Unless you’ve been living under a rock or hiding away in the Batcave, you would have likely heard the early reviews for the upcoming Joker movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and how come October 4th, we are all likely to have our collective brains melted by how bloody brilliant this film promises to be. Speaking as somebody who may or may not be a little obsessed with the Joker, in fact I’d even go as far as to say he’s my favourite comic book character of all time, I’m beyond excited for how great this movie could be but will Joaquin Phoenix’s interpretation of The Joker become the best of all time? Of course there’s no way of knowing that just yet but that won’t stop me from taking a trip down memory lane to revisit the multiple variations of the iconic character that we’ve been treated to over the years. Before we get started though, here’s a few pictures of yours truly finding a way to force the Joker into my own wedding… See I told you I’m a little obsessed.
The Clown Prince of Crime’s story began way back in 1940 when he first appeared in issue #1 of Batman. Created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, the Joker was portrayed as criminal maniac who would poison his victims, steal their valuables and do it all with his trademark dark humour. Looking back now, it’s crazy just how similar that 1940’s version of the Joker is to the classic version most people think of today, especially when comparing him to his long time rival Batman who has completely evolved from the corny, cheese ball, pun-loving hero to the dark and broody somewhat anti-hero we see in more modern day comics and movies. I think this speaks to the strength of the original Joker character from day one, unfortunately this wasn’t always the case as in the late 1950’s and throughout the entire 60’s the Joker was transformed to a more child friendly goofball in an effort to please the CCA (Comics Code Authority) who in 1954 set out a code of criteria stopping comics from portraying criminals in any kind of positive light including eliciting sympathy for any criminal character or glorifying them in anyway. Along with other rules such as completely banning all excessive violence, any use of violent weapons and a complete ban on gore, our beloved Joker didn’t stand a chance, alas, he became harmless comedy character and the less said about that the better.
Before these dark times though, back in 1951 we were treated to our first look at the Joker’s ‘origin’. I put origin in quotation marks as any fan of the character will know that one of the coolest and unique parts of the Joker character is that he doesn’t have a definitive origin. In his first origin story, we are given the classic tale of the failed comedian who is talked into becoming the criminal – Red Hood who would later fall into a vat of ace chemicals, bleaching his skin white and his hair green, setting him on a psychotic path to where he eventually becomes the Joker. In 1988 this story was revisited in The Killing Joke, where Joker tells this story alongside committing horrifying acts such as shooting and paralysing Barbara Gordon and torturing her father – Commissioner James Gordon in an effort to prove that it only takes one bad day to drive a man to insanity. Towards the end of the graphic novel he reveals that this back story may not be fact and may actually all be in his head, referring to it only taking one horrifying event to send a man crazy he says “Something like that happened to me, you know. I… I’m not exactly sure what it was. Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another.. If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice! Ha ha ha”. This multiple origins trait has stuck with the character ever since and has been told in various ways over the years with the story always falling back on the fact it’s being told by a psychotic unreliable narrator. One of my favourite ways this was told was when in 2008, Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight would often start a conversation with his victims by asking “Did I ever tell you how I got these scars?” And would then follow up with a different narrative every time. It’s part of the character that keeps me truly addicted. Have you ever seen a movie that keeps you on the edge of your seat with whatever mystery it’s keeping secret, only to be left feeling a little flat once all is revealed? Or when a scary alien or monster is purposely not shown to the viewer but once it is, all the horror feels like it’s been sucked out? This proves that most of the time it’s the not knowing which is the scariest and most interesting and that is exactly what the Joker is all about.
Speaking of Heath Ledger, let’s take a look at all the times the Jester of Genocide has graced both the big and small screen. The first time was of course way back in 1966 when the Joker was played by Cesar Romero in the TV series – Batman and the Movie adaptation not long after. As much as this iteration of the character is not for me as he’s very much based on that 1960’s goofball Joker mentioned earlier, I can’t help but have a massive appreciation for how Romero’s take on the character was enough to make Joker a household name across the globe. If it wasn’t for this 60’s Joker then there’s every chance the character may have been lost in history as the following years for DC weren’t great on the comic book front and Joker seemed to be appearing less and less until the success of this TV Joker gave DC no choice but to push on with everybody’s favourite psychotic prankster. Some twenty odd years down the line we were treated to Tim Burton’s re-imagining of Gotham with the 1989 blockbuster simply named Batman. Jack Nicholson took up the role of the Joker and was really the first actor to express the darker side of the character, arguably overshadowing Michael Keaton’s Batman in the process. Although Burton took a few liberties with the histories of both Joker and Batman, this was really the first time the true homicidal, unstable and often terrifying version of Joker was captured and shown off to a non comic book audience and watching it as a young lad left an impression on me that I would never forget.
