As a society of filmgoers and comic book lovers, we have developed, over time, a desire for the utmost genuine quality and portrayals of our beloved heroes and villains. The success of each superhero franchise stems not from the monetary gain, but rather our approval of the actors and the story that make that all-to-treacherous journey from comic book page to film screen (although the money part does help). When it comes to the world of Batman, and namely the Dark Knight’s most iconized villain, The Joker, fan boys and girls have built up a pretty strong foundation of expectations.
But the truth is that there’s no correct answer for how to portray The Joker on screen. He’s been portrayed in nearly countless different comic book versions, and when you picture that classic Joker portrayal, you probably picture one of 5 men…or, the Fab 5 as we’ll call them. Oh, and yes: we are including Jared Leto on this list prematurely, so bring on the obligatory criticism if you dare. We felt that we could give an early assessment of Leto’s take on the Joker simply based on character look, set videos, and tidbits that we’ve gained throughout the past few months.
Arguably, though, one could say that none of the actors who have ever graced the purple and green suit have ever captured that PERFECT comic book portrayal, mostly because usually they infuse multiple comic book renditions into one harmonious clown cocktail. So we went ahead and broke down each actor’s portrayal of The Joker, analyzing and assessing their inspiration and their acting cues to try and determine where the heart of each man’s Joker stems.
First, there’s Cesar Romero. If you’re over the age of 40 and have a flair for the classic Adam West Batman, well, safe bet this is probably your favorite Joker. And rightfully so. Think about it, until this point, no one had really taken The Joker role by the horns and made it their own. With Cesar’s approach things were a bit cartoony and he was, in many ways, the most clown-like of all the actors to play Joker. It was a perfect fit for the lighter, more comedic aspect of the series, whether those comedic moments were intentional or not. And you can’t forget about the laugh. Romero was the first one to bring that persona and that laugh to audiences, and it gave his character a very zany and eccentric flair.
However, we can’t forget the dark times too. On many occasions, Cesar Romero’s Joker threatened to kill characters and always had a trick or two up his sleeve. If you’re looking for specific comic book inspiration for Romero’s Joker portrayal, look no further than the Silver Age version of The Joker. In 1966, the newest version of the Joker had already been in comics for a while, so Romero was the first incarnation of this wacky trickster take on the Joker. While the Golden Age Joker had a more villainous and evil vibe, the Silver Age brought out the wackiness in The Joker. Thus, Romero’s portrayal not only delved into that familiar crazy Joker feel, but also helped establish the character’s evolution throughout the years.
Next was the legend himself, Jack Nicholson. When Tim Burton brought his version of Gotham to the big screen, one could only imagine the many bizarre and overly-elaborate character designs that could have made it to the big screen. Yet, Nicholson’s take on the character was, by many accounts, the most true and defining take on the character. Jack brought out the deep, dark, raw emotion, and made that the focus, which, for a character dressed in bright purple, orange, and green, is a huge accomplishment. And while it’s hard to find any quotes or evidence that point toward Nicholson’s source material for his take on The Joker, we can use deduction to guess that Jack’s take on The Joker was probably influenced by a mixing of the Golden Age and Bronze Age. Jack made his Joker feel more like the thuggish character from the Golden Age, but also threw in the dark and overly dramatic elements from the Bronze Age to balance him out. If you were to tell The Killing Joke in the Golden Age Detective Comics, you might see something close to Jack’s version. All in all, Jack Nicholson remains a favorite for many Batman purists.
We’ll step away from the big screen again and head back to TV…this time diving into the world of animation. Yes, we’re talking about Mark Hamill’s incredible, character-defining run on Batman: The Animated Series. Talk about a voice to envy, if every film actor could recreate that accent we’d be happy with however the story turned out. Hamill’s take on The Joker truly brought out the evil side of the character. While Nicholson and Romero were intimidating in their own right, Hamill’s Joker was INSANE…literally. While the Silver and Bronze Age brought the crazy clown to the forefront of comics, the world had yet to see a TV/Film version of the character that didn’t just walk the line of craziness, but actually took a dive into the pit of crazy. For years, Mark Hamill was able to create and establish a character that children and even adults could appreciate and admire. His voice just felt…right. While it’s hard to pinpoint one specific version of the character, we look at The Bronze Age’s Joker as a probably inspiration. It was in this era that the Joker really let loose, and let embraced his crazy side.
It took a while for audiences to see The Joker take shape on the big screen again, but then came Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight. When Nolan announced that Heath Ledger would be filling The Joker’s clown shoes and started revealing pics of Ledger’s take on the character, critics and fans alike reacted in an uproar of anger and disapproval. (Sound familiar nowadays?) The fact was, however, that Heath’s performance would not only bring a distinct and original take on the character to fans of the Batman franchise, but did so in flying colors.
While many would argue that taking a completely original approach to the character might have been the riskiest of moves, it paid off for Ledger. In a post-9/11 world of fear and anti-terrorism, his anarchist take on The Joker brought a new element of fear to the big screen. In short, it was really the first time that movie audiences got a taste of a truly “scary” Joker. Ledger’s take on the character was so different and unique, that it’s really hard to tell where his source of inspiration came from. Ledger himself claimed to use The Killing Joke and Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as reading material, however, he brought elements from various films, voices, and personalities, such as A Clockwork Orange, Sid Vicious, and Tom Waits. In the end, Ledger’s take on The Joker really stands on its own.
Lastly, we look to the future, in the form of Jared Leto’s version of The Joker. It goes without saying we can’t really pinpoint too many of the aspects of Leto’s portrayal until the character makes his big-screen debut. However, judging from the information released so far, we can take a guess at from where Leto’s inspiration may be coming. As many folks have pointed out, Leto’s performance looks like it takes a more “punk rock” approach to the character, giving him tattoos and a shiny new grill. Yet, from set videos, we also see that The Joker’s sense of style and theatricality seem to still be present, in the form of a purple-tinted chrome Lamborghini and nice, fine-pressed purple duds. With what we’ve seen and from the various rumors spreading around the internet, it seems safe to say that Jared’s take will take of elements from The Killing Joke and blend those with newer elements from the more modern comic book versions of the early 2000s —even the New-52 era. We shall see…
Perhaps no other character in popular culture has seen so many reincarnations and undergone so many character redefining moments than The Joker. He’s one of the greatest villains of all time, and one of the most sought-after roles in Hollywood. As TV actors, film actors, and voice talent have come and gone, The Joker has evolved over time. Here’s to hoping that the future of our favorite clown holds many more awesome interpretations to come.