condition and the gymnast fangirl), everyone else is easy pickings. Then Joker gets to shine when he steps up as the final boss of the big villain team-up. As it should be.
9. BEWARE THE CREEPER
My main problem with “Beware the Creeper” is that I love the Creeper and want to see more from him, but the series is about over at this point and although he joins Justice League Unlimited down the line, he never does anything more than cameo as an extra. He got his own issue of the comic tie-in (coincidentally, with an incredibly similar plot to “Harlequinade”), but it’s not enough!
The episode is about Joker getting a taste of his own medicine. He exposes reporter Jack Ryder to his trademark laughing gas and throws him into the same acid that mutated his skin and hair. The prolonged dip doesn’t kill Ryder, but makes him stronger. A vengeful Creeper arises, out to bring Joker to justice by fighting crazy with crazy. It’s the closest thing we’ll ever get to a Batman/Freakazoid team-up.
His endless creeping on Harley…might not have aged well. It’s played for laughs for the most part, but at the end, when she’s exhaustingly telling him to leave her alone while he’s pawing at her feels ickier than it should. Then he buries his head in her boobs while falling unconscious. Sure.
The series has to come up with more ways for Joker’s defeat to mean something and having him come crawling to Batman because he’s too freaked out by Creeper’s behavior is a fitting way to see him take an L.
8. HARLEY AND IVY
Ah, yes. The episode that made my 11-year-old self realize, “Wait, those two are totally doing each other, right?” Then Bruce Timm and DC Comics spent many years making it apparent that yes, absolutely.
This is our first time seeing that Joker and Harley’s relationship is a toxic and one-sided one. Joker’s abusive and manipulative, but not to the levels that we’ll eventually get to. It’s enough to make us realize that Harley is capable of being her own character and not just an extension of Joker. Who knows? Maybe one day she can hijack a movie about a team of bird-themed superheroines!
Joker is a much-needed villain for this episode because while Harley and Ivy are dangerous criminals, we are kind of meant to root for them a little bit. Poison Ivy even gets a badass moment when she shrugs off Joker’s laughing gas like it’s nothing, feeling an awful lot like when Joker did the same to Scarecrow in Knightfall. Man, how many weaponized-gas-based villains does Batman even deal with?
Ivy’s headquarters is on a toxic waste dump, which only seems to exist for the sake of Joker accidentally blowing the place to kingdom come in the end. They use so much of the animation budget on explosion on top of explosion and God bless them for that.
Sadly, his henchmen are probably toast.
7. THE LAUGHING FISH
As a kid, I always thought this one was kind of drab, but revisiting it years later, it’s truly one of the best concepts for a Joker plot. It’s essentially a gigantic ransom job with a side of bullying wrapped up in nonsense and body horror. They practically go out of their way to explain that the Joker fish are edible, but they’re still purely disturbing to look at. How do they even have teeth like that?!
This episode is a nice mixture of several classic Joker stories, but I especially love that it sort of adapts the Joker’s very first appearance where he explicitly targets someone at a specific time and all the police protection won’t stop him from claiming his victim. They even used the same concept in The Dark Knight.
Quality episode from start to finish, even giving us some mutual respect developed between Batman and Detective Bullock. Also one of the better endings to a Joker story as although we know he doesn’t die, they really sell the hell out of the possibility that he does. Like, if this was an animated Disney movie, that would have absolutely been his death scene.
For the record, Joker responding to, “GREAT SCOTT!” with, “Actually, I’m Irish,” is one of the harder laughs the character got from me.
6. JOKER’S MILLIONS
This episode is really strange when you look at it. One of the pre-commercial cliffhangers is that some mob goons are going to gun down the Joker. This is an episode where they’re trying to tell you, “Uh oh! The Joker’s about to die! Stay tuned to see how he gets out of this!”
It’s a cathartic installment of the series as we get to see the Joker get shit on for a half hour so badly that in the end, Batman rather happily drags him away from a suicide attempt. But damn if it isn’t an entertaining half hour. We get some prime bickering between Joker and Harley, a blatant OJ Simpson trial reference, the unforgettable introduction of Harley 2.0, Joker’s intense fear of dealing with the IRS, and even a scene inspired by The Killing Joke.
“Joker’s Millions” is a lot of fun for what is essentially a story where the evil serial killer is the protagonist. At least he’s at his most harmless (relatively) and he certainly gets his in the end.
5. MAKE ‘EM LAUGH
The Joker tries to get revenge on Roseanne Barr. We’re supposed to be opposing this…?
As with Harley Quinn, Captain Clown, and the Jokerz gang from Batman Beyond, there’s a goldmine to be found in the idea of Joker-inspired villains. This episode leans into that and gives us the debut of three comedians-turned-villains who knock it out of the park with gimmicks that are inane, but too stupid not to love. Hell, Condiment King got to show up in Lego Batman! Good for him!
Has it ever been said who is based on who? While Mighty Mom is obviously Roseanne, I always figured Condiment King was Jay Leno. Pack Rat gives me a Rick Moranis vibe, but he doesn’t fit the stand-up comedian aspect.
It’s a strong Joker story, mostly because it’s about a genuine obsession that’s more than just him trying to best Batman and act on whims. That trophy means more to him than all the diamonds in the world and by the time he gets it and receives laughter from an audience of onlookers, it’s a true monkey’s paw situation that outlines how much of a loser he truly is.
4. JOKER’S WILD
This makes for a great companion piece to “The Laughing Fish.” Considering how much of that plot had to do with Joker’s ego and identity, it fits that someone would try to use that very concept against him. Cameron Kaiser’s attempts to build a casino are causing him to go bankrupt, so he dresses it up as a Joker-themed place of business to piss the villain off enough to blow the place to smithereens and allow Kaiser to swim in the insurance money.
