Origins: Joker


Another superhero movie? Groan.

Oh, wait. We’re talking about a villain this time. Still “Groan.” Catwoman got there first, guys.

Every Batfan knows who the Joker is. Even non-Batfans know who the Joker is. He’s been around long enough. The guy is iconic. He’s also highly malleable. But we’ll get to that.

This began as a Martin Scorsese production (only he dropped out), it’s firmly R-rated, and its enigmatic title character is played by an equally enigmatic, although not murderous, actor. I’m going to wait for this one to come to Netflix, because I’m not sure how badly I want to see it, and I’m not a fan of theater recliners anyway.

Here’s the trailer:

Oy, this looks creepy. It also looks like an Oscar nomination and maybe even a win for Joaquin Phoenix. If that happens, it’ll be the second time an actor has won an Academy Award for playing the Joker.


So far, a lot of critics have compared the film to Taxi Driver in that both are about dissatisfied individuals who turn really, really bad. Taxi Driver isn’t my thing, but my husband’s seen it, and so has Chris Stuckmann, so I’ll take their word for it. Joker is not in the least going to be an easy, breezy type of movie.

Because it’s 2019 and there’s a lot of stupid floating around, there has been some needless controversy surrounding the film–certain people are complaining that the Joker is a metaphor for white supremacy and will push white guys to do atrocious stuff. It kind of reminds me of when people thought Harry Potter would lead kids to try out witchcraft, and we all know how that’s turned out.

Wiser heads are prevailing in Hollywood, however, and Warner Bros. felt it was necessary to release this statement (DuckDuckGo users will have to click here):

While I get while Warner Bros did this, the phrase, “Well, duh,” still comes to mind–it’s so silly that the studio even had to declare this position. The idea that the Joker is somehow connected to white supremacy or will inspire people to turn into serial killers is frankly laughable and tired. He’s a psychotic dude in clown makeup who murders people and fights Batman. Period. The only real-world criminal Joker has anything in common with is John Wayne Gacy, but that’s a stretch. Some people are just looking to be outraged.

Moving on…


It was 1940 when Joker made his debut in the Batman comics. Creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane sparked the idea from Conrad Veidt’s character, Gwynplaine in the 1928 film, The Man Who Laughs. According to ScreenRant, the Joker wasn’t supposed to last beyond one installment of the Batman comic, but last he did.

Joker went through several tweaks–sometimes he used a deadly joy buzzer and other lethal practical jokes. Other times he was just a psychotic creep. His level of bloodthirst also seems to vary, and so does his backstory. Either way, writers in each decade have seemed to have their own take on the Joker, because the Joker is wild. He’s not going to be the same all the time. Well, except for the green hair, red lips, and white clown makeup, not to mention the spooky grin and the laugh.


The Joker is by far the most frequently featured Batman villain onscreen, and the whys are no-brainers. Other villains require copious amounts of makeup and prosthetics. The Riddler needs, well, riddles, and that takes planning. The Penguin requires an actor who doesn’t mind waddling around and quacking or possibly squawking. Even Catwoman is a pretty set type. The Joker, on the other hand, is a comparatively blank slate, and this is reflected by each actor who portrays him taking their own approach to the character.

Since there have been plenty of Jokers over the years, especially in cartoons, we’re only going to look at five of the actors who have brought the character to life. In no particular order, of course.

Cesar Romero (1966-1968)


The first actor to play the Joker in a live-action production, Cesar Romero was always known for being an elegant featured actor in 20th Century Fox films like Weekend In Havana. Romero didn’t like the green wig because it gave him a headache, and he refused to shave off his mustache. On the bright side, though, Romero got to be knee-deep in sixties camp, and he loved it. He said later, “It was the kind of part where you could let go, let loose, and not be yourself…just howl and have a lot of fun.”

Jack Nicholson (1989)


Heeeeere’s Joker! A much darker take with a Tim Burton twist, this Joker was more comic book, less camp. It’s a completely natural part for a fellow like Jack Nicholson, what with that whole Shining thing and all. Those born before the late 1980s will remember how big this movie was at the time of release. Jack Nicholson as the Joker, Michael Keaton as Batman, Danny Elfman and Prince in the music department…what’s not to love?

