Batman’s got one of the best rogues galleries going. There’s the coin-flipping Two-Face, the pernicious Penguin, the Riddler, Cat Woman, Poison Ivy, Bane, Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc, and of course Ra’s Al Ghul; the list goes on and on. But towering above this motley nefarious crew is Batman’s true nemesis, that anarchic, murderous, gleeful Clown Prince of Crime, The Joker. Over the years, a passel of Hollywood greats and brilliant voice actors have taken their stab at the killer comedian. They could take up a whole wing of Arkham, there’s so many. Let’s take a tour of some of the best. You should be safe, behind this glass…
Who? Well if we’re gonna do this right, we have to give a nod to the beginning. Veidt was the star of the German silent Expressionist film The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by Paul Leni. Veidt plays Gwynplaine, a man who in his childhood is tragically disfigured by King James II for his father’s transgressions against the crown. It’s a strange historical drama, most memorable for Veidt’s leering smile and its gloomy Expressionist imagery. Gwynplaine’s image directly influenced the original Batman artists Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, setting the Joker’s maniacal grin for all time.
Romero was already a well-established screen actor with a career a few decades long when he donned the purple suit for the original Batman TV series. Hilariously, he refused to shave his moustache for the role, so they just covered it over with gobs of white pancake makeup. He’s pretty hokey, but then so’s the entire show, run through with goofball sixties camp. For a lot of Gen Xers and older, Romero was their first Joker and the show their first taste of the Dark (slightly pudgy) Knight. He’s still pretty great though, his cackling laugh setting the tone for so many Jokers to come.
Nobody’s had a better career in Hollywood doing crazy than Jack Nicholson (Dennis Hopper probably did even more for crazy, but his success was all over the map). Jack could be nuts, but still seem incredibly cool. Tackling The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), he got to build the character from the ground up with the gangster Jack Napier origin story. The set-up of a regular criminal tossed by Batman into a vat of bilious chemicals allowed Nicholson to be more unhinged as the movie progressed, building from Napier’s matter-of-fact malevolence to the whooping insanity of a casually murderous Joker. It’s entertaining and engaging, anchoring one corner of Burton’s gothic cartoon of a movie as the surprising gravitas of Michael Keaton’s Batman underpins the other. If each Joker captures the zeitgeist of his era in a blossoming torrent of id, Jack’s Joker is the 80s through and through: loopy, glitzy with an undercurrent of sour like curdled milk.
Who’s had the longest run as The Joker? Why Luke Skywalker, of course. More than a dozen actors have voiced The Joker in DC’s animated universe, including John DiMaggio (Futurama‘s Bender), Brent Spiner (Data on STNG), Michael Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest) and voiceover greats like Frank Welker and Kevin Michael Richardson. Most, though not all, are pretty awesome (for a fun sample of the many animated voiceover Jokers, check this out). But Mark Hamill really crystallized the essence of The Joker in a way that no one else has quite matched. His Joker is ghoulishly gleeful and menacing, child-like and completely in the moment of every homicidal action. His variations on the Joker’s laugh are a symphony of blood-curdling insanity, a one-man masterpiece theatre of deranged wit. It took Hamill a long time to turn to the dark side, but boy are we glad he did.
Or should I say, Tom Waits? Get out of town, you say. No really, I say. I’ll back up, this one’s pretty interesting. Heath Ledger took The Joker in an entirely different direction, in keeping with Christopher Nolan’s gritty and realistic vision for The Dark Knight (2008). The greasy green hair, the mottled makeup like an alias afterthought, the weird tics and the gravelly whine all made Ledger’s iconic clown terrifyingly believable. He couldn’t even keep his own backstory straight, whether it was his abusive father carving a smile on his face or an act he did himself to reassure his scarred, gambling-addicted wife. (Well, the comic book Joker never did let on to his origins, preferring to keep them “multiple choice.”) He was a perfect foil for the repressed ferocity of Christian Bale’s Batman, and helped raise the second film in Nolan’s trilogy to the status of a classic. Now take this guy:
And then compare him to this boho hipster from the end of the 70s:
Weirdly intriguing, huh? Ledger passed away before the film was released, and never let on as to what might have influenced his portrayal. But one can definitely see a similarity in Waits’s introverted mannerisms and some of Ledger’s more offbeat Joker affectations. So who’s the best? Well that’s almost impossible to decide, with this embarrassment of psychotic riches. It’s a dead heat for me, between Mark Hamill’s comic book authenticity (if there can be such a thing for a character we’ve only heard howling in our heads) and Ledger’s deeply disturbed anarchic harlequin. What about you? Can you pick one, or are you all about Frank Gorshin’s The Riddler? It’s okay. ‘Fess up. You’re among friends.