Then came Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 and it was at this point that my obsession began. I think the biggest compliment I can pay Mark Hammil for his voice acting is that whenever I read anything with the Joker in, I’m hearing Hammil’s voice. Out of all the Joker’s across all TV shows, movies or video games it’s this one I will always look at as THE Joker. Speaking of video games, it was of course the man himself who would reprise his role as the Joker for the Batman Arkham trilogy alongside animated series co-star – Kevin Conroy back in the role of Batman. These two being back together undoubtedly helped with the massive success of those games. Some of my favorite Joker moments of all time have come from the games, from Hammil’s unmistakable voice blaring over the PA system taunting Batman throughout his stay in Arkham Asylum to (spoilers ahead) him returning from the grave to continuously taunt and torture the caped crusaider as a dark and twisted fragment of Bruce Wayne’s Joker-ridden imagination. Back to movies, it was the aforementioned 2008 hit – The Dark Knight when it felt as if The Joker was reborn into modern pop culture thanks to the outstanding performance of the late great Heath Ledger. We all know the story here and it’s not my place to retread over a subject that’s been done over and over when talking about the actors death and how that related to his role as the Joker so all I’ll say is that Heath Ledger can rest easy knowing he completely reinvented an icon in a way that nobody thought possible. Much like the way I view Mark Hammil as my Joker, there are many who see Heath Ledger as theirs and for good reason! The only negative that could be said about Ledger’s Joker is that whoever would pick up the mantle next would have a near impossible job living up to what had come before… Enter Jared Leto.
When Jared Leto was announced as the next Joker for 2016’s Suicide Squad, it’s fair to say there was a mixed response to the Thirty Seconds To Mars frontman. In a way, it was doomed before it even got off the ground but that’s not to say that people weren’t holding out hope, in fact I was one of those people! Then I saw the movie.. Now I don’t really have an issue with Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker in Suicide Squad, what I do have an issue with though is the following… *clears throat*. The look, why on earth does this Joker have so many corny tattoos? It makes me believe the filmmakers never took the time to get to know the character as if there’s one predictable aspect of the Joker then it’s his unpredictability, every version of the character you could possibly look at is way too unstable to sit for full tattoo pieces and would be likely to take that needle and stab the artist in his eye than to sit patiently for hours and have a chit chat whilst somebody causes him pain. Also the way he was written and portrayed in Suicide Squad was a joke (no pun intended). I think most fans were excited to see Joker on the big screen alongside his destructive other half – Harley Quinn but this was an absolute train wreck. He came off as desperate to please her which is never the way that relationship is meant to work and the moment I saw them texting on screen, I was out! They acted more like a teenage hot topic couple than the terrifying murderous duo that they should be. And finally, it never led anywhere. Three years on from the God awful Suicide Squad and I’m left questioning what was the point of even having him in there? He was introduced as a side character with visions of the future but he barely helped the doomed flick and this version of the character was never touched on or spoken off again. This was definitely a low point in the history of The Joker and a prime example of what can go wrong when the core aspects of the character are forgotten.
So here we are in 2019. I’ll be honest, I was worried about the upcoming Joker movie only a few months back. Given Warner Bros and DC’s track record over the last few years and how quickly they screwed up and abandoned the last portrayal of the Joker, I wasn’t expecting much this time around. Though a couple of trailers and a bunch of stellar reviews later and fickle old me is right back aboard that hype train! Joaquin Phoenix is next up to take on this legendary role and the buzz going around right now is that he may have just done the old clown proud. Will this version go down in history with Hammil and Ledger’s Jokers? Only time will tell but I for one am excited.
So there we have it, a very brief history on the Joker and how we got to this point. I say brief because there’s so much I didn’t have the time to touch on. There’s so many different stories out there that have come to define who the Joker is including tales such as A Death In The Family, Brian Azzerello and Lee Bermejo’s Joker, New 52’s Death Of The Family and so much more. I never even had time to jump into the relationship with Joker’s arch enemy – Batman and the merry-go-round that is Joker wanting Batman to kill him but Batman being unable to break his one rule of never murdering, whilsts hundreds die due to the fact Joker still lives! Stories like this is why the Joker is my favourite comic book character of all time and if you even have a passing interest in the character then I highly recommend you go back and check out as many of these stories as possible. Until then I can’t help but look forward to what comes next, roll on October 4th.Become a Patron!