First created in 1940, the Joker has been portrayed in several different ways. Throughout the years, the villain has gone through many transformations, ranging from Jack Nicholas’ mobster to Jared Leto’s emo-gangster. However, the latest version of the infamous Joker shows the character in a new and artistic light.
With a dark and confusing personal history and a knack for playing dark characters, Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the Joker’s mental health is something that hasn’t been done before. Let’s take a look at the evolution of the Joker and see how Phoenix’s past might have shaped the character’s latest incarnation.
The Original Joker Was Inspired By ‘The Man Who Laughs’
Joker, The Clown Prince of Crime, was created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson for Batman No. 1 in April 1940. Their inspiration for the character’s appearance and persona was drawn from Conrad Veidt, a German actor from the 1920s. Veidt’s clown character in the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s A Man Who Laughs had a long face, wide, permanent smile, and slicked-back hair.
In an interview, Robinson said, “I wanted somebody that would make an indelible impression, would be bizarre, would be memorable like the Hunchback of Notre Dame or any other villains that had unique physical characters.”
The Joker Was Almost Killed Off
In his comic book debut in 1940, the character Joker was portrayed as a green-haired, ashen white-faced, crazy-grinned clown. Even though fans now know the Joker as THE villain of DC, ironically, creators Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson had plans to kill him in the first edition.
They thought Batman would look weak if they left the Joker alive. Thankfully, editor Whitney Ellsworth talked the creators out of it, saying that it was a better decision to leave the character alive. She was right! The Joker appeared in nine out of the following 12 Batman issues.
The Character Went From Violent To A Prankster
When the Joker was first created, the comics were geared toward a more mature audience. Then, in the early 1940s, Detective Comics decided to capitalize on the evil clown’s growing popularity, making a kid-friendly version of the character. The goal was to change the way the Joker was portrayed in the comics.
So, the evil-doer who had evil tendencies turned into a prankster. By changing the character’s whole persona, he became a lot more approachable to younger readers. We see both the violent and the prankster sides in movie adaptations of the character, but you’re going to have to keep reading to learn more!
Before The Joker There Was Red Hood
When fans read about the Joker, he was always in some sort of fight with Batman. For some time, the character was only known as the archenemy of Gotham’s dark knight. He never had an origin story. That changed in 1951 when Finger decided it was time for fans to learn a bit more about the Joker’s history and why he acts the way he does.
The story of Red Hood appeared in DC’s issue number 168. Readers learn that the man behind the red hood actually fell into chemicals, disfiguring his face. This man later turns into the character known as the Joker.
The Origin Story Had Bad Side Effects
Having the Joker’s origin story result in bad facial burns didn’t bode well for The Comic Code Authority. The dark nature of the comics (not just the Red Hood story) had parents complaining about the negative impact they were having on their kids, especially young boys. As a result, in 1954, The Comic Code Authority made rules, intending to regulate violent content.
At first, the industry didn’t take the censorship regulations seriously. Then, people started burning violent comics in protest. After that, comics began publishing cleaner and cleaner content, including all stories associated with the Joker.
The Joker Hits ABC
In 1966, about ten years after the new regulations were put in place, a funnier version of the Batman adventures was broadcast on ABC. The studio cast Cesar Romero as the infamous Joker, a character he portrayed as campy, comical, and over the top.
Being the first to play the character, Romero invented the ‘Joker Template’ for other actors — the manic laugh and the need for revenge. Surprisingly, his version of the villain gained a huge following and was very popular among viewers of the show! Unfortunately, the series was canceled in 1968, and fans watched as the Joker disappeared for a few years.
The Joker’s Comeback In 1973
After the Batman comic series was canceled on ABC, the Joker drifted out of the public eye. Not appearing in a comic in five years, the character reclaimed his throne as the Clown Prince in the 1973 comic “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge.” With the Comics Code weakening, the Joker was back and darker and more violent than ever!
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams decided to focus on their mature readers in hopes that the ‘new’ version of the character will help boost comic sales. It could be argued that the two writers started the ‘twisted’ Joker concept the public has come to know.
Killing Robin Opened The Floodgates
Although the Joker’s origin story isn’t a happy one and resulted in the character doing horrible things around Gotham, it doesn’t compare to what he did to Robin. In the 1988-89 story of Death of the Family, the Joker does the unthinkable; he kills Batman’s sidekick, the young Jason Todd, aka, the second Robin. The Joker is portrayed as a psychopath with hooks holding his face on, as he cut it off in a previous issue to illustrate his insanity.
