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The Joker Has Always Been A More Reliable Cultural Barometer Than Batman

From pop art prankster to post-9/11 conscience pang to incel violence inciter, the clown prince of crime has (almost) never failed to reflect his times

If you think about it, there’s nothing inherently adversarial about a bat and a playing card. But because Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, made his first appearance in Batman #1 in 1940 — barely a year after the caped crusader himself debuted, in the pages of Detective Comics — the two characters have nearly always been a matched set. Ever since, Batman stories have kept changing with the times: from pulpy mysteries to silly soap operas to grim meditations on the nature of good and evil. And every time the comics franchise resets, fans are anxious to see what the new version of the Joker will be like.

The same is true for the many big- and small-screen Batman projects. Filmmakers and TV producers have taken a multitude of approaches to the Dark Knight, in terms of the tone and the style of their stories. And they often realize the most important character to get right — even more than Batman — is the Joker.

In fact, it’s not that much of a stretch to say that the Joker has changed more across the decades than Batman has. Adam West played Batman as cartoonishly square and noble in the mid-1960s; Michael Keaton played him as stoic, gruff and tortured when the film franchise launched in 1989. Subsequent actors have stayed more or less in this range: speaking in clipped tones, with somber looks on their faces and the weight or the world on their shoulders.

Actors who’ve played the Joker, though? They’ve gone to some weird, wild places, from the clownish (so to speak) to the dangerously psychotic. And each performance, in its own way, has reflected the culture that produced it.

1966 to 1968: Cesar Romero

In the 1950s, a psychiatrist named Frederic Wertham blamed a rise in juvenile delinquency on comic book violence, in a book called Seduction of the Innocent, which drew the attention of U.S. lawmakers and scared publishers into cleaning up their act. At DC Comics, superhero stories became less slam-bang and more fantastical — more about the cool gizmos and colorful trappings of crime-fighting, and less about punching and shooting. In the early 1960s, Marvel Comics changed the industry again, introducing more complex heroes and villains, and more epic, sprawling narratives. But DC was slow to follow the trends. At the time the live-action Batman TV series debuted on ABC in 1966, the very idea of a “dark Batman” would’ve struck audiences as ridiculous.

So producer William Dozier and writer Lorenzo Semple Jr. took their cues not from the more mature Marvel, but from pop-art, and from the campy, over-the-top Hollywood comedies of the era. Their Batman was half-Warhol, half-It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, with a bit of MAD magazine mixed in. Cesar Romero’s take on the Joker followed suit. So unconcerned with “realism” that he didn’t even bother to shave his mustache before slapping on makeup, Romero played the clown prince of crime as a dapper mastermind, cackling at his own genius as he lured Batman and Robin into comically complex, oversized death-traps. Sprung from a 1960s mainstream pop culture governed by the notion that surface meaning was sufficient, the first TV Joker didn’t represent any deeper social sickness. He was just an image: flat but vivid.

1968 to 1969: Ted Knight
1977: Lennie Weinrib
1985 to 1986: Frank Welker

In the comics, Batman and the Joker both went through a radical transformation at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, as DC belatedly caught up with Marvel’s social relevance. Thanks to writers like Dennis O’Neil and artists like Neal Adams, the stories became… well, not realistic per se, but more inspired by real-world problems like alienation and urban blight, filtered through criminal procedurals meant to resemble film noir and classic detective fiction.

None of this made it off the page and onto a screen at the time. After the live-action Batman went off the air in 1968, for roughly the next 20 years the character’s TV appearances were limited to Saturday morning cartoons, including the many, many iterations of Super Friends. The Joker was a bit too bizarre for these shows, which aimed to be educational, teaching kids about courage, honesty and responsibility — the same values Adam West’s Batman espoused, but without the winking postmodernism. The few times Joker did appear on Batman’s solo cartoon series, the villain was voiced by old animation pros like Ted Knight, Lennie Weinrib and Frank Welker, who knew how to make the character just dull enough to keep youngsters from having nightmares.

1989: Jack Nicholson

When word got out that the goofy comic actor Michael Keaton was going to be playing Batman in director Tim Burton’s blockbuster movie, comics fans were outraged, for multiple reasons. The 1980s had seen superheroes move toward literary respectability, thanks to books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke; and after a long stretch where Hollywood was wary of characters in costumes, this big-budget Warner Bros. film seemed like the best chance in over a decade for a more faithful comic book adaptation to win a massive audience. But Keaton’s casting left some wondering whether Burton was taking his responsibility seriously.

Weirdly, fewer Batphiles had a problem with Jack Nicholson as the Joker, perhaps because putting an Oscar-winner in that part — and one of the most popular actors in showbiz to boot — seemed like a coup for the comics-loving community. Yet Keaton actually gives the more disciplined, sober performance in Batman. While Nicholson is memorably energetic, his more manic approach sometimes borders on the silly, and honestly, isn’t that far removed from Romero. While comics writers like Miller and Moore were contemplating the deeper meaning of the Joker, Burton and Nicholson were merely presenting him as some kind of petty thug and anarchic performance artist, making merriment for all the self-styled rebels at the close of the conservative Reagan years.

