Since 1940, the villain has taken many forms. As the new Joker film is released, Nicholas Barber reflects on his history – and how each incarnation of him reflects its era.

Doctor Death, The Monk, Professor Hugo Strange – Batman had some colourful foes in his first few adventures as a comic book superhero, but it wasn’t until his second year of crime fighting, in 1940, that he met an adversary just as clever, tough and intimidating as he was: the Joker. The baddie’s creators, Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, stole the character’s permanent grin from Conrad Veidt in silent Victor Hugo adaptation The Man Who Laughs (1928), adding paper-white skin, green hair and a purple suit to complete his iconic image. Almost 80 years later, that image is much the same, but the character’s real name, his back story, his methods and his motivation have kept evolving: the anti-hero played by Joaquin Phoenix in Todd Phillips’s already award-winning new film, Joker, doesn’t have much in common with his namesake from eight decades ago. It’s this ability to move with the times, while staying instantly recognisable, that makes him one of the most enduring and beloved villains in the history of popular culture. Here are some of the most important Jokers in the pack. 

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The harlequin of hate (1940)

When Batman leapt from the pages of Detective Comics in 1939, the superhero genre was still developing, and his early escapades are a fascinating mix of hard-boiled private-eye fiction and gothic horror. The embodiment of this mix is the Joker. Somewhere between Moriarty and the Phantom of the Opera, he is both a “ruthless cunning criminal” who interrupts radio broadcasts to announce who he is going to murder and which jewel he is going to steal, and a grotesque monster who lurks in a laboratory hidden beneath a graveyard. What is most striking about this original version, from today’s perspective, is how relentlessly sinister he is. He doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t play tricks, he doesn’t even joke. He gets his nom de crime from his deformed face, and he uses his own brand of poison to give that face to others: “Slowly the facial muscles pull the dead man’s mouth into a repellent ghastly grin”. Yuck.

The clown prince of crime (1966)

After his initial appearances, the Joker was soon lightened from a cold-blooded executioner to a goofball prankster armed with joy buzzers and squirting buttonhole flowers. That family-friendly take on the character was immortalised in 1966 by Cesar Romero in ABC’s Batman TV series, starring Adam West as the Caped Crusader. The narration in a 1940 comic described the Joker as having “a smile without mirth”, but Romero’s Joker is mirth personified. A guffawing pantomime villain, he truly enjoys his outlandish schemes and his corny puns – and, this being the Swinging ‘60s, he has an Austin Powers-like taste for groovy interior decor and snazzily dressed young women. Such was the phenomenal popularity of the series that this ebullient Joker remains the definitive interpretation for millions of fans. Impressive stuff, given that Romero opted to smear white make-up over his moustache rather than shave it off.

The psycho killer (1986)

The Batman television series was cancelled in 1968. From then on, Batman and the Joker skulked back towards their macabre roots, before going even further over to the dark side in the late 1980s in such disturbing comics and graphic novels as The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum and A Death in the Family. The big change came with The Dark Knight Returns (1986), a four-issue masterpiece written and drawn by Frank Miller. Comics readers wanted more and more brutal characters at that time – the trigger-happy Punisher and the knife-knuckled Wolverine were favourites – and Miller thrilled them by turning Batman into a bone-breaking sadist and the Joker into a vicious homicidal maniac. After years of near-catatonia in Arkham Asylum, he goes on a talk show and casually declares, “I’m going to kill everyone in this room”. Cesar Romero he wasn’t – but you can see a pale imitation of that sequence in the new Joker film. Miller also emphasised the homoeroticism that was always there in the symbiotic feud between one man in red lipstick and another man in tights and a cape. The Joker calls Batman “darling” and “my sweet”, revealing the love in their love-hate relationship.

