Looking Back at the Joker's On-Screen Evolution

See that menacing smile over the years.

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The Joker was created in 1940 by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, first appearing in the Issue #1 of Batman. The character was heavily inspired by Gwynplaine, a character portrayed by Conrad Veidt (seen above) from the 1928 silent-film, The Man Who Laughs. While Joker was originally intended to die shortly after his introduction, he has become a standout villain from Batman’s rogues gallery, as well as a mainstay title within the DC Universe. The character is extremely special to comic book fans, and carrying the legacy of the character comes with a huge burden.

Following the recent images of Joaquin Phoenix from Todd Phillip‘s Joker film, we take a look back at previous actors who have donned the role, contributing their own nuances to the villain.

Cesar Romero
Batman (1966 – 1968)

The first actor to portray a live-action version of the Joker, Romero essentially laid the groundwork for future iterations of the character. As an established actor, dancer, and singer; the multitalented performer brought immense grandeur to the maniacal villain, setting the format for the Joker’s grandiosity.

Romero’s work on the show would help to maintain the Joker’s popularity for many years, also conceiving the infamous cackle of a laugh. One thing is for sure, Romero’s refusal to shave his mustache was solved much easier than Henry Cavill‘s CGI mustache fiasco from Justice League.

Jack Nicholson
Batman (1989)

When Jack Nicholson took on the role, he elevated the Joker’s insanity to a new level, swapping out the slapstick mischief for full-blown, unadulterated chaos. Behind Nicholson’s prosthetically enhanced smile, his calm, collected voice was full of lunacy, dropping philosophic messages that have echoed throughout pop-culture. The tone of the Tim Burton films were based on the darker story arcs of the 1980s. This included The Killing Joke, and A Death In the Family; two graphic novels with plots that include Joker raping Batgirl and killing Robin with a tire iron.

When Michael Uslan, EP for Batman projects used white-out to draw Joker makeup on a 1980 newspaper clipping of Jack Nicholson from The Shining, the next Joker had its inspiration. Nicholson would assume the role 9 years later, negotiating for less pay in exchange for film and merchandise profits. He would eventually take upwards of $50 million USD rather than his usual $10 million USD payout for films at the time.

Mark Hamill
Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1994)

While Mark Hamill only voiced the character, his menacing take on the role helped to shape the character’s modern iterations. This combined the grandeur of Romero’s era with mob-inspirations from the 40’s. As the show was created for children, the Joker’s violence was curbed, preventing Joker from murder throughout his schemes. But within these constraints, Hamill was able to energize the character, giving new life and adding more personality to the villain.

The animated series would go on to win multiple Emmy awards. Hamill has continually revisited the Joker role, voicing multiple animated Batman films as well as video games. Other actors to lend their voice to the Joker include Zach Galifianakis, Lost‘s Michael Emerson, and Tony Hale from Arrested Development.

Heath Ledger
The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger‘s Joker was arguably the most refreshing, and original take on the character. Nolan‘s Batman films were honored for their realism, and this version of the Joker was the most realistic manifestation of the criminally insane clown — Ledger even had his own ticks and mannerisms (tongue licks, hair flips) that made his role unique. This version of the Joker was a true agent of chaos; harassing Batman, the police, and also the organized crime bosses as well.

When Heath Ledger was first announced to take on the role, fans were very vocal about their disproval of the casting. Jack Nicholson fueled the fire by vocalizing his disdain about not being consulted during pre-production. Ledger relied on method acting in his preparation for the role, and would go on to deliver an amazing performance that won him a posthumous Academy Award for Best Actor.

Jared Leto
Suicide Squad (2016)

When Jared Leto took on the role for Suicide Squad, he had no other choice but to pivot in a complete new direction. This version updated the Joker, trading the ’40s Zoot suit with a modern depiction of a gangster, including gold teeth, bad tattoos, and a pimp cane. While most of his scenes were reportedly cut from the film, this Joker only had a minor role within Harley Quinn‘s side story.

Picking up the role after Ledger’s own reimagining is a difficult task. Leto followed Ledger’s formula of method acting, and his preparation included tormenting cast mates with pranks, mailing dead animals in some cases. While the film was highly scrutinized by fans and critics, Leto is slated to reprise the role for his own Joker solo film.

In other comic news, ‘Spider-Man’ becomes PlayStation’s fastest-selling game.

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Who Portrays the Joker Best?

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  • Heath Ledger
  • Jack Nicholson
  • Mark Hamill
  • Joaquin Phoenix
  • Jared Leto
  • Cesar Romero
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1787 Total Votes

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