“Do you know how I got these scars”? Heath Ledger’s Joker puts the question to the audience in the now legendary film The Dark Knight, ready to tell one version of his story, but keeping the real truth just out of reach. For years, the Joker was a maddening villain for this very reason. His origin shifted from exaggerated to completely unknown, letting the audience fill in the gaps. This allowed us to weave our own narrative, sometimes one we could identify with ourselves. As a character, the Joker continues to evolve, finding new life with fans often looking for different types of hero or anti-hero. Whatever your opinion on his worldview, it’s undeniable that the Joker’s character continues to have a huge impact. Without the Joker, we wouldn’t have batman, or even superheroes as we know them today.
Emerging in the very first Batman comic (Batman No. 1), the Joker’s wild, chaotic and uncaring brand of villainy was a perfect contrast to the lawful good of Batman, who could never kill and resorted to violence only as a means of preserving order. Joker’s criminal career began, we learned, as the Red Hood. After falling into a vat of chemicals during a botched robbery, the resulting injuries led him to ditch the hood, embracing his clown-like disfigured form to become the Joker and seek revenge. For many decades after Joker’s debut, his real name remained a mystery. His image as a freewheeling psychotic killer was gradually softened into more of a goofy nuisance, especially after the Comic’s Code Authority banned “excessive comic book violence” in the 50’s. The goofiness peaked, and joined television for the first time, on the 1966 series Batman, where actor Cesar Romero’ painted over his moustache to rather than shave it for the role.
In the 70’s and 80’s, with comics taking more risks and artistry reaching new heights, Joker underwent a gritty, blood-soaked renaissance. Writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams gave Joker a sinister makeover, with a huge menacing smile, elongated chin and a taller, gaunter appearance. His trademark suit became all the more purple, and he employed deadly twists on clown gadgets like acid-shooting flowers. His motivation was explored more deeply, revealing that the Joker had been committed to Arkham Asylum and was truly, legally insane.
The 80’s also brought new heights for the Batman series as a whole. With Killing Joke, written by Alan Moore, Joker’s original origin story was re-imagined and
fleshed out, interweaving with the original Red Hood story. At this stage, Joker was shown to have started out as a failed comedian and former chemical engineer-turned criminal resorting to extra-legal means to support his pregnant wife. When Batman attempts to put a stop to the unfolding crime, he resorts to jumping in a vat of dangerous chemicals to escape, permanently disfiguring himself in the process. Combined with his wife’s death, the Joker succumbs to madness and a fanatic lust for revenge, insisting in a later confrontation with Batman that his fate is nothing special and that it only takes “one bad day” to drive a normal man to insanity.
The killing Joke has gone down as one of the best Batman stories of all time, breathing new life into the entire series. It’s intensely dark version of Joker’s character led creators to construct ever grittier versions, and pushed the entire superhero genre to a more serious examination of the morality of their characters.
Starting at about this time, Batman was revived on the big screen. Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman featured the biggest debut yet for the Joker, with Jack Nicholson giving a well-received performance that solidified the Joker’s image with wider audience than ever before. After declining in popularity for several more films, Christopher Nolan was brought on board for a new trilogy in the 2000’s, promising a more realistic tone. The Joker was reintroduced in the second of these films, The Dark Knight.
“Wanna see a magic trick”? By the time Heath Ledger’s Joker asks us, it was obvious that audiences were indeed experiencing something magical. Ledger’s performance of the Joker, with his fading, smudged and unsettling makeup, unkempt green-tinged hair and spine chilling laugh left audiences and critic’s alike spellbound. Before the film was released, Ledger was reported to have died, the result of a deadly mix of medications he was taking after falling ill while shooting his next film. Honoring ledger’s legacy, combined with the sheer might of his performance, led the Dark Knight to unprecedented superhero movie success, becoming one of the highest grossing films of all time.
Inspired by Heath Ledger’s performance, but also by the Killing Joke’s origin story, director Todd Philipps created the first ever standalone Joker film this year. With a performance by Joaquin Pheonix, Joker stirred controversy, with some voicing concerns over it’s portrayal of violence and mental illness. Whatever the controversy, fans and critics alike praised Joaquin’s performance, and failed comedian turned killer Arthur Fleck has pushed Joker to even greater heights, passing $1 billion at the box office faster than The Dark Knight with plenty more to go.
Joker isn’t a hero, or a warm and fuzzy, save-the-day superhero. Joker began with the need for a villain, and was very nearly cut short after the first-ever issue of Batman. Joker’s enduring popularity comes down to the questions he makes the story’s hero, and audience, grapple with. Can there be such a thing as an unbreakable standard? Do we even have the capacity to be good? It’s a question that sticks with us just as it sticks with the hero’s of the story. As the legend of the joker grows, and we debate who the heroes and villains are in the real world, it’s a question we seem all the more willing to think about. For this characters immediately recognizable style, genre-defining inspiration and enormous impact, we’re happy to induct Joker as PCHOF Character of the Year.