Two things I want to talk about with this plan. First, Kaiser tries to play off his use of the Joker by talking up how it’s a concept that’s always been tied to playing cards, so whatever. It’s such a laughably bullshit excuse because there are female employees walking around in red and black, skintight jester outfits with facepaint.
Second, Kaiser fumbles harder than nearly any Batman villain by absolutely getting the best of the Caped Crusader and then following it up with the decision to throw Batman into a confrontation with the Joker. Batman blabs the whole plot and screws up everything for Kaiser immediately.
“Joker’s Wild” also has one of my favorite Batman tropes that doesn’t get used enough. Joker’s used to getting played by Batman, but nothing is more satisfying than seeing Bruce Wayne screw with Joker. Sure, Batman can punch him in the teeth, but Bruce Wayne can drive him madder with his competent smarm.
3. ALMOST GOT ‘IM
This one doesn’t even need a finale about saving Catwoman to be one of the all-time best episodes of any cartoon. Just seeing the villains chilling out and playing off each other feels like seeing a great Brian Michael Bendis comic in action. Toss in some fantastic action sequences without having to spend time on building up the narrative and you get pure gold.
For me, the highlight is the whole Croc disguise. Watching the episode and paying extra attention to every little thing Croc says and does makes Batman look like a better actor than Matt Hagan ever was. Not just for the rock gag, but for taking a dive against Poison Ivy and acting confused by Penguin’s vocabulary.
But this list is about the Joker. While he is only a cog in the awesome machine, the episode still makes it very apparent that he is the king of the Gotham criminals. He destroys them in cards (via cheating, most likely) as he goes into his story about how he came closer than anyone at killing Batman. And who could forget that beautiful, emotionless facial expression when Batman/Croc tells them all, “I threw a rock at ‘im!”
In the end, while it may arguably be the best episode of Batman: The Animated Series, it’s still an ensemble piece and it can only go so far on a list of Joker stories.
Oh, and one more thing. The ending sort of insinuates that Batman just beats the shit out of a defenseless Harley Quinn for trying to kill Catwoman. Huh.
2. MAD LOVE
“Mad Love” is the final episode of Batman: The Animated Series and there’s something completely fitting about it. One of the things that made the show work so well was that it took Batman’s rogues gallery and made them sympathetic. Nearly everyone has been given some level of pathos, from Two-Face to Clayface to Rupert Thorne. Even Penguin had his emotional spotlight. Joker was one of the very few to never get that kind of treatment.
This last episode plays at the idea of getting behind the Joker. Through a lengthy flashback, we see how he was able to win over Dr. Harleen Quinzel by telling her about his abusive childhood and how being a funnyman was based on his desire to earn love from his monster of a father. It’s something that, when taken at face value, is up there with Harvey Dent’s repressed anger and Jervis Tetch’s social issues. But it’s all a lie and it destroys the life of a promising woman who’s tried to help society.
The big twist is that this isn’t the Joker’s heartbreaking day in the sun, but Harley’s. Batman: The Animated Series ends with a sad look at the backstory of its own creation. “Mad Love” is part of the show’s ultimate legacy and treats Harley Quinn as a human being while Joker is nothing more than a force of nature that chooses to spread evil like a plague.
We also find that in the end, Harley is proven better than the Joker, retroactively winning the “Almost Got ‘Im” game according to Batman himself. And the tragic part is that she’s too broken on the inside to realize that and folds the moment Joker tries to manipulate her again.
On another note, I love that in the first episode, the showrunners got some flack for having Batman bleed out of his mouth. In his final one-on-one with Joker, we get bloody mouths from both hero and villain. What are they going to do, cancel them?
1. JOKER’S FAVOR
This one’s well-known for being the first appearance of Harley Quinn, even though her defeat at the hands of Batman is laughable in how simple it is. This episode isn’t about her. It’s about Charlie Collins, the unlikely true hero and, when you get down to it, one of the few true winners in the animated world of Batman.
Charlie is just a middle-aged schmuck who snaps into a bit of road rage, only to realize to his horror that the Joker is driving the other car. In a scene that does an excellent job showing off how purely frightening Joker can be, Joker casually endures Charlie’s attempts to lose him and chases him down. He decides to show mercy, offering to spare Charlie for the sake of a favor down the line. Charlie tries to move away and change his name, but again, Joker is immune to his tricks.
Charlie is forced to play by Joker’s rules, only to be betrayed and nearly killed regardless. When Batman seemingly has things figured out, Charlie has the ability to walk away from all of this, but instead chooses to step up.
When you’re young, you idolize Robin for being a child who gets to hang out with Batman. When you get older, you realize that you just want to be Batman. But the further you look at the character, the further you realize his own limitations as a person. In this instance, it’s the curse of the Joker. Batman can never escape the Joker. He can never fully defeat him. He won’t stop locking Joker up and Joker won’t stop escaping and killing. They’re destined to keep going until one or both of them dies and Batman won’t be the one who makes the killing blow, else he destroys everything he stands for.
Charlie actually stands tall because not only does he defeat the Joker, but he does it decisively with finality. The fear of the indignity of being blown to bits by Charlie causes Joker to admit full defeat. Even then, it’s a pure bluff and Joker is made to look like such a fool that even Batman has to chuckle. Charlie’s washed his hands of the Joker and leaves the Hell that is Gotham City to the tune of 1950s sitcom music accompanied by fart sounds. He escapes to spend the rest of his days as a normal family man with normal family man problems and doesn’t seem to fully grasp how inspiring that is.