The Joker: Comic Book Icon to Big-Screen Psycho - The Evolution of a Super Villain

The summer of the superhero...

2011 is certainly shaping up as the summer of the superhero, with no less than four promising entries into the special-effects-blockbuster category - Green Lantern, yet another remake of Thor, X-Men: First Class, and Cowboys & Aliens. Any movie that features Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Adam Beach, and Olivia Wilde, should do gang-buster summer business. Some would pay money to watch that cast read the phone book!

With so many heroes to cheer, there must be some awesome bad guys for them to overcome - after all any hero worth his salt needs a worthy opponent from whom he must save the city... or the planet. Behind every amazing, or mildly brooding and tortured hero, there must be a villainous rotter, with his evil heart set on world domination, or bent singlemindedly on the total annihilation of humanity. Ya gotta love a good villain!

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Some villains are not so villainous...

So often in comics, at least in the comics of my youth, the villains were more grotesque than scary. Sure, they sometimes had incredible super powers and gave the hero a run for his or her money, but they were usually rather weird looking creatures.

One wonders how some of them were able to hide at all, or ever get the drop on anyone. Those old-style villains would never be able to survive in modern society. They'd be "celebrity spotted" and hunted down on Twitter-linked cell phones - the S.W.A.T. tactical team would have their hide-out surrounded before they knew what hit them.

My all-time favorite not-in-the-least-bit-scary villains are the Daleks, from the long-running British series, "Dr. Who." Dalaks looked like large, stainless-steel traffic cones on wheels. Shove a stick in their undercarriage, give one good push, and they'd land on their heads. It was a tribute to the actors that they managed to look scared whenever a Dalek appeared. I would have been on the floor laughing.

The Joker, circa 1940

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From grotesque to gothic...

The Joker's origins are well known. In the comics, he was a nefarious criminal who fell afoul of his own machinations - a classic biter-bit story, where the evil plotter was dropped into the toxic stew he was about to release on an unsuspecting Gotham City. The criminal survived, hideously scarred. In his deranged state, Batman became the focus of his hatred - the author of his problems.

Reborn as "The Joker," he turned his considerable intellect to hatching evil plots. Though not equipped with any super or mutant powers, he proved a suitably clever and effective opponent, escaping repeatedly from custody to return for a rematch.

The original comic book character took a decided turn for the villainous when Batman's writers began penning Bruce Wayne's alter ego as the tortured Dark Knight. This new darkness in the hero's character opened the door for more serious evil-doing by his long-time nemesis, The Joker.

Indeed, The Joker, and many of the Bat's noteworthy opponents took on darker, more gothic shadings as well, and seemed to revel in doing evil for the sake of doing evil. No longer content with robbing banks and stealing works of art, now they all seemed bent on bringing the city to its knees, if not outright subjugating all of humanity.

Cesar Romero to Jack Nicolson

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Television's 1960s Joker...

The 1960s television series "Batman," was a high camp treatment of the comic book icons. Complete with comic-style fight graphics - "Biff! Ka-Pow!" - the series reigned supreme for a number of years, while serious stars vied for guest roles as bad guys. A few scored recurring roles - Frank Gorshen as The Riddler, Cesar Romero as The Joker, Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, and Julie Newmar as Catwoman.

Go-go boots and Carnaby Street duds abounded, and the show was every bit as as hip as "The Man From Uncle," another popular sixties series.

Cesar Romero's Joker was not as tortured as later actors portrayed him. His Joker was a delightfully over-the-top character, often-foiled, definitely crazed, but rather gentlemanly in defeat. Even his frothing-at-the-mouth rants showed a tinge of refinement.

Once The Joker hit the silver screen, under the careful tutelage of Jack Nicolson, his character took on decidedly darker shadings.

Two kinds of psycho

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Jakc Nicolson's gothic Joker...

Jack Nicolson's Joker was not a nice fellow to start with - before his transformation, he was a murderer for hire. True, the psychotic overtones were there, but until his character was backed into a corner, he was able to control his tendencies, flippantly enjoying his own evil cleverness.

