Whether it be in comics, film, animation, or even games, it seems that the Joker has made his mark. He’s been voiced and portrayed by a long list of actors, and his antics have even left scars upon internet memes. What makes the Joker such a mainstay of popular culture? Perhaps the answer lies within how adaptable he is, like his counterpart Batman, to a myriad of narrative situations. There truly is a Joker for all seasons.
Firstly, Joker’s versatility of character is related to his clown persona. On the one hand, clowns are light, humorous and kid-friendly. In Lego Batman and other media meant for children, Joker can play the silly fool, attempting lighthearted mischief that Batman thwarts. Stories like these highlight the comical nature available to the character. And at the end of the day, he is just a silly man in makeup doing ridiculous things. So there is a version of Joker that is safe for kids.
But as most people are aware, there is also a dark side to clowns. From Pagliacci to Pennywise, bright makeup can often hide sinister intent. In more mature stories, the very childlike nature of the Joker makes his murderous ways even more chilling and unsettling. Worse, his lack of motive for his psychopathy adds further weight to the fear generated by his actions. Many villains have reasons for acting the way they do, but there’s something quite disturbing about the way Joker cackles as he kills and destroys merely for the fun of it. So when it comes to the sanity of the clown prince of crime, there’s quite a bit of variety as well. In some depictions, he’s completely deranged, psychotic and even just plain weird (looking at you Suicide Squad Joker), while other times he’s a chaotic genius capable of creating master plans that go off like so much intricate clockwork.
Secondly, just like Batman, Joker possesses a wide range of skills, abilities, and gadgets that allow him to join in a variety of story types. Because he is just a normal human being in clown getup, stories containing him can be muted or realistic, like The Dark Knight. Being a psychopathic murderer fits well within stories that explore Batman’s world of mystery and noir influences. However, his penchant for gimmicks, tricks, and gadgets give him a science fiction flair, whether he’s spraying acid from a flower on his shirt or plastering a smile on victims with his trademark Joker Gas -- so there’s room for Joker in stories that go into Batman’s more technological side. There’s also a range for Joker’s physical abilities, as well, depending on what suits the story. Sometimes, he’s practically inept when it comes to fighting, while other times, like in the animated Batman: Under the Red Hood, he’s akin to a master assassin.
Finally, the Joker’s chaotic, counter-cultural nature allows him to occupy a weird spot between outright villain and anti-heroic revolutionary in some stories. In The Dark Knight, the Joker critiqued modern society, and Batman: White Knight even portrays the Joker as the hero, fighting against the excesses of an aggressive and violent Batman. Similarly, the recent Joker film with its images of social protest also seems to be leaving audiences debating whether he’s just a bad guy or something more.
Perhaps the Joker's greatest narrative asset is how he acts as a foil to the caped crusader himself, a dark mirror that reflects the opposite of whatever Batman is in a particular story. In lighter narratives, Joker can provide comic relief, literally being the clown of a story to give us a genuine laugh, reflecting off Batman’s more serious tone. In more serious fare, this reflection is just as capable of highlighting the horror of a situation as Batman’s quest to preserve life is juxtaposed against Joker’s homicidal tendencies.
Just like his caped counterpart, the Joker is capable of everything from Saturday Morning Cartoons to Oscar nominations and R-rated films. Whatever the tone or genre of the story, there is a version of the Joker that will fit the occasion, making him one of the most versatile and adaptable comic book characters around.