The On-screen Evolution of the Joker

One of comic’s most notorious and twisted individuals is the legendary Batman villain called the Joker. The Clown Prince of Gotham doesn’t really want your money; he simply wants to upset the setup. The Joker has been the focus of many Batman film iterations and the trend does not seem to be stopping any time soon. So, why is it that this murderous goofball is so captivating and iconic?

The Joker is one of the few villains, from early comic book history, that displayed a strange love for his hero counterpart. Most villains have a plan in place to steal a treasure, rob a bank or murder a specific target. Joker, however, simply creates situations for the sole purpose of drawing out and dueling with the Bat. Batman sees this maniac and has to come to grips with the fact that he is probably one of the closest people to him. Of course, the character gets his stories and styles from the comics. Each actor, however, focuses on an aspect and amplifies it to make their Joker performance meaningful.

Let’s take a look at The Joker over the years:

Batman (1966)

The 60’s Batman show was a staple of its time. The show brought upon a bevy of superhero shows afterwards and put the abilities of the Great Detective on display in a week to week procedural format. One of the most frequent recurring villains on the show was Cesar Romero’s Joker. He wasn’t the dark and vile man that he is mostly portrayed as these days; Joker had a bit of a Riddler arc in the show. He would leave clues as to upcoming crimes for Batman. Romero’s Joker was more just happy to be doing crimes. This style of leaving video to be found, setting up grand displays in public and his outbursts of maniacal laughter would be continued indefinitely from this point on.

Tim Burton’s Batman

If Romero is the seed for the cackling prankster side of Joker, then Jack Nicholson is the seed for the mobster angle of the clown. Nicholson played the painted pariah as an Untouchables-style gang member with a few screws loose. This movie added the idea that the pale clown visage of the Joker was in fact his skin after a chemicals accident. Tim Burton pulled others pieces from the comics as well with the Joker’s laugh gas that leaves its victim a giggling psycho. Nicholson’s laugh was a bit more aggressive, but his motivations were still based in vanity. Stealing money and breaking into museums were in objectives as the Bat kept getting in his way. Burton also decides to make this Joker particularly instrumental in the origin of why Bruce wears the cowl.

Batman: The Animated Series

Now comes the most iconic Joker in all of the animation renditions of the comics. Mark Hamill joined Batman: The Animated Series as the psychotic and diabolical Joker, who simply wanted to have a little fun with Bruce. This iteration brought on the creation of Harley Quinn, the Joker’s shrink who becomes his abused girlfriend and partner in crime. Mostly ignoring the overtly mobster lifestyle, this Joker draws back to the grand public displays of terror and deep love for Batman, his foil. Some of the goofy gags from Burton’s film, like laughing gas and squirting flowers, make their way into this character’s arsenal as well. Mark Hamill continues to work as the Joker to this day for things like the Batman: Arkham Series of video games and the animated retelling of The Killing Joke. The latter of which gives the divisive origin of the Joker as a down on his luck comedian who is swindled into dawning the Red Hood mantle for some extra cash. This leads to his chemical accident, referenced in Burton’s film, that drives him mentally insane.

The Dark Knight

On the heels of his name being mentioned in the final scene of Batman Begins, people began to wonder who would take on the new duty of capturing the Joker on film again. Once the announcement came out the Heath Ledger would be in the film, there was an uncertain reaction. Many people knew Ledger from teen roles like 10 Things I Hate About You or more drama based pieces like Brokeback Mountain. Many were unsure about his ability to portray such a dynamic and uniquely twisted character like the Joker. All of that noise was silenced when the film was released and the late Heath Ledger ended up winning an Academy Award for his performance. Ledger’s Joker was the perfect mix of intimidating and absolutely bonkers. His journey starts out as one of greed for power and money, until he comes across Gotham’s Dark Knight. He then understands that the city deserves a true villain if they are going to house a man in a batsuit leaping from rooftops. He goes from a small criminal with mafioso tendencies to an agent of chaos. In the end, he decides that he and the Bat are destined to do this forever. Just imagine how different the third film would have been with the Joker still in the picture.


Despite being a bit over-the-top and coincidental in its origin stories, the TV show Gotham was very popular with its audience. The show started out as a simple cop drama in the city of Gotham following a young Jim Gordon. Periodically, the show would give us the origin of some of DC’s most popular villains and heroes. Namely, making Selina Kyle a young cat burglar, or Scarecrow father also being toxin based, or even having Bruce begin his nightlife in vigilantism way too early. Also, what was going on with Ivy? Wasn’t she a little girl in season 1? Regardless about your feelings on the show, the world took notice when actor Cameron Monaghan took on the role of a young Joker in the form of Jerome Valeska. This rendition was mostly the out of his mind anarchist side of the Joker from the comics, right down to securing his own skinned face mask. Monaghan got to portray both sides of the Joker as he also played Jeremiah Valeska, Jerome’s meticulous and calculated twin brother who eventually took his Ace Chemicals bath in the end.

Suicide Squad

The most recent form of the Joker came by way of Academy Award Winner Jared Leto in the David Ayer film Suicide Squad. Joker was barely in the film, despite his prominence in the film’s promotion, and was met with an onslaught of negativity. The movie was not very good, but I personally saw what Leto was going for. It very well may have worked had they given him more screen time. Leto pushed further into the Nicholson formula of mobster with a brain issue. He brings back the torturous tendencies towards Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and even the toxic vat origin. Leto took a big risk in portraying the mad man as a cross between a 20’s gangster and a 90’s pimp that we may be getting another look at in DC’s upcoming film Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).


This October, the world gets a look at another method actor taking on the role of the maniacal menace. Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker looks to be an ode to Scorsese crime dramas with a dash of dark sadism. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur, an innocent mama’s boy who may have been pushed around for the last time. It seems to be the tale of a man broken, just reaching his snapping point and lashing out on the city of Gotham. He seems perplexed by how sick this world is and starts to see the humor in this comedy of a life. Phoenix looks sickly and deranged in scenes from the trailer and may be sent into a spiral after some tragedy in his immediate presence. The films brings Robert De Niro in with Atlanta alums Zazie Beetz and Brian Tyree Henry. The film has people already buzzing about Oscar nominations and walks hand in hand with comic culture’s new love for more darker, R-Rated material.

Witness the madness first hand down below:

Who is your favorite on-screen Joker? Are you excited for the Joker movie this October?

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