Mark Hamill (1992-present)

LA Times

Ah, Mark Hamill. This guy has what I call Bela Lugosi Syndrome, because people always see him as Luke Skywalker. So, he’s done a lot of voice acting, where he can fly under the radar, and his Joker is a delight. It seems to be a fixture in the DC animation universe, and a lot of times has an “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!” feel to it. “He gets the greatest joy out of just the most sadistic, oddball things,” Mark said of the character.

Jared Leto (2016)


Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad appears to have done hard time. Or maybe a scary clown and Flavor Flav had a baby. He looks like he’s decaying and laughs like he’s down to his last breaths. He’s freaky as all get-out, and not a man you want to meet in an alley or anywhere else, dark or otherwise.  Despite his unabashed scariness, Leto’s Joker is a divisive one, probably because Suicide Squad’s final cut was a bit mishmashy, and the movie industry is vascillating on whether or not to give this version of the character his own movie. Seeing as Phoenix’s film just released, I highly doubt we’ll see Leto play the character all by his lonesome anytime soon.

Heath Ledger (2008)


Even though this list is in no particular order, I’ve saved Heath Ledger for last because his Oscar-winning Joker in The Dark Knight is an all-consuming nightmare of a masterpiece. He’s comically evil, he gets Gotham’s police scrambling at his every twitch, and he’s so unconcerned about everything that he will burn a mountain of money just because one of his hapless victims happens to be sitting on top of it. He uses his clown makeup to hide scars on his face, and he keeps changing his story about where they came from. Despite some great actors playing the role before him, Heath’s version pops up first every time I’ve thought of the character. The odds are excellent he’ll still be scaring people fifty years from now, or maybe more.

Yes, the Joker has a long, scary history. The thing is, though, no matter who plays him and no matter what they choose to emphasize, the Joker will always be wild and he will always be memorable in his own sick, twisted way.

Okeydokey, thanks for reading, everyone, and hope to see you on Saturday, when I’ll be posting my entry for Steve’s Unemployment Blogathon…

The Batman TV seriesBatmanSuicide Squadand The Dark Knight are available from Amazon.


Eisner, Joel. The Official Batman Batbook. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1986.

6 thoughts on “Origins: Joker

  1. I always see Nicholson as the Joker personally, he’s got the charisma and more. But then I’ve always been a sucker for Jack, but I must admit your fave is pretty good too. Fabulous post Rebecca, off to check out those Hamill links and love the Bela Lugosi thing… had that for a few actors John Boy Walton’s Richard Thomas (was superdifficult watching him in The Americans) and Louise Fletcher in anything other than One Flew over the Nest (although I’ve enjoyed watching her in Brainstorm).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s looking like there’s a disconnect between critical opinion over JOKER and what audiences think: the former says it’s not all that while the latter is like ZOMG BEST MOVIE EVERRRR because Zod forbid a serious comic book movie doesn’t get massive mainstream support.

    I’m sure Phoenix is very good in the role, but as someone who used to read superhero comics for a long time, I see history repeating: after being regarded as kiddie fare for years, there was a period when they “grew up” and tackled serious issues in order to be “respectable.” I wonder if we’re seeing something similar with movies like this and LOGAN and THE DARK KNIGHT and arguably DEADPOOL, where “respectability” in this case means Oscars.

    Just a thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s been a while, but I didn’t like the Nicholson perfomance as The Joker. It was sort of campy and jokey and he didn’t seem to be the sinister character he should have been. More of a fan of the Heath Ledger interpretation. Undecided about seeing the new one. Certainly has gotten a very mixed reception.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I think there’s something going on with people and the new movie. I don’t know if they’re willing to take it at face value. And yes, I hear you about Jack Nicholson. It must have been pretty tough for him not to be a little zany when it was Tim Burton directing. 🙂


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