Joker’s Wild – Who Was The Best Clown Prince of Crime?
In an act worthy of The Joker himself, pirates leaked the trailer for the upcoming Suicide Squad movie from San Diego Comic Con; forcing Warner Brothers to release the trailer early, and give everybody a glimpse of Jared Leto playing DC’s most iconic badguy – The Joker.
So perhaps now’s a time to look back over previous incarnations of The Clown Prince of Crime, and see what each of them brought to one of comic-land’s most fascinating characters.
“If I’m going to have a past,” quipped The Joker in Alan Moore’s iconic 1988 one-shot The Killing Joke, “I prefer it to be multiple choice.” In that comic, we came closer than ever to what might have been the origins to Gotham City’s most dastardly resident. But then again, it might have all have been a joke, right?
It raises an interesting question – who is The Joker? And it’s one that hasn’t been helped by his many and varied on-screen incarnations. The Joker is a little like BBC’s Doctor Who: It’s the same character, but each actor who plays him breathes unique new life into the character.
If you’re a comic book fan, you’re getting a new look into The Joker’s origins in ‘The New 52’. Batman has just received God-like powers that give him a glimpse into his arch-enemy’s past.
But for the rest of us? We get to enjoy many and varied glimpses of The Joker in movies and TV. The only downside is that we’re left to ourselves to decide which one we hold true.
Joker #1: Jared Leto: Suicide Squad
Obviously not too much is known about Jared Leto’s portrayal of The Joker in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie, other than his brief appearance in the trailer, and a few stolen scenes recorded on set.
People often equate different portrayals of The Joker to different drug users; and if that’s the case, Jared Leto’s Joker is obviously the meth head. Ripped and lean, with a gleaming grill and scrawled tattoos, he’s dirty and seedy – a combination of sadism and unpredictability.
Critics have been noticeably quiet about Jared’s casting; partly because they were proven so wrong about Heath Ledger when he took the part in 2008. Personally, I suspect he’ll do a great job. Jared Leto brings youth and vitality to the role – and he actually looks like he’d be able to put up a physical challenge to the Batman, which is something former Jokers most definitely have not.
If you missed it, here he is in all his glory:
Joker #2: Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight
People were up in arms when Australian actor Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight. Yet he didn’t just live up to the role – in many ways he defined it.Heath Ledger OWNED this role in 2008.
Director Chris Nolan had attempted to bring the comic book world of Batman into reality; and as such, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker was beautifully low-key.
Using the drug metaphor, he was the very epitome of ‘heroin chic’ – a shabby, shambling man daubed with make-up and dressed in a gaudy green suit. Ledger managed to deliver an incredibly menacing performance that perfectly highlighted how a physically weak man could be incredibly dangerous when combining lethal unpredictability with Machiavellian strategy.
Heath Ledger’s untimely death robbed us of the chance of seeing this great character again – but his portrayal of The Joker will forever live on. One interesting tidbit about his portrayal? Many suspect it was based on the personality of 70s-era Tom Waits; a singer songwriter whose voice was once described having been: “soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car.”
Watch the video below, and decide for yourself.
Joker #3: Jack Nicholson: Batman“This town needs an enema!”
Many people have forgotten how iconic Tim Burton’s 1989 hit Batman was. In addition to being The Batman’s first big screen outing (the 1966 Adam West version doesn’t count) it also introduced us to Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Crown Prince of Crime. In this instance, Nicholson portrays Gotham City thug Joe Chill, only becoming The Joker after Chill survives being dumped into a vat of chemicals by Batman during a foiled raid at the Ace Chemicals factory.
Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever and Batman and Robin have forever tarnished the old Tim Burton movies; but if you go back to watch the original you’ll find it stands up surprisingly well. And, even more surprisingly, Jack Nicholson makes for an excellent Joker.
If we’re using the drug metaphor again, he’s pure cocaine – a murderous mafia thug with a flare for the theatrical. He’s the exact opposite of Heath Ledger’s chillingly realistic Joker, but simultaneously manages to be eminently credible in the role. He’s a genuine threat to both Gotham City and Batman; and Nicholson nails his portrayal of the character.
You can see one of his best scenes below. Give the man credit; Jack Nicholson set the bar high.
Joker #4: Mark Hamill: Batman: The Animated Series
We talk about actors owning the role of The Joker; if that’s the case, then Mark Hamill is clearly the winner.
Best known as Star Wars‘ iconic hero Luke Skywalker, Hamill also lent his voice to the animated incarnations of The Joker from 1992 through to 2011, and he’s rumored to be coming back for an animated version of The Killing Joke.
Mark Hamill’s portrayal is so iconic that he’s going to appear on this list twice. As The Joker in several of Bruce Timm’s animated shows and movies, he faced off against Batman, Superman and a host of other lesser superheros countless times.
Hamill’s affected British accent and his relentless good humor made his version of The Joker incredibly charismatic; and the audience of the cartoon shows required that his murderous antics be significantly toned down. As such, Hamill stands as not just the longest-standing Joker, but also the most likable.
