evolution of the joker


This week we got our first glimpse of Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker and he looks…pretty normal actually. Befitting for a film that’s aiming for a more grounded, gritty take on Batman’s edgy punching bag. Phoenix’s Joker seems more like an unhinged-looking regular person – and much less like the evil clown we’re so used to.  

The Joker has historically been through many, many different looks already. Debuting first in Batman (1940), the Joker was created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson – who based his appearance on Conrad Veidt’s character in The Man Who Laughs (1928). Drawn with a purple jacket, green hair, white face paint and a permanent creepy grin, the Joker went on to change subtly over the decades – being a gangster in Suicide Squad, to the realistic portrayal of a mentally sick man in The Joker, with a lot of weirder incarnations in-between.  

With the release of The Joker trailer, let’s take a look back at the onscreen evolution of the Joker. Make sure to vote for your favourite incarnation of the world’s most famous comic book villain.

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TV Shows

Batman (1966 – 1968)

The first onscreen version of the Joker is probably one of the oddest. Cesar Romero refused to shave his moustache for the role, so he looks a bit like a respectable ballroom dancer dressed up as a clown – which, to be fair, is exactly what he was. Lurid purples and greens were used to make him look as much like the comic book character as possible. Somewhere between the original comics and Romero the definitive look of the Joker was found.  

Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1995)

In the far-off days of 1992, it seemed an utterly wack idea to cast the earnest and slightly mopey Luke Skywalker as … the most gleefully high-on-himself villain in the history of villainy. Mark Hamill’s first performance as Joker’s voice saw him take on the character’s pointiest chin. Basically a green and white triangle with teeth, the Animated Series Joker took the mood of Tim Burton’s film and somehow mixed it with the feeling of the original series – giving a pop cartoon clown that feels like the most gleefully anarchic of the bunch.

The New Batman Adventures (1997 – 1999)

Hamill returned in the follow-up series with a slight redesign that matched the new direction of the show. His white skin went grey, his hair went black(ish), his lips were removed and his eyes were replaced with round black holes. Still calling itself a kids’ show, the new villain of The New Batman Adventures looked like something from a Conjuring movie.

Birds of Prey (2002 – 2003)

Technically, Hamill played the Joker again in Birds Of Prey – although he only dubbed the voice over Roger Stoneburner’s performance, and the character only appears briefly in the pilot episode. Looking a bit like Jim Carrey’s Riddler (with some very 2002 levels of hair gel), the glimpse we do get of the Joker is enough to make us glad the original Batman film series stopped with Batman & Robin.

The Batman (2004 – 2008)

The Joker, voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson, has quite a different look from the rest. He has big green dreadlocks, bright red demon eyes and (for some reason) always walks barefoot. More mad than manic, the character also starts off wearing an Arkham Asylum straitjacket, before getting his purple suit. He is no doubt the least human and most monstrous incarnation of the Joker yet.

Gotham (2014 – 2019)

If we’re being technical, Cameron Monaghan isn’t actually the Joker. The show has been quite clear to not call either of his twin characters ‘The Joker’ – even though they quite clearly are in the Batman universe. Ignoring this small hiccup in canon continuity, Monaghan’s take on the character gives him a different grounding than the rest – and one of the most frighteningly realistic “clown” grins of the bunch.


Batman (1966)

The same Joker as the 1966 TV series, Cesar Romero really invented the template for the joker outside of the comic books – the maniacal cackle, the blissed-out revenge – because, of course, he got there first. And when you consider that it was all part of a series that debuted 50 years ago, it’s easy to feel a touch of awe for how radical and unhinged and gleefully out there Romero’s Joker truly was.

Batman (1989)

It’s not unusual to see a villain steal the show, but Jack Nicholson didn’t just steal Tim Burton’s Batman. He stole it, danced on it, ate it for lunch, and came out the other side the way that only the Joker could – smiling. It’s the one Batman movie that could have been called The Joker, and it was a serious breakthrough at the time.

The Dark Knight (2008)

The only Joker to win an Oscar, Heath Ledger’s look was inspired by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum madman – with nothing remotely fun or funny about his melting clown paint. Greasy, dirty and rough around the edges, Ledger’s Joker is arguably the most liked and has set the standard incredibly high for those to come.

Suicide Squad (2016)

Fans are divided when it comes to Jared Leto’s Joker. Giving him muscles, tattoos, metal teeth and a much more emo vibe that no one really saw coming. Kudos to him for coming up with a look that’s remarkably different from every other one on this list. He’s the first hip-hop Joker, with dead eyes and a mouth full of silver-capped teeth that turn his menacingly-switched-on-and-off smile into a gangsta grimace.

Batman: The Killing Joke (2016)

Mark Hamill revived his role as the Joker once again in the adaptation of the classic graphic novel (also the first DC animated film to be rated R). The filmmakers decided to stick fairly faithful to Batman: The Animated Series animation style, which basically means making sure he has the most ridiculous chin imaginable.

Batman Ninja (2018)

A Japanese version of the Joker? Sure, why not. The character voiced by Wataru Takagi in the original version was dubbed by Tony Hale in English and the gorgeous design mixes DC’s clown clichés with a more modern Japanese design – giving us the most confused, but interesting Joker to date.

Joker (2019)

Although we don’t get a huge glimpse as Joaquin Phoenix as the joker, upon looking at the trailer it’s apparent that they want to showcase his human and ‘normal’ side. Because, after all, the joker isn’t some monster or creation-gone-wrong – he’s a regular person who just does really bad things.

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