This event changed the Batman series because instead of killing a random bystander, the joker killed a core character. Writers now had the opportunity to surround the Joker in even darker stories.
Jack Nicholson As The Joker
After the turn of events in the Death of the Family, the Joker’s character was up for multiple different interpretations. One result was in the 1989 movie Batman with Jack Nicholson’s evolution from mobster Jack Napier to the Clown Prince of Crime. While Nicholson took over Romero’s campy Joker, he also made him overly menacing with a dark side.
The character stole the show, with reviewers going as far as saying Nicholson’s Joker overshadowed the title character! Viewers couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the colorful, loud, and psychotic nature of the mobster Joker. This work on the clown is said to be a turning point for the character.
1992 And The Animated Series
In 1922, fans of the Batman series were excited when The Batman: Animated Series made its television debut. Actor Mark Hamill voiced the cartoon Joker in a similar light-hearted fashion as Nicholson’s portrayal… all while giving him a darker side, too.
Even though the series is classified as a children’s show, Hamill was able to make the episodes in which the Joker appears to be quite imposing. The reason was Hamill’s chilling, high-pitched, devilish laugh. In interviews, Hamill has said that he didn’t want to give the Joker one set laugh because each variation should illustrate a mood — gleeful, intimidating, ominous, etc.
1997 Was The Year For A Redesign
Out of the ashes of the 1995 cancellation of the animated series came 1997’s The New Batman Adventures. Thankfully, with the creation of the new series came the return of Mark Hamill voicing the Joker. Only the creators of the series had an entirely new idea when it came to the famous villain.
The clown went through a complete redesign, looking different from any of his previous representations. Animators decided to remove his red clown-colored lips, widen his smile, sharpen his chin, hook his pointed nose, dye his hair black, and make his eyes nothing but black pits.
Hamill Had A Voice Cameo In Birds Of Prey, 2002
After voicing the Joker for over ten years, Hamill was brought in by Warner Bros. Television to voice a live-action Joker, played by Roger Stoneburner, in Birds of Prey. In the 2002 television series, the Joker is only seen once, during a flashback of him shooting Barbara Gordon.
In the episode, he shoots her in the midsection, crippling her and giving her an early retirement from her side-gig as Batgirl. In the performance, we see Stoneburner with his green hair, purple and orange suit, and fanatic smile, but hear Hamill’s notorious Joker voice. The juxtaposition gives a weird feel to the character, one that people had mixed feelings over.
2004: The Year Of Joker Dreadlocks
Two years later, another Joker redesign occurred for the 2004 animated series The Batman. Long gone was the mobster version of the Joker; the new persona was solely that of a maniac. With green dreadlocks, crooked yellow teeth, red demonic eyes, bare feet, and a straitjacket before he got his customary suit, the character looked more like a crazy clown zombie than the Joker people had come to know.
Even though he looked more manic than before, this version kind of resembled the prankster character. The only difference was that he was highly dangerous, and the pranks could be destructive. He’s arguably the most monstrous version of the Joker yet.
2008 Was The Year Of Heath Ledger
Nearly 20 years after Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker, Heath Ledger was cast to play the villain in The Dark Knight. This Joker was based on Dave McKean and Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum madman and anarchist. There was nothing funny about this version of the clown. With his crazy personality, melting make-up, disheveled hair, and overall disorderly appearance he was both inwardly and outwardly insane.
Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for the role, the first Joker to win an award. No one thought anyone would be able to top his take on the complex character. That is until a trailer was released for a 2019 film.
2014 Brought A Young Joker Into The Mix
The next transformation of the Joker came from Cameron Monaghan in the popular television show Gotham. As the show is a prequel to the Batman series portrayed in the Dark Knight trilogy, Monaghan plays teenage proto-Jokers, Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska. The personalities of the twins are intended to be part of the actual Joker’s origin story in the show.
Jerome is portrayed as a cult leader who wants nothing more than to spread anarchy throughout Gotham until he eventually dies, while Jeremiah is an obsessive and calculating mastermind who is sometimes referred to as ‘J.’ Monaghan said he drew inspiration for the characters manic episodes from Mark Hamill’s voiceovers.
