Do you wanna know how he got those scars? Were they etched into his skin by a drunk and abusive father? Or a misguided attempt to appease a beautiful wife with a gambling debt? Whatever their source, they’re an intrinsic part of the look of the best on-screen Joker to date. Hunky Australian actor Heath Ledger may not have been the most obvious choice to play the Clown Prince of Crime, but his incredibly crafted and memorable performance won skeptical fans over. Tragically, the performance was to be the actor’s last but it won him a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and left an indelible on DC’s greatest villain that fans will never forget.
So successful was Ledger’s performance that we forget the negativity with which fans initially greeted The Joker’s look in punk anarchist aesthetic in The Dark Knight. Inspired by the art of Francis Bacon and punk pioneer Johnny Rotten, the look suited Nolan’s visceral real world take on the Batman mythology but it didn’t sit well with fans who expected something more comic book accurate… and let’s not get started on the huge backlash against Joker not being “permawhite”. It wasn’t the definitive Joker look… but it certainly wasn’t the worst! Let’s see some more…
15. BETTER: BATMAN (1989)
In terms of marrying comic book accuracy with a practical aesthetic that facilitates an actor being able to do his thing with the character, it’s hard to top the design of Jack Nicholson’s Joker from Batman (1989). Legend has it that producer Michael Uslan had his sights on Nicholson for the role since he drew a red smile on the infamous “here’s Johnny” shot from The Shining, and looking back at the film it’s hard to see anyone else in the role.
The costume by Bob Ringwood seamlessly blends the Marshall Rogers look of The Joker with the retro futurist ’40s inspired aesthetic of the film, while the makeup by makeup effects artist Nick Dudman created a classic and comic book accurate look that didn’t bury Jack Nicholson’s performance.
14. WORSE: THE BATMAN
The Batman was actually a much better animated representation of the Batman mythology than you probably remember. It’s greatest crime was, well, not being Batman: the Animated Series. After that show made such an impression on the hearts and minds of generations of fans, any animated interpretation of the character was going to have its work cut out for it.
While The Joker’s look in the show was eventually adapted to something more traditional, the aesthetic still didn’t sit well with many fans. His outfit in early seasons consisted of a straight jacket, sweat pants and (inexplicably) bare feet. When combined with the baleful red eyes and the long matted hair it made for an interesting design but one that deviated just a little too much from the source material.
13. BETTER: THE ARKHAM TRILOGY
You’d be hard pressed to find a better interpretation of Batman in any medium than Rocksteady’s stellar Batman: Arkham trilogy (and WB Montreal’s underrated Batman: Arkham Origins). Drawing narrative and aesthetic influences from Batman’s entire multimedia canon from the films of Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton to the animated series and, of course, the comics themselves, the games make for a wholly satisfying Batman experience.
One of the games’ chief accomplishments is the depiction of a visually fascinating and genuinely scary Joker (voiced by the one and only Mark Hamill). While lead character artist Andrew Coombes clearly drew influence from the comics, even collaborating with Jim lee on Joker’s look there’s a grimy and disheveled veneer that owes a debt to Ledger’s version and tells of years of struggles between The Joker and his nemesis.
12. WORSE: BATMAN (1966)
Pop culture owes an enormous debt to the ’60s. The decade brought us pop art, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, flower power, women’s liberation and, of course, one of the most memorable and iconic interpretations of Batman’s world in William Dozier’s Batman series which ran from 1966 to 1969 and spawned the first incarnation of Batmania.
The show deviated significantly from the comics of the era, pushing the material further and further into self-conscious camp. Among one of the shows many gags was the presence of a roster of celebrity guest stars playing the members of Batman’s rogues gallery with a judge and a wink. Cesar Romero will forever be one of the most memorable, with the great Latin lover refusing to shave the mustache that made him famous, leaving the costumers with no choice but to plaster it with makeup.