Here are some of his highlights, below.
Joker #5: Mark Hamill: The Arkham Series
In addition to voicing the Joker on TV and in movies, Mark Hamill also lent his voice to The Joker in the top-ranked games Arkham Asylym and Batman: Arkham City.
I’m not going to lie – I hated these portrayals. While the voice work was awesome, and the plot and playability of these two games made them iconic, I hated the gawky, gangly figure of The Joker from this game.
With the hyper-realism of so many of the other aspects of the game, he looked cartoonish and unrealistic (and that’s saying something, given the context.)
Nevertheless, the Arkham vision of The Joker has entered the lexicon; and many people love this version of the timeless character.
Joker #6: Cesar Romero: Batman
You can’t have a list of iconic Jokers and not include the original – Cesar Romero, from the 60s-era Batman series.
Inspired by the Golden Age comic versions of The Joker, Romero played The Joker as more of a lovable clown than a murderous madman and his antics were more amusing than alarming.
Fitting neatly into the campy tone of the TV show, former big-screen lothario Romero refused to shave off his signature moustache for the role; and you can see the makeup caked across it in every episode he’s in.
There’s not much else to say about this version of The Joker; only that it’s worth giving Romero’s incarnation some credit, as he was the TV and movie version of The Joker to Batman fans for over twenty years.
Joker #7: John DiMaggio: Batman: Under the Red Hood
John DiMaggio is a voiceover legend. As fire-breathing alcoholic robot Bender in TV’s Futurama, he won our hearts at the same time that he stole our wallets. In Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, he entertained a generation of kids as Jake the Dog.
But DiMaggio also had his turn as The Joker in the 2010 animated movie Batman: Under the Red Hood.
DC’s animated movies are always a treat, and this one was no exception. Telling the story of ill-fated Jason Todd, the second of Batman’s sidekicks, it featured Joker with a murderous new personality we’d barely seen onscreen before.
From the opening scenes in which he pummels Robin to death with a crow-bar, to a confrontation which sees him effortlessly murdering a half-dozen of The Black Mask’s thugs, DiMaggio’s version of The Joker is a very dangerous, very violent crook who poses a legitimate threat to even the highly trained Batman.
It’s a treat and stands apart in portrayals of The Joker.
Joker #8: Kevin Michael Richardson: The Batman
The Batman was a series run by Warner Bros. from 2004 to 2008. Taking inspiration from the comic books, but ditching most of the specifics, it portrayed a young and wet-behind the ears Batman learning the ropes and meeting many of his most iconic opponents.
All of the characters received updates and new origin stories, but The Joker stood apart because his origins had always been so crowded in mystery to begin with.
The Joker was played by Kevin Michael Richardson, and portrayed as more of a physical threat than normal – a dreadlocked, acrobatic Joker with the remnants of a straight-jacket hanging off him.
Richardson’s portrayal didn’t gel with a lot of people, but I think it was a very true reinterpretation of a classic character; and was one of the few onscreen incarnations of The Joker that posed a physical threat to Batman.
Joker #9: Michael Emerson: The Dark Knight Returns
In 2012, Warner Brothers released what is arguably their best animated feature yet – a cartoon version of the iconic Batman versus Superman story The Dark Knight Returns.
Set in an alternative future (ironically now our past) it follows a retired Batman climbing back into the cowl to combat a corrupt government and rampant gang violence; and when Batman returns, so do many of his enemies.
First and foremost of these, of course, is The Joker. In this instance voiceover artist Michael Emerson plays him with nicotine-infused cool.
Emerson’s voice is paired with an eighties-inspired ensemble for The Joker, complete with white linen jacket and pastel tie. That’s straight out of the comic books – as is the Joker’s final confrontation with his arch-enemy, Batman.
What Emerson owns, however, is his vocal portrayal of The Joker. It’s acidic, acerbic, and effete – a contemporary portrayal that some have claimed hints at one of the few things America is still afraid of: a predatory homosexual man.
I can’t really speak to that – but I do feel that Emerson’s portrayal of The Joker is one of the finest on this list.
Joker #10: Jeff Bennett: Batman: The Brave and the Bold
Comic book die-hards were in for a treat from 2008 to 2011 with Warner Brother’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold cartoon show.
Based off the comic book of the same name, it was a shamelessly cheesy cartoon that gave airtime to some of DC’s most obscure characters – and explored some of the comic’s wildest storylines.
Sadly, there wasn’t much to like about their portrayal of The Joker. Voiced by industry veteran Jeff Bennett, this show’s Joker was like a cut-rate amalgam of the 60s-era Joker and Mark Hamill’s British-accented Crown Prince of Crime.
Fortunately, like Batman himself, Joker was rarely the center of attention. Instead, he gave more obscure characters the opportunity to shine; and in that way, his unmemorable portrayal was probably deliberate and welcome.
While The Joker might be one of the most singular and unique characters in all of comic book history, he’s as multifaceted as a pack of cards. Whatever mood or angle you’re looking for, an incarnation exists – and each one speaks to you differently. Tell us which one is your favorite joker below!