in an article about the Joker, three Jokers sitting around a table in a bar chatting
Illustration by Kalyn Street, Drexel University

The Cinematic History of the Joker and What’s in Store for Him Next

Since the 1960s, several actors have portrayed The Clown Prince of Crime, for better or for worse. What can fans expect from Batman’s nemesis in the future?

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in an article about the Joker, three Jokers sitting around a table in a bar chatting
Illustration by Kalyn Street, Drexel University

Since the 1960s, several actors have portrayed The Clown Prince of Crime, for better or for worse. What can fans expect from Batman’s nemesis in the future?

Not many actors have played this character on the big screen. But whenever somebody does, it’s viewed as a massive undertaking. With the release of a deleted scene from “The Batman” showcasing the next take on The Clown Prince of Crime, now is an excellent time to look back on the Joker over the ages.

Cesar Romero

Cesar Romero didn’t take this role seriously in his portrayal of the Joker in “Batman” (1966). He certainly didn’t seem to feel any pressure from comic book fans. Romero didn’t even shave his mustache; they just painted over it. One can’t blame him since the movie’s direction was campy and not meant to be taken seriously. The film went so far as to have Joker challenge Batman to a surfing competition.

Jack Nicholson

How did we go from a guy who couldn’t be bothered to shave to a crazed and intense Joker? There were a lot of actors considered for the role in Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman”: David Bowie, Willem Dafoe, Tim Curry and Robin Williams. Ultimately, the part was given to the legendary Jack Nicholson. He had made it pretty clear nine years earlier in “The Shining” that he could portray pure insanity. Burton’s Joker was a wise guy, like a cool old-timey gangster, obsessed with fame, fortune and fashion.

It was a take on the character that was tailor-made to fit Nicholson’s strengths, style, mannerisms and public persona — he practically plays himself. Michael Keaton told David Letterman that while they were sitting around in their costumes, Nicholson looked over at him and said, “We just gotta let the wardrobe do the acting, kid.” People loved it, which kicked this whole thing off.

Heath Ledger

For almost two decades, nobody else played the character in live-action. It wasn’t until 2006 when it was announced that Ledger would play the character in Christopher Nolan’sThe Dark Knight” that people considered that somebody else could play the Joker. The announcement was quickly met with backlash as many fans could not understand how this rom-com heartthrob could effectively portray such a crazed and complex character.

Ledger had a ton of time to develop, prepare and make the character as good as possible. There are even stories about Ledger locking himself up in a motel room for a month to get himself in the right mindset, as well as tales of the diary he kept to get into character. When the trailer for “The Dark Knight” finally dropped in December 2007, Ledger successfully proved Joker fans wrong. Ledger presented this character with different tics: licking his lips, exuberant laughter (sometimes fake), and an aura of creepiness that created a feeling of unease among audiences.

A couple of months before the film’s release, Ledger would tragically pass away — the official ruling was that he had an accidental overdose. Some of his co-stars on “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” which he was shooting, said Ledger had walking pneumonia. Ledger had a lot of trouble sleeping and mixed sleeping pills and prescription drugs in a desperate attempt to get some sleep. His sister, one of the last people to speak with him, said he was in great spirits and showed no signs of depression.

Of course, as many know, that’s not the story the press ran. Word broke out about all he had done to prepare for the role and how it drove him insane. Ledger was still haunted by the character, which caused him depression. The media took a tragic accident and morphed it into something entangled in a comic book role.

Derik Murray, co-director of the documentary “I Am Heath Ledger,” spoke to many people close to Ledger during the production of “The Dark Knight,” and he said Ledger had the best time making the movie. Ledger was elated and proud to play the Joker. However, this version of the story was less interesting to people than the version where he’s driven to depression by the role.

Jared Leto

So, where did that leave Jared Leto when he was offered the role of the Joker years later in the 2016 film “Suicide Squad”? Leto stepped into a role previously played by iconic actors Nicholson and Ledger. All eyes were on him, and most were not happy. Leto’s first performance didn’t leave the best impression; it was apparent the essence of the Joker had gone off the rails.

His body was plastered with tattoos that served no purpose for the character. He had “damaged” on his forehead, “HA HA HA” on his chest, and many more generic images and phrases. They all felt empty and left a bad taste. As a method actor, Leto never broke character on set throughout filming. He also sent another actor disgusting gifts as the Joker. Despite having only a few minutes of screen time, it was clear his portrayal left the character with no depth and looked like he was screaming for the audience to take note of how insane he was.

Joaquin Phoenix

At this point in his career, Phoenix was well-known for his captivating performances in multiple movies, including “Gladiator,” “Her” and “The Master.” It was no surprise that his portrayal of the clown in 2019’s “Joker” blew Leto’s Joker out of the park. Phoenix had lost 52 pounds to play the role, which isn’t uncommon for the actor as he’s done it before for other parts.

Phoenix did his research and watched videos of people suffering from pathological laughter and perfectly incorporated that into his own Joker. Sure, he stormed off set several times, but other than that, he’s been pretty vocal about enjoying the filming process of “Joker.”  Phoenix’s preparation for this role wasn’t different from his previous performances, and he acted just as many expected him — absolutely fantastic.

What’s Next for the Joker?

Like he said he would, Matt Reeves released a deleted scene from his masterful “The Batman” film showcasing an interrogation between the Caped Crusader and his eternal foe, the Joker. While it was only a brief minute of screen time, it gave the audience a glimpse of where Barry Keegan will take this character next. Although it may be too early to tell, one thing is for sure: Keegan has to shake up the character and bring something new to the table.

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