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(Credit: Warner Bros.)

From Jack Nicholson to Joaquin Phoenix: Tracking the evolution of the Joker

Created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson in the debut 1940 issue of the Batman comic book, the Joker has since become a cultural phenomenon. From edgy posts on Facebook to academic examinations of the character’s psychology, the elusive figure of Gotham’s supervillain has become an instantly recognisable part of popular culture. What’s interesting is that he was actually planned to be killed off by Batman in order to make the hero prevail, but editorial intervention ensured that the Joker would live to antagonise the caped crusader for years to come.

The Joker was initially conceived as an evil “court-jester” that enjoyed playing the clown, a pretty superficial and carnivalesque character. However, the writers re-evaluated the idea and drew inspiration from a photograph of actor Conrad Veidt wearing make-up for the silent film The Man Who Laughs. The Joker’s initial appearances in the comic books were fairly simplistic.

Over the years, the fascinating character evolved in the comic books as the artists delved deeper into his troubled psychology. The Joker became immensely popular with fans of the comics, spawning several adaptations. Live-action films, animated works, books and video games, the Joker has transformed into an indispensable part of the mythology of Batman himself.

For this feature, we focus on the live-action adaptations of the Joker and examine how iconic actors translated the anarchic energy of the antagonist to the cinematic medium.

The evolution of the Joker:

Cesar Romero

Batman serials were being developed since the 1940s but the Joker was first seen in live-action in the 1960s Batman television series. Actor Cesar Romero took on the iconic role for the first time, basing his performance on the comic books of that period where the terrifying villain was shown as a harmless prankster.

Preferring to trick Batman instead of destroying him, Romero’s Joker was probably the least dangerous among the live-action versions. He also famously refused to shave his moustache for the role which could be seen under the make-up.

Jack Nicholson

Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman is often seen as the first modern superhero film. It featured Jack Nicholson as the Joker whose brilliant performance would change the perception of the villain forever. Critics were used to writing off the character as juvenile but Nicholson brought depth and complexity to the Joker, almost creating a mirror for Michael Keaton’s equally nuanced Batman.

Nicholson transformed the Joker by applying the quirks that were evident in most of his performances. For his work, he earned Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations and received widespread critical acclaim. Nicholson was slated to reprise his role in Batman Unchained but the project was unfortunately cancelled.

Heath Ledger

Perhaps the most famous of all the portrayals listed here, Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the Joker is still considered to be the finest one to date (with Joaquin Phoenix complicating matters a bit). Ledger’s Joker was a vital part of Christopher Nolan’s cinematic universe, a critic of modern society who is unrelenting in his attacks against the flawed system and our blatant hypocrisies.

Ledger’s performance had multiple layers to it, presenting an obviously deranged villain who was more human than anyone on screen. His schizophrenic delusions and haunting laughter became definitive elements of the character. Ledger was posthumously awarded the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor after he sadly passed away due to an accidental overdose.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto was initially supposed to play the Joker in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice but he ended up undertaking the huge project of portraying the iconic character in the 2016 film Suicide Squad. Although the film was critically panned and largely disliked by fans, Leto’s performance stood out and divided the audience.

Leto already had a reputation for being a method-actor and such a process is rarely pretty when an actor participates in such a psychologically-demanding endeavour. Reports from the production of the film suggest that Leto lost himself in the character and enjoyed pranking his co-stars in an unprofessional manner. Leto’s Joker was a deviation from previous portrayals, presented in an urban style. He is set to reprise the role in the upcoming Justice League film.

Cameron Monaghan

Primarily focused on the development of James Gordon and a young Bruce Wayne, the prequel series Gotham featured two versions of the Joker that were played by Cameron Monaghan. His portrayal of the twin brothers Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska acts as a predecessor to the development of Joker, anticipating the famous descent into insanity.

Show-runner John Stephens explained, “One of the themes of the show has always been how people can always change themselves from one identity to another. So, with Cameron Monaghan’s character, first with Jerome and then to Jeremiah, then from Jeremiah to this new character.

“Obviously, we were always saying that this character is not the Joker but we were always saying what are different elements of the Joker that we can actually use and bring out and develop? Weighing the way you can look at and say, hey, this character may not be the Joker but we can imagine how this character could have lead to a character like the Joker, down the road somewhere.”

Joaquin Phoenix

Todd Phillips’ 2019 film is the latest addition to the extensive legacy of the Joker, bringing unprecedented media attention and critical acclaim to its star Joaquin Phoenix. In what is now widely considered to be one of the finest performances in his career, Phoenix launched a brilliant investigation of the psychological torment of a man who has been discarded by society.

Pushed to the edge, Phoenix’s Joker comes to the problematic conclusion that a violent revolution is the only retort to the mental violence that people have subjected him to for most of his sad and empty life. For his fantastic work, Phoenix received prizes from the Academy, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, SAG and Critics Choice among others.

“There’s so many different ways of looking at it,” Phoenix said of the Arthur Fleck/Joker character. “You can either say here’s somebody who, like everybody, needed to be heard and understood and to have a voice. Or you can say this is somebody that disproportionately needs a large quantity of people to be fixated on him. His satisfaction comes as he stands in amongst the madness.”

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