Film fans are currently buzzing about the soon-to-be released Joker movie starring Joaquin Phoenix. From previews and early reviews, it appears to be a dark character study that gives viewers a glimpse into the mind of one of the most iconic fictional villains of all time.
All this noise around the Todd Phillips film begs the question: why the Joker? How has this villain become so iconic that a solo film, without his arch-nemesis Batman, is so hotly anticipated? A look back at this character’s rich cinema history shines a light on how he has evolved over the years, and why he is so popular today.
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
While this is not a Joker film, or even a comic book movie at all, The Man Who Laughs is the inspiration for the character, as stated by the comic book creators. Without this iconic piece of cinema history, the sadistic clown would have never been created.
Unlike Joker, the main character of The Man Who Laughs, Gwynplaine (played by Conrad Veidt), is portrayed as a hero. There are many other facets of the character, however, that have carried forward into the Joker’s many films. The most notable of these is his haunting smile. Gwynplaine’s tragic origins and rejection by society have also played a part in how the Joker has been written.
Todd Phillips has stated in recent interviews that The Man Who Laughs is a big inspiration for his new film. One aspect clearly being pulled from the Gwynplaines story is Arthur Fleck’s tragic circumstances, giving audiences sympathy for a character who is traditionally viewed as pure evil.
Cesar Romero was the first actor to take on this iconic role. In this first iteration, the character was not taken quite as seriously. In fact, none of the characters in this movie are taken very seriously.
Romero’s more campy approach in playing the character was appealing, but not quite as impactful as more modern interpretations. Nonetheless, the charisma and jovial nature of Romero’s Joker has remained a part of the character in the recent more dark and sadistic takes.
Tim Burton’s take on the Dark Knight was the first cinematic interpretation to take Batman to a very dark place. This was reflected in Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker, which was thought to be the definitive version – until 2008, that is.
Although meant to be more of a dark and gritty interpretation, there are still some goofy undertones, typical of a Tim Burton movie, that underline this movie. Nicholson’s portrayal fit these clashing themes perfectly, making the Joker a funny trickster, yet also a murderous criminal.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy redefined both superhero and blockbuster films forever. Unexpectedly, what made Nolan’s trilogy stand out was not his portrayal of Batman/Bruce Wayne, but rather the many villains that the man comes up against. None of Nolan’s trilogy villains were as great as Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Now considered one of the greatest performances of all time, Ledger commands the screen every single time he appears. From his eerie voice to the maniacal cackling laugh he lets loose, Ledger brought a sense of anarchistic nihilism that changed how we view the Joker forever.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Not too long after Heath Ledger’s critically acclaimed performance, Warner Bros. Studios decided to take another crack at the character. Instead of trying to replicate Ledger’s take on the character, filmmaker David Ayer decided to go in a new direction, and he hired Jared Leto to bring his vision to the plate.
When fans heard that Joker was going to be played by such an acclaimed actor, they could not have been more excited. However, after Suicide Squad’s debut, fans could not have been more disappointed.
Although Leto succeeded in creating his own interpretation of the character, he failed in his execution. This version of the Joker simply fell flat. Instead of actually being creepy and intimidating, it felt like Leto was someone trying to be creepy and intimidating.
Although it is still roughly a month from release, this new take on the Joker is set to be an iconic one. Not only is this because of the brilliant minds currently at work on the film, but it is also because all of the work that has come before.
Each different version of the Joker in cinema over the years has helped inform the next iteration. Joker now carries with him a complex set of baggage. This baggage includes the uncanny smile, his iconic laugh, anarchistic impulses and most prominently, the Joker’s pure joy for cruel sadism.
When you go see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker in theatres, remember all of the iterations of the Joker that have come before him. This isn’t simply an actor portraying an age old character, Phoenix is inhabiting an archetype that has been shaped over the course of several decades of cinema history. His portrayal will no doubt add more changes to the character, adding to the iconic legacy of the Joker.
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