2016 And The Return Of Hamill’s Voice
In 2016, Mark Hamill returned to voice the Joker in the animated film Batman: The Killing Joke. The character was once again portrayed in a maniac light, but without the disheveled appearance of Heath Ledger’s version. As it’s been years after the airing of the original television series, the animation technology allowed for a less “cartoonish” and more life-like Joker, although they did stick to the original style.
The advancement made the character a bit more menacing than previous animated adaptations. Thankfully, Joker hed somewhat the same personality as Hamill’s other versions, making him slightly less intimidating. It would be interesting to see this story re-made into a live-action film!
Jared Leto In Suicide Squad
2016 didn’t just mark the return of Hamill, but also the beginning and end of Jared Leto’s Joker. Suicide Squad was a major flop in the box office, but it didn’t help that some of the characters just fell flat — one of those characters being Leto’s Joker.
Unlike previous representations, Leto decided to remodel the character with tattoos, metal teeth, and lean muscle. Unfortunately for Leto, his Joker looked more emo and less gangster. In his defense, it’s been reported that the studio didn’t use a lot of material he shot, so there could be a silver lining that we didn’t see in theaters.
Tony Hale Takes Over Voicing The Joker
One of the most interesting transformations for the Joker character was in the 2018 Japanese animated film, Batman Ninja. In the movie, Lord Joker, voiced by Tony Hale, is thrown back in time to Feudal Japan, where he establishes himself as the most powerful warlord in the country. Don’t worry, he’s still a psychotic man trying to spread chaos.
Aside from his history-altering mission, the appearance of the Joker didn’t change all that much in the film. He still has his signature green hair, white skin, and yellow eyes. The only changes were that his green and purple suit was now styled after Japanese warlords, complete with a ponytail and fans.
The Joker In 2019
The 2019 film Joker gave fans of the character a sneak peek into the villain’s backstory. Played by Joaquin Phoenix, the Joker finally cleans the paint off to give viewers a look into his life, something that has not been done before in other movie adaptions. When preparing for the role, Phoenix said it was important to him to create a character that was anything but predictable.
Instead, he took a well-known character, shed everything people thought they knew about him, and created an entirely new backstory based around mental illness. No longer do we have the manic anarchist mobster, we now have a person who desperately needs help.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Performance
Phoenix takes the character of Arthur Fleck, a career clown loner trying to make ends meet in Gotham, and makes him seem almost human. Moviegoers watched as Fleck struggles with work and social problems, including getting beaten up, all while taking care of his sick mother. She thinks Thomas Wayne is going to rescue them from poverty because he’s Arthur’s father.
His mother’s sickness and continuous lying is an integral part of why his personality suddenly shifts at the end of the movie. He begins his killing spree with her and transforms into the insane, manic Joker we’ve seen portrayed in other films, shows, and comics. He eventually gets locked away at the Arkham Asylum.
The Script Was Rewritten A Few Times
Amazingly, the script for the Joker was rewritten by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver multiple times during filming, sometimes even on shooting days! To think, Phoenix was able to play the role of a mentally unstable person while, at times, not even knowing the lines for the next scene.
In an interview, Silver said, “We rewrote the whole thing while we were shooting it. Literally, we would go into Todd’s trailer and write the scene for the night and then do it. During hair and makeup, we’d memorize those lines and then do them, and then we’d reshoot that three weeks later.”
Positive Time Preparing For The Role
While a lot of actors method act to prepare for roles, Phoenix decided to take a different route. Instead of immersing himself into becoming Arthur Fleck and the Joker, he chose to study. In the movie, the laugh he gives Fleck and the Joker is based on videos he watched of people suffering from pathological laughter.
The disorder is the same as his character’s, but no one knows what to do about it. While a lot of other actors go through leaps and bounds to create a sinister laugh, Phoenix said that he had a positive experience preparing for the role.
His Childhood Prepared Him For Dark Characters
When asked about his chillingly breathtaking performance, Phoenix chalks it up to his dark childhood giving him the ability to play disturbing characters. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Phoenix’s family belonged to a cult. Eventually, they managed to escape and make their way to Hollywood, where his parents forced him and his siblings into acting.
Phoenix has said that all of those experiences helped him better connect with the depressed character of Arthur Fleck. It’s going to be a while until fans of the Joker can see the character in any other light except that of the mentally unstable clown.