The Joker’s Long and Colorful On-Screen History, From Cesar Romero to Jared Leto

We look back at Batman’s greatest opponent and all his wildly different incarnations over the past five decades

The Joker, both to obsessed comic book readers and those who’ve only experienced Batman through screens big or small, has done as much to define Batman as Batman himself.

That’s because the Joker is the true antithesis of Batman — where Batman stands for order and rules, our colorful supervillain signifies chaos. The Joker as we know him today is a reaction to Batman, a villain waging a specific ideological war in attempt to break the Bat.

With Jared Leto now starring in “Suicide Squad,” we’re getting our fourth live-action version of the Joker. If we include voice performances in animated series and video games, Leto is the 10th Joker.

That’s a long history to live up to, though unlike most of the character’s screen appearances, the Joker’s role in “Suicide Squad” is not as the main antagonist. Here he’s more of a side character, with presumably a bigger part to play in future movies in the DC Extended Universe.

As we move into this new era of the Joker, it’s worth looking back at what we’ve seen before, especially with Leto’s interpretation being such a drastic departure from any that we’d previously seen on screen.

Though there have been a pile of Jokers, we’ll focus on the five biggest ones below.

Cesar Romero (pictured above)
Romero’s Joker, a.k.a the Clown Prince of Crime, is a total goofball. As is, of course, every other character on the 1960s Batman TV series, and the accompanying 1966 film, since it was slapstick, pun-filled comedy.

Romero, in service of that format, is an utter delight to watch. In the parlance of cinema we often refer to over-the-top villains as “mustache twirling” and Romero embodies that trope despite not officially having a mustache. (Though actually he did, it was just hidden under the Joker makeup.)

Romero’s Joker has a substantial legacy — for more than two decades he was the only one we’d ever seen. And so every Joker since has been a response to it in some way. Jack Nicholson and Mark Hamill being more grounded spins on him, Heath Ledger being a thorough repudiation and Leto doing an ironic hipster version of it. That’s a significant achievement for an actor who modern audiences don’t really know for doing anything else.

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Jack Nicholson
Jack Nicholson‘s take on the Joker, like everything else in Tim Burton‘s original Batman movie, is an evolution away from the Batman of the 1960s — not quite willing to do it’s own thing in full but also not willing to fully go weird.

The result is that Jack was doing a version of Romero’s Joker but with enough restraint that he felt threatening rather than just silly. You believe this guy would be a serial killer or something similarly nefarious in real world terms.

Nicholson’s Joker holds an interesting place in the Joker canon, coming a year after the publication of the super grim “The Killing Joke” comic and exploring very similar ground — as it’s revealed that Joker killed Bruce Wayne’s parents when he was a kid. Plus (spoiler alert!), the Joker ends up dead at the end.

This is, of course, a Jack Nicholson performance, so it’s great in that way. In the annals of Joker history I think people remember him more than they remember the character he was playing. Ultimately, I think that makes him the least of the big four Jokers of the past.

 

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Mark Hamill
Following up 1989 movie was the definitive small screen version of the property: “Batman: The Animated Series.” That show also gave us the only actor who’s played the Joker over a long period of time, in Mark Hamill (more commonly known as Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars”), who decades later is still playing the part — in last month’s “Batman: The Killing Joke” animated film and 2015’s “Batman: Arkham Knight” video game.

Hamill is an excellent Joker, particularly as he’s unrestrained by having to do a physical performance. He’s exactly the right balance of incredibly terrifying and incredibly funny, and 100 percent believably so from both sides. Hamill’s longevity in the role, too, means he essentially defined who the Joker is for a lot of fans.

Hamill’s Joker is the result of the natural evolution of the character from Romero to Nicholson. This is a credit to the quality of “The Animated Series” — this Joker feels fully formed wheres as Nicholson’s did not.

To be clear: there is no “definitive” or “correct” version of the Joker. There’s a huge amount of leeway that writers and actors have in interpreting the character, exploring the edges of those possibilities is a good thing.

the dark knight joker

Heath Ledger
The grim and gritty Christopher Nolan Batman movies bring the Joker full circle in his appearance in “The Dark Knight.” Ledger’s Joker is more deadpan and wry than the previous ones. He’s cruel and calculated, with a very clear nihilistic ideology. Still unhinged, but in an overtly dark way — you can sense the anger that’s constantly simmering under the surface. This Joker, straight up, is a terrorist. And it works perfectly.

The fact that Ledger died before the film was released is a large part of the legacy of his performance, but it’s an astounding performance either way. While it’s likely he wouldn’t have won an Oscar had he lived, he still would have deserved one. This is probably the best performance ever in a comic book movie.

It’s so good, in fact, that whoever took up the mantle of the Joker after him had no chance of being well received unless he tried fitting into an established “type” for a screen Joker. Which brings us to …

joker featured jared leto suicide squad

Jared Leto
A polarizing figure to begin with, Jared Leto was destined to be hated as the Joker. And after first images of his ironic hipster thug look began circulating, the hate only ramped up.

Based just on “Suicide Squad” it’s impossible to effectively evaluate this take on the character because he’s not in it enough. But on a surface level it does work — Leto is, at worst, a sort of postmodern millennial version of the Nicholson Joker. The ironic tattoos probably won’t age all that well in the coming decades, but for now the concept of a homicidal maniac gangster from #weirdtwitter actually is pretty amusing.

And as I said above, finding the far reaches of what the Joker could be is part of the fun of the character — and that’s definitely what Leto and director David Ayer were doing here. But the big test for him probably won’t come for a few years. He’ll be back in a more substantial role in a future DC movie or several, no doubt. I do look forward to seeing how well Leto stacks up when he’s got more to do.