The many faces of the Joker
The great success of the movie Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) has triggered once again the passion of millions of Joker fans around the world, a character who became one of the most popular ones not just in comics, but also in cinema.
Created by Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, the Joker first appeared in the pages of DC Comics Batman #1 in 1940. His particular design is inspired by the character Gwynplaine, played by Conrad Veidt in the movie The Man Who Laughs (1928) and characterized by having a face whose disfigurement produces a terrifying smile.
Despite having been introduced in the comics as a dangerous psychopath, both the personality and the history of the Joker‘s origin have changed through every new interpretation. In MFC Editorial we review the Joker’s film history and analyze what makes him so interesting.
The Clown Prince of Crime
The first appearance of the Joker on the big screen was in Batman: The Movie (Leslie H. Martinson, 1966), which is part of the television series Batman (1966) starring Adam West. Played by César Romero, the first Joker in a movie enjoyed making jokes and pranks, defined by the comedy tropes of the series. It wasn’t until the 80s that a new adaptation of the character was made, this time more related to the original character of the comics.
Tim Burton directed Batman (1989), the film that inaugurated the superhero cinema as we know it today. Burton‘s gothic-fantasy world was the perfect place for a really evil Joker to take over the screen, played by the great Jack Nicholson, who by then had already won two Academy Awards.
The origin story of this Joker emerged from the pages of the graphic novel The Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore in 1988. This new version was much more attached to the original personality of the clown, showing us a terrifying criminal boss capable of everything to achieve his ends. The mobster face of Nicholson’s Joker served as inspiration for Jared Leto’s interpretation in Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016), who personified a fetishist and deranged Joker. However, although the character was sold as a fundamental part of the film, Leto’s Joker turned out to have a secondary role that didn’t allow us to get to know the character, so it wasn’t very well received by the public.
Due to his dark sense of humor and terrifying smile, Jack Nicholson‘s interpretation marked a turning point in the appearance and personality of the Joker within the culture, making him more popular than Batman himself and granting him the undisputed title of the Clown Prince of Crime.
An agent of chaos
After Jack Nicholson’s great performance, the news that Heath Ledger would wear the Joker‘s suit was received with doubts. No one knew what to expect from this new performance, until the premiere of The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) left everyone speechless.
Batman Begins (2005), the first film in the Christopher Nolan trilogy, established a more realistic vision of Gotham and its characters, so a cartoonish Joker like Nicholson‘s would not feel adequate. Heath Ledger built a more contemporary Joker: an anarchist and nihilist terrorist, willing to achieve the most extreme levels of chaos and violence to corrupt Batman and reveal the true face of Gotham City.
Ledger’s Joker uses one of his most popular features in the comics: the absence of an official story about its origin. Thus, the character was wrapped in a halo of mystery that made him even more appealing. Heath Ledger managed to convey the mental instability and anger of the character through his impressive performance, far exceeding Nicholson‘s, deserving him a posthumous Academy Award and establishing The Dark Knight as one of the top-rated movies in history.
This new iteration of the clown was built as the perfect villain for Nolan’s Batman, an antagonist capable of hurting the hero in all his weak points. Thus, the cunning of the Joker presented a threat that Batman‘s brute force could not match, establishing an unwavering relationship between the two characters. That said, could there be a Joker story in which Batman doesn’t appear?
Who has the last laugh?
After the interpretation of Jared Leto in Suicide Squad was so badly received, plans to produce more films with Leto in the role of the Joker were immediately abandoned. Still, a small project about the character managed to come to fruition. This is how Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019) was produced, a film that, with the reduced budget of 55 million dollars, has raised more than 850 million dollars worldwide.
The film is a character study of the Joker from his mental condition, taking into consideration the political and social contexts that may have served as fuel for the birth of one of Gotham‘s most dangerous villains. Joker takes inspiration from films directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, such as Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983), which focus on exploring the psychological development of his lonely protagonists and the reasons that lead them to commit the atrocities for which he became known.
Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, one of the most outstanding actors of recent times, and his performance as Arthur Fleck has been acclaimed by many. This latest version of the clown is a compilation of the most interesting features from its almost 80 years of stories, establishing itself not only as the best version of the Joker to date, but also as one of the best movies based in comics.
While each new version of the Joker usually improves on the previous one, Batman‘s next film for the new DC Extended Universe opens the door to a promising new interpretation of other villains. As Joker fans, we can’t wait to see what new card is up under his sleeve.