He’s the clown prince of crime. He’s got an infectious smile. He wears purple suits and has no compunction about murdering innocents. He’s Batman and Gotham City’s perfect nemesis who always has a card up his sleeve (care to guess which card it is?), and he’s always celebrating himself as he incites chaos in the most whimsical and maniacal manner. Ladies and gentlemen, the Joker.
A man with nothing to lose and who has what feels like a bizarre love affair with a certain caped crusader. He’s the one who thinks Gotham needs an enema, the one who thinks that if you’re good at something, you should never do it for free (well, he’s kind of right about that one), and most of all, a man of his word.
But how can he possibly still be relevant today? After all, The Joker first appeared in DC Comics all the way back in 1940 in Batman #1. The Joker has been Batman’s archnemesis since and has been played by a wide array of actors, including Ceaser Romero, Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, Joaquin Phoenix, and Barry Keoghan. The character has remained relevant and constantly reinvented himself for each generation. He is also a role that actors crave as two different actors have won an Academy Award for Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker. Let’s take a look at how the Joker is still Batman’s most important villain and one of cinema’s most intimidating villains:
Update January 8, 2024: This article has been updated with more reasons why The Joker has resonated so much with audiences over the years.
Origin? We Don’t Need A Stinkin’ Origin!
The Joker is one of the most interesting characters in all of comic book filmdom. He might be the best. Nearly every iteration gives him a different origin or no origin at all. It’s like he burst on the scene ready-made to wreak havoc on Gotham City.
Some of the most intriguing parts of the character are his inconsistencies. Is he a crime lord who fell into acid? Was he a bumbling comedian who fell into one bad day? Maybe he’s just a loner who wants to see the world burn. It’s not for an audience to say. People seem to pick their favorite origin/non-origin story and tout it as the best one.
Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in 1989 was the one most closely associated with comic books as he is the version that fell into a vat of chemicals. He is the character audiences know the most about and has a definitive origin before becoming The Joker. Joaquin Phoenix’s version gives an origin to The Joker, as the movie is an origin story for the character. Yet the film’s final moments throw everything into doubt as to whether the audience can believe anything that Arthur Fleck said.
Heath Ledger’s Joker was a bit different. He came from nowhere, couldn’t be identified by any means, and seemed poised to show Batman that his entire mode of thinking was wrong. He just wanted chaos to reign and for Batman to crumble under the pressure. Jared Leto’s Joker also shows up out of nowhere with no origin defined, as audiences are meant to infer about his history from the tattoos on his body. Even though he is the most maligned version of the Joker, he might not have fit the mold audiences consider as the Joker, but that’s the point! The Joker isn’t a mold. He’s an anomaly. He’s the wildcard. There is no definitive origin and can be whatever the audience wants him to be. Regardless of his incarnation, you do not want to be within one Gotham of him because, whether you realize it or not, he is most likely cooking up something to make your life hell.
People love that they can build their own narratives around how the character became who he was. He is the Macbeth of superhero characters. You hardly speak his name, and people talk about how just playing the character seems to curse actors. Look online, and you’ll see list after list of how actors “got into the role” a bit too much or the behavior they exhibited before and during filming. We love to hear about actor’s “going method” for the role of the Joker because it means we’re going to see an unhinged performance.
Joker Feels Real
The very fact that Batman is often cited as people’s favorite superhero because he is realistic can also be attributed to the Joker. Joker has no superpowers; he is just a normal human (well, as normal as one can be in a comic book world where he seems to be able to anticipate every outcome). He is able to become one of the most feared and dangerous villains in the DC Universe with only his wit and intelligence. He might lack the power of someone like The Reverse-Flash or General Zod, but there is no doubt that Joker strikes more fear into audiences’ hearts and even the heroes of the DC Universe.
Joker also taps into real-world fears. Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, is a very real fear among many people. The killer clown archetype has permitted people’s fear since the release of John Wayne Gacy’s arrest in 1968. Joker also walks the line between mob boss and supervillain, bridging the gap between the old world of Gotham’s criminals and the new class of villains brought on by Batman’s arrival. With a dapper purple suit but a clown aesthetic, Joker fills the fears and anxieties of multiple criminal archetypes.
One of the more interesting pieces to consider is that people are constantly talking about superhero fatigue these days. They are clamoring for new characters, plots, and story arcs. But one thing remains the same: more Joker. We never tire of him, we never tire of the differences between how he is played, and we don’t care about the situation. It’s such a phenomenon that even Matt Reeves, the director of The Batman, put the character into his movie for the briefest scenes. Even then, it was one of the most talked-about pieces of the film. Will Batman meet the Joker? Is it a tease for the next movie? What is his role? Who is playing him? What does he look like?
There also looks to be no shortage of Joker. It’s not an official DC film, but the character is so resonating that a parody film, The People’s Joker, is set to hit theaters in 2024. The film is a parody of 2019’s Joker and a queer coming-of-age drama from Vera Drew that explores concepts like sexuality, gender identity, and politics. It speaks to how the character of The Joker can be used in a variety of ways.
The sole DC film of 2024 will be Joker: Folie à Deux, a sequel to the 2019 film. The film is described as a musical and will feature Lady Gaga in the role of Harley Quinn.
In addition, as James Gunn launches his own DCU and news has come that it will feature its own Batman movie, The Brave and the Bold, it is only a matter of time until the Joker appears. One can’t do Batman without him. Fans will certainly speculate which actor will step into the role of the Clown Prince of Crime in the DCU. There are plenty of options, and certainly, whenever the news comes of who will play it, fans will both be skeptical and excited. The character’s nebulous qualities make him so appealing to writers, directors, and audiences. He may be the one character that we don’t want to see more of the same. We want to see what a director can do, what kind of makeup and wardrobe will be chosen, and how nuts an actor is prepared to get for the role.