We got the impression that, though warped by his transformation, he was still basically as intelligent and as evil as before. He still plotted to rule the underworld, and bring the city to its knees, but mainly for personal gain. As long as Batman stayed out of his way, this Joker was content to go about his business.

Once the Dark Knight stepped in, The Joker's psychosis came to the fore. Jack Nicolson gave us some truly dark moments in The Joker's final scenes atop the tower.

Truly scary...

Heath Ledger's Joker

Heath Ledger's Joker was a genuine, bona fide, certifiable psycho - as dangerous as he was unpredictable. He felt no remorse for his actions, rather he genuinely seemed not to care whether people lived or died as long as he achieved his ends.

With all due respect to Mr. Nicolson, Ledger's characterization was probably the scariest joker in small or large screen history. There were no chinks in his armor, no access to a softer side - there was absolutely no appeal to Ledger's Joker. He used his chaotic, uncaring pathology as a weapon, to terrify his opponents, while allowing nothing to sway him from his path. 

From comic book grotesque to  terrifying personification of the ultimate-extreme violent psychopath, The Joker's many faces have certainly come of age. Heath Ledger's Joker made us all very grateful he was only a character in a film.

Coming soon... a new villain?

Coming to the Silver Screen in the summer of 2011, "Cowboys & Aliens" shows early signs of being a monster hit (pun intended). Could we have a new contender for big, bad, scary villain entering the ring?

I want one of those bracelets!

© 2011, Elle Fredine, All rights reserved

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tHErEDpILL profile image

tHErEDpILL 5 years ago from New York

I love the inspiration in this hub. The Joker comes second only to Lex Luther as the greatest villain of all times. If you look at "The Dark Knight" philosophically, you will realize that the Joker is actually Batman gone down the wrong path. They are so similar it's scary, and Chris Nolan played off that. The Joker is a brilliant character and Heath Ledger MURDERED that part. He deserves 2 Oscars for his performance. One for Hollywood and one for bringing one of the greatest comic book characters to life. Damn, to this day I still can not figure out how he came up with the Joker's speech patterns and mannerisms. Jack was criticized for his statement but he may have been right. Heath may have unsafely gone too deep into his character than he should have. People fail to realize that convincing yourself that you are the character makes your performance more realistic. And sadly this looks as if it may have played a part in Heath's death.

By the way;

Olivia Wilde has the most breathtaking eyes that I have ever seen in my entire life. And this is coming from a man that counts eyes as one of the best features on a womens entire body.

Enelle Lamb profile image

Enelle Lamb 5 years ago from Canada's 'California'

interesting how the good of one is a mirror to the evil of another.

RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

You raise some interesting points in your analysis, pILL. The Bat's and the Joker have certainly evolved into two sides of the same coin. Hugh Ledger was a vastly talented actor, but showed some instability in his personal life. River Phoenix comes to mind also. It is always such a shame when talented young people go too deeply into the dark side of their OWN personality in search of a character, and do not have the stability or support to find their way back out.

Enelle, thanks so much for stopping by - such an intriguing comment. I'd have to agree with that one, too.

kksonakiya profile image

kksonakiya 5 years ago from Gwalior

Hmm, there have always been competition between Lex Luthur and Joker about who is the super villain. But after watching Dark Knight and seeing how cruel and terrifying Joker can be, I think Joker has an edge over Lex Luthur. Also, Joker looks more appealing than Lex.

RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

kksonakiya, I have never really compared the two, but Joker has always seemed scarier to me.

tHErEDpILL profile image

tHErEDpILL 5 years ago from New York

You are all correct, The Joker is scarier but, Lex can gain your trust in one second and then kill you the next. His intelligence rivals the great Batman. It's like you know he's a psychopath but he finds some way to make you let your defenses down.

Stevennix2001 profile image

Stevennix2001 5 years ago

I have to say Redelf this is another great hub by you. Although I have to disagree with everyone here that says Lex Luthor is a better villain than the joker, as I think the scariest thing about the joker as one dc writer said: "When portrayed right. Joker should be an unstoppable force that you can't bargain or reason with, who you don't know what his true intentions are. Someone who will do something so horrible that'll end up making you laugh, but you'll feel horrible for laughing with him on it." I think Ledger definitely not only played the part well, he became the Joker in that movie.

