The Joker: through the years

Made on a budget of 14 million dollars and grossing 700 plus million in cinemas worldwide Suicide Squad was one of the year’s biggest films. But more important than the numbers, was the fact the film heralded the return of one of movie folklores most celebrated villains: the Joker. Particularly, the Joker after Ledger’s Joker. I was hoping this feature would be a wax lyrical on one of my favourite ‘baddies’ going from strength to strength. However, as soon as I saw the first stills of Leto’s take on this most sadistic of psychopaths, I became a little…suspicious. And after seeing Suicide Squad, I was abhorred. Leaving the cinema and walking the soulless streets of Kingston, the word that kept returning to me was-

Character!

It is one of the cornerstones on which great films are built. Character is one of, if not the most endearing aspects of movie-making. It can almost single-handedly propel a feature to a position of high-regard. Off the top of my head I can think of Don Corleone, Tony Montana, Princess Leia, and Woody and Buzz! as iconic characters that rose above their respective movies. There are hundreds if not thousands of characters who hogged the attention of movie-lovers more than the feature itself. However, as iconic as the characters stated are, there is still a level of iconoclasm that rises above the legacies of Don Corleone and his fictional contemporaries. This level is when a character is portrayed by multiple actors. You can probably already name some off the top of your head right now- James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Spiderman, Frankenstein, Blanche Dubois, Dr Faust, and nearly every Shakespeare character ever writ. These icons of screen and stage seem to have been created in such a way that allows for an infinite number of refreshing portrayals, bringing the viewer back to see them time and time again. And out of all these ‘characterial Gods’, one that peaks many people’s curiosity is, of course, the Joker.

The Joker

The Joker’s back story is hazy, or, more precisely put, equivocal. He’s been portrayed as a criminal kingpin who enjoyed doing small time crime ‘on the side’, as a recluse who became obsessed with Batman, as a murderer who feigned insanity to avoid the death penalty, and as a wannabe gangster who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents in a back-alley over a mugging whilst they returned from the theater. Most of the Joker backstories involve a red hood. The predominantly accepted version of events that lead to the birth of ‘the Joker’ is; one night a man decides to steal from his employers at a chemical plant where he is confronted by Batman and falls into a vat of chemicals that turns his skin white and his hair green. In Alan Moore’s famous comic book-tale The Killing Joke, the Joker is originally called Jack, who quits his career as a chemical engineer to pursue his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. In failing at his new pursuit, and with a pregnant wife and child on the way, Jack turns to crime to ‘pay the bills’, helping a couple of mobsters steal profits housed in the local chemical plant. With the heist gone awry and the sudden accidental death of his wife and unborn child Jack turns crazy and transforms into the insane arch-nemesis of one of the most famous superheroes of all time.

Joker

A dozen actors have portrayed the Joker through film and TV, cartoon and videogames, including Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Brent Spiner (Data from Star Trek Next Generation) and Michael Emerson (Josh from Lost). But when one thinks of the Joker, the four portrayals that come to mind, and arguably the most iconic, are Cesar Romero’s Joker in the 1966 TV series with Adam West. Jack Nicholson as the ‘joking’ Joker of Tim Burton’s 1989 smash hit. Heath Ledger as the harrowing psychopath who mysteriously appears in Christian Bale’s Gotham on the back of a calling card found after the death of Ra’s al Ghul. And most recently, Jared Leto’s egotistical performance in the aforementioned Suicide Squad.

From here I could put four mini headlines, four bite-size synopses, and the appropriate number of ‘demonic smiley-lipped ratings out of five demonic smiley lips’ for each performance. But I won’t. Instead, let us look at these portrayals from a different angle. In this ‘alternative analysis’ we will clump them into two categories- ‘pantomime’ and ‘serious’.

Pantomime

Cesar Romero

In this chamber of the Joker’s multifaceted nexus would be Romero’s and Nicholson’s performances: flamboyant, comical, ridiculous and fun. These were grown men who knew they had on clown make-up whilst walking around in absurdly coloured suits. Their performances were akin to peacocks fanning their tails high on acid. They dominated their respective screens with waving arms and maniacal laughs, and high octane energy emanating from a character free of social constraints. In particular, the way in which Nicholson smirks at the camera throughout the entirety of his performance, you can see he thinks this is all a giant joke (a joke where we, the audience, are the ones on the receiving end.)

Serious

Heath Ledger

In this area of the Joker’s complex visage there was created a person with no real joke to him at all. Instead what was served up was a frightening idea of how man can break under the pressures of life. It is through Ledger’s performance that we can analyse the ‘seriousness’ of the situation. What this young Australian actor did with the Joker was nothing short of revolutionary. Ledger took Batman’s arch-nemesis to unexplored depths- from the tattered clothes, to the slight hunch, to the strange whining, and of course, the disturbing make-up.

So, pantomime or serious? Jack Nicholson dancing on floats in a parade through Gotham, or Heath Ledger snapping pool cues to be used in a fight to the death between new recruits? It’s not so much a question of which one’s better, more a question of one’s own character as to which is remembered most fondly.

Jack Nicholson

Sadly, neither of these character studies will log in our minds as the most recent memory of the Joker. The most recent (and dismal) portrayal of this criminal mastermind was by Jared Leto, played as a side-kick villain and former lover to Harlequin (Margot Robbie), who dies in a helicopter crash…

Jared Leto

Disrespectfully conceptualized and painful to watch, the performance was a weak, halfway house between serious and pantomime, that landed in the category of ‘annoying’. But fear not, we will not be left with Leto’s ludicrous performance of the blinged-up, metal-toothed rapper-Joker. The villain of all villains will return again, revamped, reborn! Perhaps as a bit of reflective humour to offset the intensity of Batman, or as another abyss of pain and insanity in which the cape crusader has to drop into in order to overcome?

Whatever the future holds and until the next dawn of terror, it is the past that has to carry the weight of the Joker’s reputation. He has made an impression on millions of people around the world, a weaponised/ ultra PC/ under the microscope world, obsessed with cleansing and ‘connection’. It all leaves a writer, looking out the window of his mind, watching all the little people running around their little lives, to ask-

The Joker