Since 1940, when Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson created the Joker, comic book readers and movie goers everywhere have been captivated by the chilling persona of DC’s best villain: The Joker. His origins are ambiguous at best, and his intentions are a cackling parade of organized chaos. Because of his popularity there have been so many versions and origins of the Joker. He himself has said, “If I’m going to have a past I’d prefer it to be multiple choice.” So, with the release of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker design (which exists outside of the Worlds of DC), lets take a look at some of the best alternate versions of the Joker that we have seen across the movies, TV, video-games, and of course, the comics.
The Killing Joke
Though the Joker’s past is shrouded in mystery, the origin detailed in Alan Moore‘s stunning graphic novel The Killing Joke is the most widely accepted origin of how the Joker came to be. The story is told largely in flashback of “one night” that ruined the Joker’s life and sent him on a path of anarchy and wanton destruction. The Joker was once a struggling comedian trying to make ends meet for himself and his pregnant wife. In order to support them he cut a deal with some criminals who forced him to wear a red dome helmet to divert attention away from their gang. They break into a chemical plant where the gang of criminals is shot by police and Batman shows up on the scene. The comedian falls into a vat of chemicals which sends him through a series of pipes until he is washed up outside. To his horror his hair has been dyed green, his skin white, and lips red. The chemicals drove him insane and thus was born the Joker. This origin has been played around with in many subsequent comics book runs and it looks like the whole ‘failed comedian’ aspect will be reflected in the upcoming movie.
It was the super campy Batman movie and series of the 1960s that would solidify Batman and his rogues gallery in cinema for the coming decades (even if it was just in name only). Portrayed by Caesar “I-Refuse-To-Shave-My-Mustache” Romero, the Joker in the ’60s TV show was what most casual viewers and fans might think of right off the bat. He’s a man dressed as a clown, he’s got all the joy buzzers, squirty flowers, and insane hijinks that kept viewers engaged to find out what would happen next after every other episode’s cliff hanger. The origins of this Joker isn’t really detailed at all. We may never know why he decides to dress as a lunatic or try to beat Batman at a local surfing competition. He does however, remain a fan favorite from those that adored the series which kept the core elements of what makes Joker a Batman villain without going into immense depth.
The Joker we see in the Injustice universe is quite short lived, but when you take into account the scope and magnitude of his crimes, he is definitely worth a mention. By the time we catch up with him in the story, he has blown up Metropolis, killed scores of people, including Lois Lane, which prompts Superman to confront the Joker and straight up punch him right through the heart which causes a major rift through the world, dividing all the heroes and causing them to call upon the regular DC Universe to help fix the problem of a maniacal Superman no longer tempered against killing his enemies. Only under these circumstances would Superman murder the Joker, and only in this universe was the Joker able to single-handedly ruin everything Superman stood for and create a rift within the community of superheroes.
Taking a page out of Alan Moore’s book, was the crime boss known as Jack Napier. In Batman (1989), it is Jack Napier who shoots Bruce’s parents. Jack was rushed away by his partner in crime and didn’t encounter Bruce Wayne again until Batman thwarted his plan at a chemical factory. This time Batman attempts to save Jack, whose glove slips off his hand plummeting him into chemical waste. The chemicals ruined his face and skin, and after a failed plastic surgery operation, Jack can never stop smiling. Donning a purple suit, green vest, and sometimes a velvety beret, he strikes out to wreak havoc in Gotham. He’s got some of the wacky Joker characterization that had been seen up until this point, but there is something a little eerie about the portrayal. Jack Nicholson’s performance as the Joker lends a lot to what makes this portrayal so amazing, and leaves his signature greatness upon the role forever.
The Animated Universe
The DC Animated Universe was the definitive DC Universe for quite some time. Kicking off with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 and capping off with Justice League: Unlimited in 2006, the Animated Universe set the origins and characters in the minds of children, teenagers and adults alike. With a continuous voice cast returning across multiple series, and writers like Bruce Timm and Paul Dini to nail what made so many superheros and villains so wonderful, the DC Animated Universe is a marvelous achievement. The Joker of this series is of particular note, given Mark Hamill’s amazing voice performance and the art style of the character. This Joker has got everything you’d think the Joker would have: Jokes, gags, menacing plots, and a chilling smile. To many, this is the absolute and comprehensive version of the Joker outside of the comics which set the precedent for years and years to come.
