#FeatureFriday: A villain’s perspective – The evolution of Joker

Hardly any story-enthusiast has escaped the lure of DC’s iconic archevillain which has managed to enthuse and enrapture moviegoers of all age groups equally.

You can walk into any cosplay event, halloween Party or Comic Con festival and you are likely to bump into at least a dozen cosplayers sporting purple vests, green coiffure and scarlet smiles. Quite evidently, the fan base of Joker is huge.

Arguably so, such is the intrigue and buzz around this character that the fandom even surpasses that of Gotham’s caped crusader.

The enduring legacy of this larger-than-life character has blazed a trail amidst laughter and rampage through the years of different interpretations advanced by actors adding their own spins to it.

What’s striking is that, there has been a radical transformation over the decades. Earlier he was portrayed as a rather campy light-hearted prankster who carts a toy gun that fires a flag reading “Bang!”, tries to electrocute Batman live on television and creates an army of gun-carrying toy commandos along with a flurry of other madcap shenanigans that were dramatised to make it appropriate for the younger audience.

However, a significantly dark and diabolical shade was added later when he was seen to have a penchant for grotesque crimes like shooting down anyone who gets in his path with an usually long shotgun and casually slamming heads of his targets onto vertically placed knives in pretext of a magic trick.

With the buzz around Joaquin Phoenix’s newly released first look of Joker, we believe it’s worth taking a look back into how the character evolved over the years to get a clear perspective on DC’s most beloved villain.

Cesar Romero

Cesar Romero, Batman (1966-1968) – “A joke a day keeps the gloom away!”

Joker was brought to the screen by Ceasar Romera in the first non-comic adaptation, whose portrayal captured the comic book character perfectly in spirit and dazzled everyone in Hollywood with his kitschy appearance and unusually catchy puns that were darkly juxtaposed with violence.

His first appearance in the The Joker is Wild episode, was portrayed ingeniously as an elaborate trickster who was bent on besting Batman amidst his zany absurdities and rampages. His performance as Joker laid a veritable blueprint for future Jokers to be inspired by. Despite being so well-received, the campy portrayal is in stark contrast with the recent ones in the contemporary cinema which are much more grotesque and gritty.

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson, Batman (1989) – “Ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?”

After almost a decade-long hiatus, Joker tore up the big screens with Tim Burton’s magnum opus Batman in the year 1989.

His iconic portrayal drew the attention of the discerning audience who already had watched the impeccably played Joker previously. Between insanity, erratic temperament and ghoulish laughter, he pulled off the character swimmingly well with his weapons like the noxious gas bomb that left his victims fixated in a sardonic smile on their faces. Nicholson’s work is revolutionary since it propelled the character from a campy trickster to a terrifyingly edgy and menacing villain.

Nicholson donned a purple vest, white makeup and emerald coiffure which made the monstrosity of the character even more formidable and unsettling making it an instant hit with the fans and critics.

Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008) – “Why so serious?”

Ledger’s Joker will always be remembered as one of the legendary depictions we have ever seen. With a dash of chaos (his favourite word), mayhem and eccentricity laden with disturbing amounts of abjectness, Ledger carved out a unique take by studying the previous portrayals and subject matter which brought out a cruel side to joker that hadn’t been explored before.

The portrayal became so iconic and unforgettable that it also sparked philosophical discussions in universities and academic circles with the likes of Slavo Zizek offering academic interpretations of the character basing that on his anarchic take on the world and dismissal of order and rules. He was also posthumously awarded an Oscar for his master-class depiction and set a benchmark with a truly original spin that he brought to the character. His terrifying lunacy, quotable and twisted dialogues highlighted the chilling malevolence in the character.

Jared Leto

Jared Leto, The Suicide Squad (2016) – “I can’t wait to show you my toys.”

With silvery teeth, multiple tattoos on his bare body and slicked-back green hair, Jared’s crazed take on joker did set the fans buzzing. While some were simply underwhelmed by the modernised touch to the character, many also liked the novelty factor introduced by him. He did a decent job in making the most out of the disappointingly limited screen time that was given to him. Considering the mixed reaction amongst fans and brief screen time, he couldn’t make a major mark with his depiction.

Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix, Joker (2019)

Cashing in on the popularity of the character, DC is all set to bring Joker to the big screens yet again with a stand-alone movie. The film, which follows the character as he transforms from a stand-up comedian to a criminal mastermind, is described as an “exploration of a man disregarded by society is not only a gritty character study, but also a broader cautionary tale.”

Stakes are high as the new Joker look in a recently released video clip by DC looks wickedly impressive and impressively wicked at the same time. Given Joaquin’s spectacular body of work, the actor looks perfectly well-suited to the legendary role. DC has not been stingy with divulging the details as they have already let slip two clips of the making even though the movie is a year away from the release. Since every actor learns from the roles of the actors that preceded them, Joaquin has a lot of subject matter to study from.  Do you think he will be up to snuff and do justice to the beloved character in the origins movie?