The gangster (1989)

The genre-reviving success of The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke led to Tim Burton’s first Batman film, in which Michael Keaton’s gruff Batman – or rather The Batman – was overshadowed by Jack Nicholson’s Joker. In keeping with the film’s Art Deco styling, he was a throwback to the Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Before he becomes a green-haired supervillain, he is Jack Napier, the right-hand man of Gotham City’s mafia godfather. Once he is Joker-ified, his cackling insanity pays homage to James Cagney in the finale of White Heat. Sandwiched between The Untouchables (1987) and Dick Tracy (1990), Burton’s Batman was part of a Hollywood trend for retro gangster movies. And, coming so soon after Wall Street (1987), it was also evidence that 1980s cinema audiences liked their bad guys to swagger around boardrooms in expensive suits.

The anarchist (2008)

Batman: The Killing Joke (1988) is a Joker origin story that neither its writer (Alan Moore) nor its artist (Brian Bolland) is fond of, but their graphic novel has been hugely influential. Tim Burton cited it as his favourite comic, and Christopher Nolan must have had it in mind when he (along with his brother and co-writer Jonathan Nolan) was reimagining the Joker for the second of his Batman film trilogy The Dark Knight (2008). In The Killing Joke, the Joker is an anarchist philosopher who argues that it is rational to be irrational. In The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s scarred and dishevelled “agent of chaos” is similarly keen on teenaged nihilism. “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules,” he says, as Batman bounces him around a police interview room. Echoing the Generation-X rebels in The Matrix and Fight Club, he doesn’t care about stealing diamonds or ruling Gotham City. As Michael Caine’s Alfred so memorably puts it: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

The victim (2019)

The latest big-screen Joker (Joaquin Phoenix) borrows from The Killing Joke, too, similarly tracing his genesis and presenting him as an aspiring stand-up who has been bullied, neglected and generally mistreated by society. In contrast to The Dark Knight, Todd Phillips’s drama presents him more as a victim than a villain, a mummy’s boy who kills only those who have been cruel to him, and who would rather go on a date than on a crime spree. But does he really deserve our sympathies? Some commentators have been worrying that the so-called “incel Joker” could encourage mass-shootings. Others have welcomed him as a timely symbol of revolutionary protest. Still, a character as big as the Joker will always mean different things to different people – and that’s one of the themes touched upon by the film itself.

The fantasies

I spend far too much of my life compiling an ever-changing list of actors I’d love to see as the Joker, so please indulge me as I run down the current Top Five:

5) Richard E Grant. A new addition to the list. The pipe-cleaner physique, the Mr Punch profile and the shark-like grin are all factors, of course. A dab of white face paint and a splash of green hair-dye would be all the makeover he needed. But it is the Oscar-nominee’s exuberance on Twitter that marks him out as prime Joker material. This is a man who seems to giggle and dance his way through life.

4) Nicolas Cage. A comic-book devotee (he named his son Kal-El after Superman’s Kryptonian alias) known for his manic, over-the-top theatrics – honestly, Hollywood, how did you miss this open goal?

3) Daniel Day-Lewis. The chin, the nose, the hairline, the towering acting ability – all perfect. Plus, he’d be terrifying.

2) Christian Bale. A tricky one, this, as Bale played Batman in Christopher Nolan’s films. But watch his switch from prancing, smarmy charm to axe-wielding frenzy in the “Hip to be Square” sequence in American Psycho, and you may well feel that he was wasted as the po-faced hero. Also, the character he butchered in that American Psycho scene was played by Jared Leto, who went onto play the Joker in Suicide Squad, which must be symbolic of something or other. See also: Michael Keaton. Tim Burton cast him as Batman, but in the pair’s previous film together, Beetlejuice, Keaton was basically the ghost of the Joker.

1) Jim Carrey. Another tricky one, as Carrey played The Riddler in Batman Forever – in theory, anyway. But actually, Carrey was just playing the Joker by another name, so we got a glimpse of how a better film might have used his livewire energy and his air of madness. Of all living actors, Carrey is the one who was born to play the Joker.

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