If you grew up watching the Tim Burton-era of Batman movies – aka the Batman Anthology – then your go-to Joker is no doubt Jack Nicholson. The actor played the role of the Joker in the 1989 film, Batman.
If you have got into the Batman movies via the 2019 film, Joker, then you will be more familiar with Joaquin Phoenix playing the part of the Clown Prince of Crime. Phoenix’s Joker is now the stuff of legend.
Regardless of who is in the make-up, Jack Nicholson and Joaquin Phoenix have both played iconic versions of the Joker and both have their unique backstories. According to the films, Nicholson’s Joker was once a mobster, while Phoenix’s Joker was formerly a wannabe stand-up comedian.
But those aren’t the only differences between the two depictions of the Joker – their names are also very different.
In Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was once called Jack Napier. In Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker was once called Arthur Fleck.
So, who is the real Joker? Is it Jack Napier or is it Arthur Fleck?
It’s both, actually.
When the Joker was first introduced into comics, via Batman issue #1 in 1940, he was conceived as a one-off villain. However, it was clear that he had a great deal of potential and was given a reprieve which ultimately allowed him to become one of the most iconic comic book characters of all time.
As the years went by, the Joker was developed, refined and moulded into a complex character by a succession of writers and artists. And with each new story, these creative teams have given the Joker different motivations and different back stories.
Some of these stories have provided him with an alias, but the general understanding of the character is that he doesn’t have an alias. No one really knows who he is.
The point of giving the Joker different origins and/or different names is that his past remains ambiguous. The character is supposed to be unpredictable and the best way to keep him unpredictable is to ensure he remains a mystery at all times.
For the purpose of Batman, the Joker is Napier. For Joker, the character was once Arthur Fleck. Both are correct for their respective stories, yet neither name is more valid than the next.
So, the next time someone asks if the Joker is really Jack Napier or Arthur Fleck, you can tell them he is both and neither. The Joker is an unhinged, delusional individual, with one of many possible origins.