Not many villains are able to make the leap from the comic book page to the silver screen in their own solo film, but all that could change with the upcoming film Joker. With a flood of critical praise and Oscar buzz already pouring in for the film before it's even released, one has to wonder: How did the Clown Prince of Crime become such a big star in the first place?
Surely much of the answer has to do with the Joker hitching himself to the success of Batman's cape-tails. As one of the biggest and most popular heroes, Batman has ingrained himself in the pop culture psyche since his first appearance in 1939. Despite being a primary target of the book Seduction of the Innocent, which caused a significant decline in superhero popularity in the 1950s, Batman proved to be one of the few heroes to be published consistently throughout the 80+ years since his debut.
Along the way, Batman became a cultural icon starring in wildly popular television series and movies, and it was inevitable that, as his popularity increased, so would that of his villains. The femme fatale Catwoman debuted in 1940 in Batman #1 and saw her own popularity inflate throughout the decades, ultimately receiving her own solo film in 2004. As popular as Catwoman may be, however, she was not the most iconic member of Batman's rogues' gallery to debut in that issue.
The Joker appeared in Batman #1 as well, not even a full year after the Dark Knight's first appearance. While many characters change drastically throughout the years, there was something basic and raw in the Joker which persevered since his very first adventure. He was a gaunt white clown with a haunting smile and a bone-chilling laugh, and while he would continue to evolve throughout the years there was an iconic core to him that would never change.
Throughout those same TV shows and movies that increased Batman's public profile, the Joker was right alongside him. Cesar Romero gave a classic performance of the Clown Prince of Crime in the late '60s Batman TV show. Second only to the Penguin in the number of appearances by Batman's villains, the show became considered a seminal work of Pop Art and its reruns sustained the characters in the popular imagination for years.
Then, of course, there was the big screen itself. Despite 1978's immensely popular Superman and its sequels, there were not many comic book heroes making the jump into cinemas until the 1989 Batman opened the floodgates. The same film saw a massively influential performance by Jack Nicholson, and the Oscar-winning actor made the character come alive while delivering lines still quoted to this day. You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?
It's not like the comic book version of the character was just sitting backstage during all this time, either. Before the release of the Tim Burton movie, the Joker already enjoyed his biggest performances yet the year prior. 1988 saw the publication of Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, which is now considered a classic of the medium, and later that year the story A Death in the Family appeared that forever shook the history of Batman.
In The Killing Joke the Joker ambushed Commissioner Gordon's daughter Barbara, secretly one of Batman's proteges known as Batgirl, at the front door of her home and paralyzed her with a gunshot through her spine. In A Death in the Family the Joker kidnapped the second Robin, Jason Todd, beat him brutally with a crowbar, and set off an explosion to bring the warehouse he was in down atop him.
Both instances had history-rattling impacts not only in the world of Batman, but in the medium as a whole. The late '80s were a time of darkness and maturation for comics, and it was the Joker who established the stakes. Sidekicks could die, villains could get away with it and comics weren't just for kids anymore. Not content to stop at expanding the growth of one medium, the Joker would go on for a repeat performance in 2008 to change the world of superhero movies.
Heath Ledger's iteration of the Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight proved a game-changer for the genre. Ledger received a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar after his tragic death earlier that same year, and in doing so proved the critical viability of comic book adaptations. The character's nihilistic philosophy, mysterious origins and archetypal theatrics changed the landscape, and paved the way for the character's solo film later this year.
It's true that the Joker is not the first supervillain to receive his own solo film, but he may well prove to be the most successful. The aforementioned Catwoman film was a box office bomb and a source of shame for its star Halle Barry, and even though last year's Venom proved the formula could produce the dollars it still failed to produce the reviews. Supervillain films have the potential to shape the future of the genre by diversifying the palette of what it has to offer, but there needs to be a next-level character in a next-level feature to make it possible.
Given the Joker's decades-long trend of smashing barriers while becoming one of the few villains to become almost as popular as his own arch-nemesis, the upcoming solo has a better shot of doing it than anything. He may be the Clown Prince of Crime, but he's the Clown King of the Cutting-Edge.
Directed by Todd Phillips, Joker stars Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Bill Camp, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Glenn Fleshler, Douglas Hodge, Marc Maron, Josh Pais and Shea Whigham. The film arrives in theaters Oct. 4.