It's sad that he died though, as I know originally that Nolan planned to use the Joker as a recurring villain in the trilogy. What was originally supposed to happen was that Joker would get locked up in Arkham Asylum where he'd meet a young psychology student in training named Harley Quinzel, who as you know becomes Harley Quinn. Anyways, the film was supposed to be how he ends up corrupting Harley into becoming his new main squeeze, and how he ends up escaping Arkham; which forces Batman to take on Joker again in one final epic showdown in the trilogy. At least, this is what Nolan said he originally wanted to have happen. However due to Ledger's death, Nolan adamantly said he would refuse to recast the part; hence why he decided to take the next film in a different direction with Bane and Catwoman being the adversaries instead.

Although it is kind of a shame, as i think it would've been interesting to see Harley Quinn and Joker take on Batman, as we've never seen that before.

As for Lex Luthor, I think the main problem is outside of comics, hollywood seems to stereotype him as a clown in movies (figuratively speaking of course). Don't get me wrong, I loved Michael Rosenbaum as Lex, but he's still too young to play lex in a movie. as for Gene Hackman, I thought he did okay as Lex in the first two movies, but in the later chapters lex was portrayed as a joke by both Gene and Kevin Spacey if you ask me.

Personally, I think if you want to portray Lex right in a movie, they should cast Daniel Day Lewis. The guy makes an excellent villain in movies, and his character Daniel Plainview in "There Will Be Blood" is the exact epitomy of what I'd imagine Lex Luthor would be in real life. Trust me, I think if DC wants to keep the ball rolling, then they need to cast Daniel Day Lewis as Lex Luthor, as that guy would become the character. Trust me, if you've ever seen "There Will Be Blood" and "Gangs of New York", then you'll know how much that guy relishes in villainous power hungry type roles; which is exactly the type of part that Lex is.

Anyways, it should be interesting to see how to new superman movie turns out, as I can't wait to see it. I just hope the world doesn't end before then as some people are predicting. lol j/k

Anyways, thanks again for writing this, as i had a lot of fun reading this. :)

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

The original one used to be my son's favourite TV program. Hope the new will be as good. Thank you for a great introduction.

FatFreddysCat profile image

FatFreddysCat 5 years ago from The Garden State

Cool hub. I loved the "Batman" TV show as a kid so Cesar Romero has always been my sentimental favorite Joker, but I have to admit that I was blown away by Heath Ledger's performance as well. The previous Joker portrayals have always been crazed, of course, but they've been "funny" crazy -- whereas Ledger made him SCARY crazy. His Joker was like Alex from "A Clockwork Orange" in clown makeup.

tHErEDpILL profile image

tHErEDpILL 5 years ago from New York

Stevenixx, I gotta say I love the Joker quote:

"When portrayed right. Joker should be an unstoppable force that you can't bargain or reason with, who you don't know what his true intentions are. Someone who will do something so horrible that'll end up making you laugh, but you'll feel horrible for laughing with him on it."

This is so true, The Joker is an anarchist. Like Alfred said in "The Dark Knight" some people just want to watch the world burn. That movie is way more philosophical than most people know. Honestly if The Academy didn't have a stick up their butts, I think "The Dark Knight" and "The Matrix" should have won best picture Oscars.

As for Lex, I think you touched on it. he hasn't been portrayed correctly. Lex is as charismatic as Obama but also as corrupted and insane as The Joker. The difference is, he does stand for something...himself. He wants to be the King of all Kings. Michael Rosenbaum did do a great job but yes, he is to young. I think that when he gets portrayed correctly in a movie, people will understand why I say that he gives The Joker a run for his money as best villain. It is more of a surprise when he does something bad, and the fact that he can be reasoned with unlike the Joker, it leaves an audience or reader, impatiently waiting to see if Lex will do the right thng sometimes. Even though he hardly ever does, and when he does, he usually has secret agenda. He is a sneaky one.

clark farley profile image

clark farley 5 years ago

Agree with all above as to the 'perfect Joker' as played by Heath Ledger.

The question comes to mind, 'what is it about (very well protrayed) villans that is so attractive'.