11. BETTER: MORTAL KOMBAT VS DC UNIVERSE
Remember this one? The Mortal Kombat VS DC Universe game gets lost in the pop culture shuffle in the wake of the Injustice games but it remains a fun prospect with a healthy sense of its own ridiculousness. Although seasoned MK fans balked at the toned down violence, it was singularly satisfying to see DC villains dispatch foes with their own fatalities.
This game gave us a surprisingly excellent version of the Joker with a sinister, comic book accurate look, a repertoire of deadly gadgets and one or two excellent gags in the cut scenes. Best of all was his fatality which saw the Clown Prince of Crime attempt to shoot his opponent only to realize that he’s carrying his fake gun. After giggling to himself as the other guy breathes a sigh of relief he turns and unceremoniously shoots his opponent in the face.
10. WORSE: INJUSTICE 2
Yeah, you can see what they were trying to do here. No way were Netherrealm Studios going to let The Joker’s death (which was the inciting incident for the whole Injustice mythology) prevent the popular character from making an appearance in this game. Rather than returning The Joker from an alternate dimension, however, he’s seen mostly as the fear toxin induced hallucination of a reformed Harley Quinn.
Perhaps this is the reason why they took such liberties with Mr. J’s appearance here. This Joker bears almost no relation to either version from the first Injustice, instead trying to co-opt elements of the Heath Ledger and Jared Leto versions in a way that just doesn’t hang together. At first glance, it’s admittedly pretty scary, but on closer inspection it’s just silly. Why Joker would take the time to dawb “HA HA HA” on his chest in body paint is anyone’s guess.
9. BETTER: BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
Like Mary Poppins, Batman: The Animated Series is practically perfect in every way. One of the last mainstream animated shows to use hand drawn cell animation before the shift to digital methods, the show combined a unique aesthetic with complex, character driven storytelling. The film noir inspired, Art Deco aesthetic gave it a timeless and cinematic quality that made it visually and narratively peerless.
As well as giving us arguably the best Batman ever in Kevin Conroy, the show also brought us an equally unrivaled Joker voiced by veteran character actor Mark Hamill. Joker’s look here, like all the other characters is elegant in its simplicity. There are no scars of extremely literal tattoos here, but when Hamill’s laugh combines with that predatory smile… Joker lives!
8. WORSE: THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES
After three seasons of Batman: The Animated Series, the show no longer existed in a vacuum. It was joined by the equally excellent Superman: The Animated Series, and the upcoming Batman Beyond and there were rumblings that a Justice League show was in the works. Resultantly, Batman’s show (re-branded as The New Batman Adventures) underwent some redesigns to create a more unified look across what would become the DC Animated Universe.
While some characters like Scarecrow, Batgirl and Mr. Freeze benefited from the change, Joker was among the worst casualties. The redesigned Joker lost all the menace of his previous incarnation (although Hamill continued to be outstanding in his voice work). The iconic grin lost something without the red lips to frame it and the black eyes (intended to give Mr. J a more shark-like appearance) simply don’t work.
7. BETTER: BATMAN: UNDER THE RED HOOD
DC’s output of straight to home video animated movies has been somewhat hit and miss since Superman: Doomsday started the ball rolling in 2007, but no matter who you ask Batman: Under The Red Hood always ranks among the best. Not only does it condense a 12-issue comic book arc into a 75 minute feature without feeling rushed, it’s packed full of great performances, superb character moments and involving action beats.
Nobody would have guessed that John DiMaggio (the voice of Futurama‘s Bender) would have been so suited to The Joker, but his dry baritone is perfect for this interpretation. This is a far more rugged, stocky and physically imposing Joker than we’re used to while the dark rimmed red eyes, wild eyebrows and shock of long hair provide an interesting counterpart to the sharp, clean lines of his suit.
6. WORSE: THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE
Okay, okay, it’s Lego…but let’s set that obvious fact to one side and look at the design concept itself, because even unencumbered by the blocky plastic pretext this look has some issues. Which is a shame, because the film actually does a superb (and surprisingly mature) job of characterizing the Batman/Joker relationship and the meta-narrative of their decades of multimedia conflict. Zach Galifianakis brings a theatrical levity to his performance and his dialog is superb….
