As Batman’s most notorious foe, the Joker has appeared in a whole host of stories, from comics and computer games to television shows and movies. But who is he? Who is the man behind the make-up?
In this post I am taking a look at all of the Jokers who have appeared in the live-action Batman movies. From Batman: The Movie (1966) through Batman (1989), The Dark Knight (2008), Suicide Squad (2016) and Joker (2019), I will be discussing the different takes on the Clown Prince of Crime.
- Cesar Romero
The Joker’s first live-action film appearance comes via Batman: The Movie (1966) – a feature-length spin-off of the popular Batman TV show from the 1960s. In the television show, the Joker was portrayed by Cesar Romero and the actor reprises the role for the movie.
As with the show, the movie version of the Joker is full-on clown – there is no alter-ego and no origin story. As such, there is no indication of why the Joker dresses or acts the way he does. Is it make-up or his actual skin colour?
What audiences get with Romero’s Joker is a clown who is more concerned with jokes and getting the upper hand over Batman than anything else. However, he isn’t alone, for in Batman: The Movie the Joker is one of four villains out to cause trouble for the Caped Crusader (the Riddler, Penguin and Catwoman being the other three villains).
Due to his need to share the screen with his peers, little is revealed about the Joker. He is a criminal, yes, and he can work well with others, but there is no real character development just a caricature.
- Jack Nicholson
For live-action Joker No.2, Jack Nicholson steps into the role of the Joker and his alter-ego Jack Napier, for Batman (1989). Napier is the Joker’s persona prior to his transformation into a grinning clown.
As Napier, Nicholson gets to play a mobster with an attitude. He is self-assured, smart, and he has got to where he wants in life by surrounding himself with the right (or arguably the wrong) people.
He is the right-hand man of mob boss Carl Grissom and in this position, he is able to do pretty much anything he wants. Unfortunately, what he wants is Grissom’s girlfriend and it is this decision which kick-starts his downfall.
Grissom is aware of Napier’s indiscretion and decides to remove him from the inner circle. He sends Napier on a faux job, then calls the police.
Napier gets wise to the situation, but it is too late. The police and Batman catch up with him and a confrontation with the Caped Crusader leads to Napier taking a bath in a vat of acid.
Presumed dead, Napier later emerges from the acid, and after a fairly unsuccessful attempt at plastic surgery, he finds he is a new man. Or rather, a clown.
The acid and the surgery leave Napier looking like a clown. The incident also effects Napier’s mental health and he soon takes revenge on Grissom while adopting the persona of the Joker.
As the Joker, Napier terrorises Gotham City, before briefly pretending to be its saviour. But another showdown with Batman brings the Joker’s life to an end, with the mobster-turned-clown falling to his death from atop the Gotham Cathedral.
But there is more to Napier/Joker than just mobster and clown – he was also responsible for the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. A flashback reveals that as a younger man, Napier killed Thomas and Martha Wayne and left their son Bruce an orphan, which in turn led Bruce to become Batman.
The Joker of Batman is a larger than life character with a deep connection to Batman. As the Joker he is unhinged, but in truth, he was just as evil as Napier.
- Heath Ledger
For the third movie Joker, Heath Ledger takes on the role, playing another alternate take on the character in The Dark Knight (2008). Once again, this is a Joker with little backstory, however he is just as deadly as Nicholson’s Joker.
Little hints are dropped about the Joker’s origin, with the character asking a victim the question: “Do you wanna know how I got these scars?”. But the Joker cannot be trusted and his origin could be anything – or even nothing.
The Joker’s presence in the movie is simply to cause as much chaos as possible. To throw off the status quo and bring down order.
He first appears at the beginning of the movie, as part of a gang on a bank heist. He is the orchestrator of the heist, yet he is also pretending to be part of the gang.
But money isn’t what the Joker wants. He moves from a heist to bigger things and is soon positioning himself as a key figure in Gotham’s criminal underworld, to cause disruption and terror to the city.
Throughout the majority of the movie, Batman and the Joker play a game of cat and mouse, with the Joker always being one step ahead of the Caped Crusader. However, Batman eventually gets the upper hand and captures the Joker.
Once captured, the Joker comments that he believes he and Batman will play out this same scenario for years – and perhaps they will, but off camera. This incarnation of the character never returns to the Batman movie series – due to the untimely passing of Heath Ledger – but it is understood that he will forever remain a thorn in Batman’s side.
And will Batman ever know who the Joker truly is? Probably not.
- Jared Leto
For live-action appearance No.4, Jared Leto takes on the role of yet another new Joker, this time for Suicide Squad (2016). In this movie, the Joker is very much a background player and not a lead in the movie.
Little is given away about this version of the Joker and once again his real name remains a mystery. What is made clear is that he and Batman already have a history together and the Dark Knight knows just how dangerous and unpredictable the Joker is.
But the Batman/Joker relationship is not the focus of this particular tale – when the Joker appears on screen, he is more concerned with Harley Quinn. Quinn was a former doctor at Arkham Asylum, who the Joker seduced and led towards a life of crime.
By introducing Quinn into this movie, this version of the Joker is shown to have a different side to his personality. Not a softer side – his relationship with Harley is not healthy – but a side that demonstrates he can form relationships, so long as it is entirely on his terms and to the exact requirements of his feelings.
Leto’s Joker survives the events of Suicide Squad and he continues to exist in the DC Extended Universe.
- Joaquin Phoenix
And now onto Joker No. 5 – a very different Joker to all that have come before. This version – played by Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’ Joker – is a wannabe comedian with severe mental health issues.
Unlike Romero, Ledger and Leto, Phoenix’s Joker is given an alter-ego – Arthur Fleck, rather than Jack Napier. And unlike Napier, Fleck is depicted as a tragic figure, who is chewed up by life and spat out.
He is let down by a social care system that has been put in place to help people, but as it is noted in the movie, the system doesn’t really care about him. And being uncared for, Fleck is left to his own devices where he makes a series of bad decisions all brought on, he believes, by a “very bad day”.
The truth is, Fleck is not the victim of just one bad day, but rather a collection of events over a life time, as well as a domestic situation that has never been stable. When everything comes to ahead, he eventually adopts the persona of Joker who he feels will allow him to do the things he simply can’t do as Fleck.
His first act (while still as Fleck) is to kill three business men – a crime he feels no remorse for. As his situation escalates, he eventually kills a popular talk show host (now as Joker), which in turn inspires a mass riot.
He wants to be a great stand-up comedian, but he is delusional. He is instead a murderer.
As Fleck, he is a nobody who people pass on the street without a second thought. As the Joker, he is the personification of chaos, disorder, anarchy and insanity.
Who is the Joker?
Every time the Joker appears in a live-action movie, the audience is treated to something different. Sometimes the character is a nameless clown, other times he is given a backstory, but no two Jokers are alike.
And even when the Joker is given a past, or an alter-ego, it differs to ensure a distinction between this joker and the last (or the next). In this respect, the Joker is unique – he has no clear history, and will forever remain a mysterious character.
What is important to note is that the Joker is dangerous and unpredictable. He can’t be trusted, reasoned with or believed – he could be telling the truth, or he could simply be telling one of a thousand stories, but no one will ever know for sure.
Joker at a glance
To summarise, the live-action Jokers include:
- Joker – Batman: The Movie (1966), The Dark Knight (2008) and Suicide Squad (2016)
- Jack Napier/Joker – Batman (1989)
- Arthur Fleck/Joker – Joker (2019)
What are your thoughts on the Joker? Do you like it when movies explore his character or do you much prefer it when he is shrouded in mystery? Whatever your thoughts and feelings, sound off in the comments section and talk about the Joker.