I am not being critical, and I am not using the word 'attractive' with any connotation of virtue or good, simply attractive (to the audience).

I would be the first to admit to paying more attention to the Joker, or Hannibal Lecter (the character in the book, not the character as portrayed by Anthhony Hopkins who was awful in the Silence movies.)

It just seems that the more supremely evil, gifted psychopath a character maybe, the more attractive.

RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Steve and pILL, you guys really know your characters and the actors you suggest would be awesome choices. Glad you both enjoyed the hub. I shall have to write some more on graphic novels :D

Hh, you are most welcome - my son loves the Batman movies, too.

'Cat, you hit that one right on the head!

Gee, clark, I thought Hopkins was pretty scary in the first one, anyway, but I have never read the books so have nothing with which to compare him. You raise an interesting point about psychopaths in movies. We all certainly appreciate a well-portrayed one. I think, in part, the whole movie/story needs a believable villain, and if he doesn't measure up, it pulls down the whole experience/movie.

chspublish profile image

chspublish 5 years ago from Ireland

I think it's great you put it out there about the villains in the story - be it comic character or otherwise.

They are scary and are meant to scare the life out of us. The great actors can definitely do it for the screen.

I think Jack Nicholson's Joker was truly in the genre of evil. The actor can really portray our version of evil in all its stereotypical expectation, which, to my mind, is what was needed for the story. A great hub giving rise to lots of discussion.

RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

chspublish, thanks so much for stopping by to read and comment. They certainly do provide an object lesson :D I think you're right about Nicolson's Joker - he was definitely an evil cuss.

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rorshak sobchak 5 years ago

The idea of the joker is awesome. You did a really nice job on the hub. I really like the pictures and the video you put on. Really unique hub.

rorshak sobchak

RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much, rorshak sobchak. Glad you enjoyed the hub!

Docmo profile image

Docmo 5 years ago from UK

A great hub on a charismatic villain - I love the characterisation of Joker in comics and film and I gotta agree that Heath Ledger blew me away with his incredible rendering of the Joker as a psychopath. Perhaps the Joker's turning point was the influential graphic novel ' The Killing Joke' written by Alan Moore. Called the greatest Joker story ever, it was influential for an interpretation of joker in the way 'The Dark Knight' was for Batman.

Thanks for putting this together- really enjoyed reading it.

RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

You are most welcome, docmo. I have long been a fan of "The Bats" and company. It's always interesting to see where a writer (or an actor) will take a character.

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ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

I understand Jon Pewtree, the 3rd doctor who, disliked the dalaks. He felt they were damn silly things. I agree. The dalaks had a plunger for a hand and looked like salt shakers. I think the reason they became popular was because they were the first alien villains the doctor faced.

An interesting thing about Batman was most of his arch villians suffered from some form of insanity. That it why they usually ended up in Arkham Asylum.

It makes sense when you realise Bruce Wayne struggles with his own mental health issues.

Joker is a total psychopath, Harvey Dent has a split personality, Riddler is obsessed with Batman, Madhatter is obsessed with Alice, Mr, Freeze is obsessed with his frozen wife. One character thinks he is Zeus, Scarecrow is obsessed with fear. Just something to think about. An interesting hub.

RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Jon Pertwee wasn't alone in his disdain for the Daleks. That did not stop them from becoming a cult favorite, though :D:D:D Glad you enjoyed the hub, ruffridyer.

Enelle Lamb profile image

Enelle Lamb 5 years ago from Canada's 'California'

The Daleks left a lasting impression on me, and I wondered where they came from and what show they were on for years! I remember watching that show (nervously) as it was on before Hockey Night in Canada and the Bugs Bunny show lol...only reason I watched it at all!

RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Ahhh, Enelle, I watched Hockey Night in Canada so I could stay up for the movies afterwards LOL. I always thought the Daleks were goofy, but some other things on that show were quite eerie.

Deamon Door profile image

Deamon Door 5 years ago from Warrington, Warrington

this is awsome, though i never read anything, i just watched joker, i love joker.

RedElf profile image

RedElf 5 years ago from Canada Author

Thanks so much, Daemon Door. You should check out some of the old graphic novels, they can add another level to your appreciation of the TV and film versions.

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