Some early notices for the epic-length Batman drama The Dark Knight suggest that the late Heath Ledger gives the "definitive" performance as The Joker, the Caped Crusader's sociopathic arch-nemesis. It's true that Ledger does tremendous, terrifying work in the film -- if he'd lived, he could have launched a second career playing psychos. I'm not sure, however, that anyone can give the definitive performance of such a pop culture mainstay. In high-brow terms, it's like expecting a definitive Macbeth or Blanche DuBois. Like any enduring fictional character, the Joker has a long history that reflects changes in his target audience and creative staff we get different Jokers for different times. Following are five of the traits that make The Clown Prince of Crime possibly the most memorable and timeless villain of them all.
1. He's iconic. The Joker first appeared in Batman #1 in 1940, Batman himself having debuted a year earlier in Detective Comics #27. Like the best comic book villains, from the first he had a vivid, memorable design: green hair, red lips, chalk-white skin and purple zoot suit, details that have accompanied the character for decades, with surprisingly few alterations. Creators Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson based his ghastly, leering smile on the title villain in the 1928's silent horror film, The Man Who Laughs. The Joker can be at once silly and sinister, as if playing off that knee-jerk combination of dread and amusement at clowns. Arguably Jack Nicholson's performance in the 1989 Batman is equal parts Joker and Jack, but he completely looks the part (and the Joker merchandise earned Nicholson a financial jackpot). He's a short fan tribute:
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2. He's dynamic. Whether on paper, film or video, the Joker remains the liveliest of bad guys: he's always "on" in one way or another. He particularly gives talented comic book artists a lot of work with, inspiring splashy layouts with "HA HA HA" practically bursting of the pages. He's so famously madcap, that more recent Jokers can play against his hyperactive mystique. In the current movie or Frank Miller's landmark graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, the Joker's reined-in moments build suspense ahead of his outbursts it's like waiting for a lethal jack-in-the-box to pop out. One found no such subtlety in Adam West's "Batman" TV series in the late 1960s, though. Cesar Romero played the Joker as a hooting goofball who was about as scary as your grampa chasing the kids at Halloween, but you can't deny that he's energetic:
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3. He's anarchic. One of the reasons why Batman has the best Rogue's Gallery of bad guys is not just that they're a bunch of gaudy villains, but because they reflect or oppose different aspects of Batman's persona. Catwoman is all kinky sexuality, Two-Face represents the dichotomy of good and evil, Scarecrow uses fear as a weapon, The Riddler provides puzzles for detective work. Of them, The Joker is most completely Batman's opposite, and they embody the tension between chaos vs. order, madness vs. control, noise vs. silence, splashy color vs. monochromatic shadow. In the new film, Ledger's Joker explicitly discusses his nature as an agent of chaos, as well as his Yin-Yang dichotomy with Batman (and even sums up their relationship by quoting a Tom Cruise romantic comedy.) Here's the Joker-centric trailer:
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4. He's versatile. Ledger's Joker shows a fondness for knives and explosives, but generally doesn't fool with the character's more outlandish shtick. In more kitschy conceptions of the character, The Joker could be called the prop comic of the DC Comics universe. Defined by his clownish appearance and Joker playing card, the Joker inspires zany gags or criminal schemes that can involve carnivals, circuses, playing cards, Las Vegas, show business, and, most commonly, practical jokes, as well as different facets of insanity and psychiatry. (He's the most famous inmate of Arkham Asylum.) Arguably the most faithful performer of this side of the Joker is Mark Hamill, who provided the Joker's voice in his animated portrayals from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s. The animated designs and Hamill's vocal work strike a balance between menace and showsmanship. In this clip, Hamill discusses The Joker's trademark laugh:
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5. He's like Death itself. With his pallid, skull-like expression and tendency to leave victims with grotesque smiles on their faces, The Joker serves as a representation of Death not all that different from the festive portrayals of mortality at New Orleans jazz funerals or Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. In most conceptions of the character, The Joker has no tortured alter ego or humanizing element -- he's the Joker 24/7, and Ledger's version plays up that enigmatic, evil-out-of-nowhere quality. As comic books have darkened, the Joker has become more vicious: he killed Jason Todd, the "second" Robin, and left Batgirl crippled. Yet when Batman inevitably wins, it represents a triumph over death, and for once, the reader can laugh when the jokes on him.
(Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.)
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