1992 to Present: Mark Hamill

Ask hardcore Batman fans to name their favorite on-screen Joker, and odds are you’ll get one of two answers — one of whom is an actor average moviegoers and TV watchers know pretty well, even if they may have no idea that he’s been playing DC Comics’ most famous villain off and on for nearly 30 years. Star Wars star Mark Hamill doesn’t sound at all like Luke Skywalker whenever he provides the voice for the animated Joker. His performance treads a line between genuinely sinister and perpetually annoyed: like a sleazy salesman, stuck in traffic. He was the ideal Joker for the 1990s, when observational comedians like Jerry Seinfeld reigned, and our biggest cultural grievances in the U.S. were more about minor inconveniences than catastrophic evil.

Beginning with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, Hamill’s Joker (created in collaboration with designers Eric Radomski and Bruce Timm and head writers Mitch Brian, Alan Burnett and Paul Dini) has been one of the most exciting to watch, because he strikes such a balance between deranged and relatable. A few other voice actors have done the Joker in DC animated movies and series since the early 1990s, but a lot of them have just been emulating Hamill — which is probably why producers bring Hamill back whenever possible.

2008: Heath Ledger

The other perennial favorite Joker? Heath Ledger, of course. Even if the actor hadn’t won a posthumous Oscar for playing Batman’s frazzled foe in director Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, his take on the character would belong in the superhero movie hall of fame. Just the way Ledger’s Joker looks and sounds is indelible: the scraggly, unwashed green hair; the scars visible beneath smeary face, eye and lip paint; and the creepily conversational tone of his voice. He’s immediately off-putting, yet impossible to ignore.

Nolan uses Ledger brilliantly too, as the dark conscience of a crime-ridden Gotham City. He’s the devil on Batman’s shoulder, arguing that his ongoing efforts to save the city are both arrogant and futile. Like a lot of action movies made in the 2000s, The Dark Knight interrogates the very idea of heroes and villains, in a world upended by terrorism and torture. What is worth sacrificing for our security? Is there any point to fighting for the future, or should we just make the most of mayhem? These are questions Ledger’s Joker poses, quietly but insistently, with a world-weary slump that makes him seem terrifyingly wise.

2014 to 2019: Cameron Monaghan

Because the TV series Gotham is about an adolescent, pre-Batman Bruce Wayne, the show’s creator Bruno Heller introduced only nascent versions of well-known rogues like the Riddler, the Penguin and Catwoman, seen early in their criminal careers, before Bruce grew up and donned the cape and cowl. Knowing that Bat-fans would be curious about the Joker, Heller and his successor John Stephens made the character’s potential arrival into something of a game, introducing bad guys who could become the Joker and then refusing to confirm whether they actually will. Cameron Monaghan played two of these menacing oddballs: twin brothers Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska, who each become megalomaniacal crime bosses, leading a cult of copycats.

Ultimately, Gotham suggests the Valeskas merely inspired the person who eventually becomes the Joker. The brothers introduced an idea, which later becomes a nightmarish reality. That’s an appropriate take on the Joker for the age of internet virality. As for Gotham itself, it’s a superhero saga drawn from both today’s comics and today’s television, which are all about fragmentation and “decompressed” storytelling, pulling individual pieces of a narrative out of the whole, and then stretching those pieces until they become the whole.

2016: Jared Leto

The DC Universe movies have lately started to find their own energy, with more overtly fun films like Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam. But the franchise’s earlier films are oddly heavy and almost static: like oil paintings of old comic book panels. That lack of zest and originality affects even a freaky villain like the Joker, who in Suicide Squad comes off as a collection of sexually ambiguous tics and feral snarls, and not as a character with any kind of history or larger purpose.

Jared Leto famously went method to play the Joker, subjecting his cast-mates to childish pranks that in a different context might’ve been investigated as assault. That behind-the-scenes controversy helped spread the word about Suicide Squad, a film that eventually made over $740 million dollars worldwide, yet hasn’t lingered in the culture the way that a lot of the Marvel movies or Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have. Perhaps some upcoming sequels and spin-offs will cement Suicide Squad’s place in the superhero movie landscape. Until then, Leto’s Joker remains kind of an outlier: a performance as committed as Ledger’s, and as scenery-chewing as Nicholson’s, but not talked about as much as either.

2019: Joaquin Phoenix

It’s especially unfortunate for Jared Leto that his Joker will likely exist in perpetuity in the shadow of Joaquin Phoenix, who got the luxury of starring in an origin story that’s a solo showcase for both the actor and the character. In director Todd Phillips’ Joker, Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a socially maladjusted loner and aspiring comedian, who inadvertently sparks a violent protest movement when he kills some jerky investment banker bros while wearing clown makeup. The film follows Fleck’s harrowing psychological breakdown, as he suffers one indignity after another on his way to embracing his role as a chaos agent.

Joker isn’t all that enjoyable: It’s punishingly bleak for its first 90 minutes and almost sickeningly grim in its final 30. But like The Dark Knight, this picture is trying to provide some insights into its own times. Here, the Joker is just another misfit, either bullied or ignored by the powers that be — and by the women he can’t bring himself to talk to — until he snaps. Phoenix and Phillips have dodged questions about what this version of the character “means,” but it’s hard to deny that his awkwardness and aggrievement make him an “incel” era villain.

And what’s perhaps most disturbing? This time, there’s no Batman in sight.