But the look has some weird inconsistencies that don’t even fit in with this Lego Universe. Why is The Joker the only character with razor sharp teeth? Why are his forearms covered in playing card tattoos? Is it to create a sense of continuity with the Suicide Squad version? Surely those two incarnations were appealing to very different demographics?
5. BETTER: BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (ANIMATED)
You could argue that it’s somewhat over referenced in The Dark Knight’s cinematic canon. You could argue that, in hindsight, the book has some potentially worrying politics. You could even argue that it changed the characterization of Batman for the worst; taking an extreme and grizzled version of Batman and making it the status quo. Nobody in their right mind, however, can argue against the importance and influence of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
The two-part animated movie does a superb job of bringing Miller’s iconic work to life, particularly when it comes to the controversial handling of The Joker. The artists, animators and actor Michael Emerson capture the Bowie-esque androgyny of Miller’s take on the character while making the character physically imposing and often downright terrifying.
4. WORSE: BATMAN: DARK TOMORROW
It may seem odd to those who grew up in the post Arkham Asylum age, but there was a time when good Batman games were few and far between. In fact, the lion’s share were absolutely terrible. The early ’00s represent a particular dearth of good Batman games. Though Batman: Vengeance on the PS2, Xbox and Gamecube was pretty good, and even its sequel Batman: Rise of Sin Tzu was kind of passable, 2003’s Batman: Dark Tomorrow on the Xbox and Gamecube represents the absolute nadir of Batman games.
The actually decent story and voice acting were completely drowned out by the infuriating controls and camera angle, as well as the bland and unappealing visuals. While this version of The Joker is fairly comic book accurate he’s also among the blandest multimedia interpretations, possessing little sense of menace or creative flair on the part of the design team.
3. BETTER: BATMAN: ASSAULT ON ARKHAM
This animated movie from 2014 really had no business calling itself a Batman movie. What it was was proof of concept for a live action Suicide Squad movie. Curiously, the packaging for this straight to home video feature was changed to match the marketing concept for David Ayer’s movie in 2016. Nonetheless, the movie offers us a great insight into the Suicide Squad movie that could have been; presenting us with a small, tense and character driven narrative.
What many forget is that this game actually takes place in the same universe as the Arkham games, hence the return of Kevin Conroy to voice The Dark Knight (though Mark Hamill was replaced by the perfectly decent Troy Baker). Joker’s design concept is similar here, but subtly different with a sturdier and less disheveled look than the games’ bedraggled waif.
2. WORSE: SUICIDE SQUAD
While this largely shirtless interpretation of The Joker is a great advert for Jared Leto’s vegan gains, it’s a surprisingly esoteric look for what is supposed to be the definitive cinematic Joker for our time. Granted, there are some things about it that work. The green hair is a bolder shade than we’ve seen in years which is refreshing. The scars and even the grille work as a testament to all the beatings that Batfleck has handed him over the years. Even the single purple latex glove… yeah, why not?
We’re less sold on the incredibly literal tattoos, or the fact that a character as malignantly narcissistic as Mr. J would ever tattoo the word “Damaged” on his forehead. This isn’t just a Joker, this is very much David Ayer’s Joker…which is fine if your movie exists in a vacuum, but less appropriate when building a cinematic universe.
1. BETTER: BATMAN NINJA
Okay, so it goes without saying that when you’re dealing with a property like the upcoming anime Batman Ninja, representing the source material is far less of an issue. Indeed, there’s something endlessly fascinating about viewing Western icons of popular culture through the lens of a different cultural tradition.
This design hints at a Joker steeped in Japanese supernatural tradition. In fact, it’s interesting that the Japanese word Yokai (meaning a supernatural monster or demon) bears a phonetic resemblance to the word Joker. While we look forward to learning more about the character and origin of this version of the Harlequin of Hate (not to mention seeing more of him in action), the design concept does a fantastic job or marrying the comic book iconography with the visual language of the samurai.
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