DC Comics’ The Joker is often considered the greatest comic book villain, and for good reason. Created in 1940 by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson, the clown-themed maniac is best known as a foil for Batman, a psychologically-scarred vigilante who likes to think the two are nothing alike. But fans have spotted their connections and the slight pivots in worldviews which have turned The Joker into a dark reflection of Batman and his mission to defend Gotham City. This psychological undertone has made their 75-year battle all the more interesting.
Throughout the years, The Joker has been adapted into various forms of media, and was adjusted to fit each era and audience’s concepts of villainy. Playing off of our fears and darker curiosities ensures he is always timely and relevant, and can mean multiple things while remaining the same character.
By looking at his live-action appearances in particular, we can see the spotlight The Joker shines on the viewer, their heroes, and what truly frightens and fascinates them.
Camp and Counterculture
The first live-action Joker came in the 1960s Batman television show. As portrayed by Cesar Romero, The Joker was the Clown Prince of Crime, a colorful and fun-loving rogue seemingly more interested in entertainment than the material gains of his robberies. In a show where the villains always had more fun than the heroes, no villain was having a better time than Romero’s Joker.
This stood in sharp contrast to Adam West‘s Batman, who was very much a straight-laced figure of the establishment. The caped crusader wore drab blues and grays and reminded children to eat their vegetables. He also introduced himself as a “duly deputized agent of the law.” Unlike most of his crime-fighting career, this edition of Batman is no vigilante; he never bent any rules or did anything the viewer might construe as unlawful.
As he reflected a darker version of the hero, The Joker represented the counterculture of the day. He wore outlandish clothes, had no interest in a respectable career (like millionaire playboy/adventurer) or in showing respect for established forms of authority (like Commissioner Gordon). As a character, he existed to laugh at authority, and nothing was scarier to the authority figures at such a time.
It’s no accident that a cackling, Technicolor goofball was played as the villain in a time when American society was concerned about young people experimenting with LSD and other psychotropic drugs. Batman premiered in 1966, the same year the drug-fueled counterculture went mainstream with Timothy Leary’s prod to “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” As the duly deputized agents of the law were frightened and concerned about the emergence of drug culture, many young and disillusioned people wanted to try it. That intersection of fear and curiosity is exactly where The Joker takes hold.
This culture clash played out as a battle between good and evil in the old-fashioned Reefer Madness manner. The Joker represented an indulgence in exploring those forbidden things we were curious about, while Batman was the cultural line in the sand. It’s a battle the two have fought for decades.
“This Town Needs an Enema!”
Next, The Joker came to the big screen in Tim Burton‘s 1989 film Batman. Originally a noir-ish mob enforcer, Jack Napier fell into a vat of chemicals and emerged as The Joker, a “homicidal artist” with a fixation on his own image and status. He wanted the attention of the whole of Gotham city and despised Batman for stealing his spotlight. His grand scheme to win over the citizens involved giving speeches and throwing a parade, all before trying to murder everyone.
As portrayed by Jack Nicholson, the character was interpreted through a lens of politics and populism. The Joker was now the two-faced politician, occasionally concealing his clown-like appearance to appear normal, like a man of the people on the citizens’ television screens. Still, he was only motivated by ruling the city and killing the poor. By the end, he was very nearly successful in his attempt to turn the citizens of Gotham against their own safety and savior, Batman.
By the late 80s, the filmgoing audience would have been familiar with the idea of celebrity politicians. America’s first movie-star president was also responsible for Reaganomics, a method of increasing tax cuts for the wealthy and rolling back social safety nets for the less fortunate. While it’s not likely Burton intended The Joker as a proxy character for Ronald Reagan, his administration and the changes he brought to the political scene informed the film’s story.
Batman also touched upon media saturation and consumerism, two other well-known images of the 1980s. The Joker creates his own infomercial to advertise the ways in which he is killing citizens, and he interrupts the nightly news and the mayor’s broadcast to play speeches of his own. In many scenes, a TV or radio is either visible or integral to the storytelling.
Here again, The Joker’s flamboyant public person is an inversion of Batman, who is operating as an urban legend. Nobody is 100% certain he exists, unlike his villain, who proudly takes to the airwaves to announce himself. He is also inverting the character of Bruce Wayne, who should rightly be a public figure, considering his vast wealth. Instead, Wayne is a charitable recluse, throwing fundraisers for the city but is still not recognized by the visitors in his own home.
Batman, the selfless hero, is who audiences would like to identify with. But again, there is something alluring about The Joker’s brand of narcissism and greed. It’s a fitting depiction for a charismatic villain in the “Decade of Excess.”