The Arkham Trilogy
The video game series known as the Arkham Trilogy (plus the prequel), is lauded as the definitive Batman experience. Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Knight give a detailed and extensive story of Batman’s struggle with the Joker. And when complimented with Arkham Origins, it paints a vivid picture of who the Joker is and why him and Batman have been at conflict for so long. Mark Hamill reprises his role as the Joker alongside Kevin Conroy as Batman, to deliver one of the most solid video game performances and portrayal of the individual characters. Much like the animated universe, but with darker twists and turns, this Joker is your fun loving and joke telling maniac, who can also seriously pose a threat to Batman and turn Gotham to the verge of destruction. We delve into the origins of the Joker in Arkham: Origins, and from that moment the journey unfolds into an almost symbiotic exchange between the Clown Prince and the Caped Crusader; and how nothing will be the same for Batman at the conclusion of the series.
Worlds of DC
The cinematic universe that is unfolding known as the “Worlds Of DC” has given us a wildly new spin on the Joker. His origins are somewhat ambiguous, though we know chemical waste is a factor. Jared Leto portrays this Joker who made his debut in The Suicide Squad movie of 2016. This Joker dresses like a pimp, has slick green hair, signature red lips, and a whole lot of tattoos (plus a nice grill on his teeth, presumably from Batman punching them out so much). He’s got Harley Quinn at his side and a crazy car to speed away from Batman in the streets of Gotham. We didn’t see a whole lot of this character in the Suicide Squad movie, to the dismay of some including Jared Leto; but this portrayal is an out of the box interpretation of a 75 year old character that gave us something to look at. Hopefully we will see the character more fleshed out in the coming movies.
The Flashpoint Paradox
In the comic The Flashpoint Paradox written by Geoff Johns, The Flash wakes up to a different dimension that has been altered by somebody changing events in the past. One of these changes happened on the fateful night of Bruce Wayne’s parent’s murder. This time however, it was not Thomas and Martha Wayne who were killed, but little Bruce. This resulted in Thomas Wayne becoming a darker, more depressed and far more lethal version of Batman. With the death of her son, Martha was driven insane and it was she who would become the Joker of this twisted Flashpoint universe. She haunts her husband who is conflicted about having to come in conflict with her as she terrorizes the city that he is trying to protect. It makes for an interesting twist on the classic origin and a new dynamic to the relationship between Batman and the Joker.
The New 52
When The New 52 was launched, many heroes and their origins were changed (to the dismay of many). However, some of the most successful Batman stories were set in the New 52 continuity. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo‘s run on the Batman and more importantly the Joker has been one that has defined the modern era of Batman and the Joker’s relationship. In Detective Comics #1 (2011), the Joker’s face was sliced off by the Dollmaker and made into a mask. The Joker disappeared for a time but reappeared to destroy the trust between Batman and his family, and again later with a new face to finally kill Batman himself. The story is downright epic and well worth a read (check out Batman: Death Of The Family, and Batman: Endgame). Rather than a posh, suited Joker, we see the Clown Prince of Crime dressed in a mechanic jumpsuit, hair disheveled and face worn over raw flesh. It’s a chilling new look for the Joker and one not soon forgotten.
The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece, The Dark Knight, has given us what many consider the greatest on screen adaptation of the Joker, and some say the greatest characterization of the Joker ever. Played by Heath Ledger, this version of the Joker holds true to the ambiguity at to where this man came from. All we know about him is basically that he is an anarchist that has come to take back Gotham from the authorities. He simply just wants to see Gotham burn, and he takes joy in watching Batman and the city struggle through the plans that he has meticulously created. With the tragic death of Ledger shortly after the movie had finished filming, it’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of this character since his involvement in the next movie had to be cut. However, Heath Ledger’s last performance immortalized the character from the movie and will be talked about as a high point of acting in cinematic history.
- The Killing Joke
- The Flashpoint Paradox
- Detective Comics #1 (2011)
- Batman: Death in the Family
- Batman: Death of the Family
- Batman: Endgame
- The Man Who Laughs