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Joker Timeline: A Look Into the Many Depictions of the Clown Prince of Crime

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The Clown Prince of Crime, the Harlequin of Hate, the Jester of Genocide, or simply, the Joker. Regardless of what you call him, we all know him and love him, or love to hate him. What you may not know is that his first appearance was meant to be his last. The writer of the Batman comics thought that having a recurring villain would make Batman look inept as a superhero. Luckily for us, the editor vetoed this concept, seeing a lot of potential after his debut. That turned out to be quite the called shot; we have been flooded with amazing superheroes throughout the history of cinema and television, but few supervillains have stolen our hearts the way the Joker has. Some of the most notable adaptations have been played by the five actors listed below.


Cesar Romero: Batman (1960s)

20th Century-Fox

Cesar Julio Romero, Jr. is a Cuban-American actor who played in William Dozier’s live-action Batman as the Joker. This television series was the first motion picture remake of the hit comic series, Batman. The Batman television show ran from 1966 to 1968 with the movie (directed by Leslie H. Martinson) airing in 1966. Romero is well known for the mustache he refused to shave during the filming of the Batman tv series. The directors worked around this by simply painting over it with makeup. Romero did a very good job bringing the Joker to life as a harmless, comical prankster. Everything is a joke to his character and he makes the best out of every scene. A lot of fans say that because Romero was the first to give the Joker a face and personality, he is one of the best actors to have played the Joker.


Jack Nicholson: Batman (1989)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Jack Nicholson is famous for his roles in The Shining, As Good as it Gets, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and many more. However, his role as Jack Napier, aka Joker, in Tim Burton’s Batman is one of his most iconic roles yet. Bob Kane, Batman’s original co-creator, personally picked Jack Nicholson for the role of Joker from a list presented by Tim Burton. This list included David Bowie, Robin Williams, Tim Curry, Willem Dafoe, and Brad Dourif, who was Tim Burton’s preferred choice for the role. Nicholson also had final say in what his character looked like regarding makeup, and he took this very seriously. Nicholson’s Joker is the most referenced Joker actor in Batman media while also having one of the most famous quotes in Batman media, “Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” He follows this by saying, “I ask that of all my prey. I just like the sound of it.” Jack Napier also has the highest kill count out of all the Jokers in the DCEU, having killed 50 people in the film. Heath Ledger’s Joker is in second place, with a kill count of 23. When portraying the Joker, Nicholson goes all out. He really brings his character to life as a psychopath who has no remorse whatsoever for his actions and does as he pleases. Nicholson ended up getting an estimated $90 million for this role while Michael Keaton (Batman) only earned an estimated $5 million. This goes to show just how well Nicholson played his role for him, the supporting character in the film, to earn about 18 times as much as the main character.


Heath Ledger: The Dark Knight (2008)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Heath Ledger is famously known for how he prepared for his role as the Joker; having spent a month isolated in a hotel room so that he could get into the psychotic mindset of his character. Most fans would agree that Heath Ledger’s Joker is by far the best Joker to have ever lived. However, this is contradicting what Joker fans originally thought when Heath Ledger was cast for the role in The Dark Knight alongside Christian Bale’s Batman. They claimed that Ledger was too young and too inexperienced to play a role such as the Joker. Ledger ended up proving them wrong, though, when he became one of only two actors to win an Oscar for his role as the Joker. Ledger sadly passed away from an accidental overdose in January of 2008, just a couple months before The Dark Knight’s release date. This also means that Ledger was one of only a few actors to receive a posthumous Oscar. He brought a completely new Joker to the big screen, portraying him as a psychopath with a dark backstory and a twisted sense of humor who kills without mercy. Despite his passing, fans continue to praise him for his role as the Joker and say that he’s the most iconic Joker of all time.


Jared Leto: Suicide Squad (2016)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Jared Leto’s Joker was based on a modernized gangster, with different tattoos and grills on his teeth, something a lot of fans hated. Leto is a method actor, meaning he plays the part of his character even when they aren’t filming. This also means that he played the part of the Joker even when outside of the studio. He sent inappropriate gifts to his co-stars as part of his method acting for the part of his unpredictable character. Jared Leto’s Joker got a lot of hate because his character had no depth. Some also say he took his method acting too far with his antics and inappropriate gifts and it didn’t translate to his character. Others say his character wasn’t frightening and many blame this on the script and lack of screen time. Out of the Joker actors, his Joker is the most forgettable. However, his method acting and original modernized costume made him memorable enough to be put on this list, regardless of whether fans liked him or not.


Joaquin Phoenix: Joker (2019)

Warner Bros. Pictures

Next to Heath Ledger, Joaquin Phoenix is by far one of the best Jokers to ever make the big screen. Phoenix is one of two actors to win an Oscar for his role as the Joker; Ledger being one of them. He is also the first actor to play the Joker as the protagonist in his own movie. The Joker film was able to crack the Imdb top 10 movies list of all time due to Phoenix’s stellar performance. In order to get his character right, Phoenix did a multitude of things including losing 52 lbs for the role, studying the movements of silent actors to get the motions of his character correct, and even watching videos of people who suffer from pathological laughing so that he can portray it correctly for his character. The movie did so well that it got an eight minute long standing ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Phoenix’s role was also very unique since he hasn’t referred to any of the previous Jokers in order to play his role and in turn, was able to play a completely different and unique Joker. Arthur Fleck had pursued a career as a stand up comedian but failed when his pathological laughing kept him from landing a good joke on stage. He gave off a sense of carelessness, unease, and patience during the film and was able to give the Joker a personality we haven’t seen in any previous adaptations. Phoenix does a great job showing us how Arthur Fleck slowly turned into the Joker by giving a lot of depth to his character. The movie was set in the 80s so that the DCEU timeline wouldn’t have an effect on the film and due to Bruce Wayne being a child when the film took place, we get to see a more authentic Joker since none of his actions are influenced by Batman.

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About the Contributor
Madison DeCrescenzo, Journalist
Hi, my name is Madison (She/Her). You can call me Madison, Max, or Maddie. Outside of school I enjoy reading, video games, and music. I also enjoy art as a hobby and prefer realism sketching as my main form of art.

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