Gotham’s War on Terror
America was in a very different place when Christopher Nolan‘s film The Dark Knight was released. Seven years had passed since the events of September 11th, 2001, and it was only fitting that The Joker was expressly called a “terrorist.”
This time, The Joker had no secret identity. He had varying explanations for his origin and his distinctive scars, depending on who he is talking to. Even the police can find nothing when they run his fingerprints. This is important for how it reflected on the post-9/11 landscape. The audience was now living in a world of security checkpoints and nationwide monitoring for suspected terrorist activities. Our real-world villains were no long outside, trying to get in; according to the news, they were already among us.
The character, as interpreted by Heath Ledger and director Christopher Nolan, was treated as a virus more than a character. He existed to turn the city against itself. This was done by putting a bounty on a Wayne Industries whistleblower, forcing two ferries of Gothamites to destroy each other, dressing hostages as terrorists to confuse police snipers, and threatening hospitals if Batman didn’t reveal his identity. His plot ran deeper than that, though. He admitted to Batman he was waging a “battle for Gotham’s soul.” This was evidenced by his campaigns to corrupt the city’s heroes, Batman and the “white knight,” Harvey Dent.
In the end, it’s a campaign that didn’t exactly fail. Dent was driven to become another lunatic villain with a vendetta against the city and its protectors. Batman was pressed to break his two rules, to reveal his identity and take a life. Instead, he broke another rule. In order to find the terrorists, Batman alienated his closest friends and used ethically dubious technology to monitor Gotham’s phones. This was also very telling of the fears of the time, and reminiscent of what is considered by many an overreach of The Patriot Act by monitoring innocent civilians.
Batman, as a hero, is defined by his rules. Though he didn’t not break the two he is proudest of, he did sacrifice enough to make the film’s resolution a moral gray area. He stopped The Joker, but at a great cost. After taking the fall for the crimes committed by Harvey Dent, he was chased away by police as a villain.
The Joker was depicted not only as an “agent of chaos,” infecting a city with paranoia and a taste for revenge, he was also a victim of that same chaos. As the post-9/11 everyman, he made the same ruthless decisions he tried to force the rest of the city to make. But he was driven to such a point merely by the world around him.
In his first scene, The Joker explained the whole of his worldview: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.” Seeing what had changed in the world since 9/11, the way a frightened and wounded society responded, it’s easy for that sentiment to resonate with the audience.
The Shape of Things to Come
The Joker returned to the big screen in 2016’s Suicide Squad, the third installment of DC/Warner Brothers’ cinematic universe. Now played by Jared Leto, the character generated controversy with comics purists for his tattoos, chrome “grill” teeth and stylish haircut, long before the film was even released.
In the new film, The Joker cycled back to a more youthful and counterculture interpretation, though updated for a new generation. Leto appeared manic and strung out, and the portrayal embraced the more outlandish aspects of trendy youth fashion serves to set him at odds with Batman visually; in Suicide Squad and Batman V. Superman, the caped crusader is played as a grey-templed, middle aged figure.
This time around, The Joker would not be the only villain serving as a metaphor. Suicide Squad was made of largely convicted murderers and psychopaths being forced to play the part of heroes. Viewing a traditionally simple “good vs. evil” story from the viewpoint of the villain has become popular lately, as evidenced by the book and Broadway musical Wicked and the 2014 film Maleficent. Suicide Squad followed the same conceit by exploring the complicated, and even well-meaning, motivations for the supervillains.
Leto’s Joker was driven by his relationship with Harley Quinn. Though it was portrayed as unhealthy and even abusive, his love for his former therapist sent him on a quest to rescue her from prison and the Squad itself.
After spending years as the stand-in for a culture’s fascination with vices and the darker sides of our natures, The Joker played the role of a hero, at least in his own mind. Still, his fundamental nature did not change in this depiction. He was not a “good guy.” But perhaps after 75 years of being a scapegoat for all of our negative attributes, symbolic villains like The Joker can finally be shown as “not all bad.”
The fact Suicide Squad was in production during landmark changes to American society, like the legalization of gay marriage and marijuana in several states, is telling that our boogeymen are adjusting to changing positions in the establishment.
Chameleon in Grease Paint
The Joker’s appearance has changed over the years to mean something different to multiple generations, but he’s still the same character at the core. He is not just a villain, another murderer or thief for Batman to thwart. He is that dark reflection, not only of Batman, but of the audience.
The character is perfectly suited to play off of an audience’s darker desires and embrace the things we are curious about, free from any cultural rules or restrictions. He can be a brightly-colored free-thinker in the conformist 1960s, a wealthy and vain consumerist political figure, and a personification of our newly found cultural fears and paranoias, all at once.
Just as we all want to be Batman, deep down, we all know there is a bit of The Joker inside of us as well.