One of the most recognizable comic book characters is the Joker, the archenemy of the Batman. The Joker has gone through several evolutions since he first appeared in 1940 (Batman vs The Joker, 11). Senior Editor for DC comics, Mike Gold, divides the Joker’s criminal career into three stages: the early days, in which the Joker is a confirmed killer and a thief; the middle days, where the Joker rarely kills anyone and pulls elaborate comical robberies; and the contemporary days, in which the Joker returns to his murderous origins, but is not a burglar (The Joker’s Dozen, 9). I believe this theory applies to the Joker’s evolution in the comic book realm, but it does not fit with his metamorphosis in the television world. In film, the Joker began as a thief with an obsession to preform robberies with comedic themes. In the 1980s, the Joker became a murderous villain, but still maintained his humorous personality. In 2008, the Joker became a cold killer, loosing any resemblance to his earlier incarnations.
I believe that the evolution of the Joker is a response to the change in culture. At first, the Joker was a source of entertainment. In the 1960s, America was happy, so why should DC try to depress people with a sinister murderer? This explains why the Joker was amusing and did not murder anyone. In the 1980s, America was afraid of drugs. The Joker adapted and drugs became his weapon of choice. He used “smylex gas” to kill people by laughing themselves to death, leaving a contorted smile on the victim’s face. In 2008, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker lost all comical aspects of his past and became a twisted killer. Again, Joker represents the current fear of Americans: terrorism. Heath Ledger’s Joker is a psychopathic terrorist who kills his victims for no reason. My theory for the Joker’s film career is that he evolves with his audience. As our fears evolve, he adapts to represent those fears.
To follow up on the Joker’s evolution in the comic book world, I need to analyze the Joker’s changes from comic book to comic book to prove Mr. Gold’s theory of the Joker’s three stages of change. The early Joker stage will prove to be difficult, since I only have one comic book from that period. Proving the Joker’s middle stage, where he only commits elaborate comical robberies, should prove easier. I have a number of comics from that stage. The third stage of the Joker’s change should be simple since that is the Joker still around today.
For the TV evolution of the Joker, I need to watch all 18 Joker shows starring Caesar Romero as the Joker. I also need to watch the 1980s Batman movie starring Jack Nicholson and the 2008 Dark Knight, staring Heath Ledger. I will also need to read movie reviews and critics of the Batman and the Dark Knight. I also need to research the culture of the time periods in which each Joker made his debut. I am debating whether to include the cartoon series in my research, but I am not sure how to tie it in with my thesis.
From 1940, I have “Batman vs the Joker” which is the Joker’s first appearance. He demonstrates his murderous personality by killing three people, which ties in with his first stage. From 1951, I have “the Joker’s Crime Costumes” where the Joker dresses up as comic characters and robs people. A comic from 1957, “Crime-of-the-Month-club,” shows the Joker staging crimes that have to do with the current month, like robbing a movie theater showing a movie “The Bride of Jupiter,” whose name is Juno, in June. These two comics demonstrate the Joker’s middle stage. He does not kill anyone. Instead, he commits robberies that are comical.
There is another reason why Joker became less of a menace in the 1950s. In 1956, the Comics Code Authority came in to power, and halted the Joker’s murderous ways. They saw Joker as too offensive and he, like many comics, was a cause for juvenile delinquency (“The Joker’s Dozen,” 7). I need to do some more research into the Comics Code Authority.
The Joker begins his third stage of evolution in the comic “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge,” where he kills four of his goons that betrayed him, and almost feeds Batman to a shark. The Joker commits some of his most evil acts in The Killing Joke. In this comic, the Joker cripples Commissioner Gordon’s daughter and rapes her in an attempt to drive the Commissioner insane. This also demonstrates the Joker’s third stage of evolution.
There is another stage of the Joker’s career that has just begun. In a recent comic book, Joker, we see the Joker as Heath Ledger portrayed him: a twisted terrorist. The story is set after the events of The Dark Knight. The Joker has been released from the asylum and wants revenge on those who betrayed him. He gets in a gang war with Two-Face, blackmails the Penguin into working for him, and unleashes a cannibal Killer Croc on the city of Gotham. He skins a man who stole from him. Joker breaks into an old couple’s room. When one of his goons asks him who they are, his response is “who cares” (Joker).
Joker’s Film career was started by Caesar Romero. Romero portrayed a Joker who was a crook and would only kill Batman and Robin. In “Batman sets the Pace,” The Joker traps Batman and Robin in a chimney and offers to let them out if they can stay afloat for one hour. He then fills the chamber with deadly gas, not water. This fits with the Joker as a twisted villain. He says to his henchmen, "turn the gas of, some passerby could get killed" once he thinks Batman and Robin are dead. The Joker is actually concerned with the lives of citizens. He is not a killer, he is an entertainer. In the beginning of this clip, he shoots his victims with some sticky silly string and says, "this is a stick up!" This is amusing, but not the antics of a killer. This attitude of the Joker fits with his first stage of his film career. He is not a murdering psychopath, he is an entertainer.
In the 1980s, Jack Nicholson plays a Joker that is a killer but is still amusing. In the film, the Joker meets Vicky Vale at a museum of art for dinner. Vicky does not know this at first, thinking she is meeting with her boyfriend, Bruce Wayne. Joker sends her a gas mask and then gases the whole building with his smylex gas, killing everyone in the museum. Joker then parades into the museum and ruins every painting in it. He does all this to get a date with Vicky. Joker killed a dozen people, but then makes us laugh by writing, “Joker was here,” on a painting of a house.
I need to do more research on the drug scare, which I plan to use to prove the Joker represents the current fear of the public during the 1980s. I may look into some psychology research studies on fear.
Heath Ledger’s Joker is another adaptation to the modern fears of Americans. His Joker is a terrorist. Joker is best explained when he is talking to Two-Face. Two-Face accuses him of killing his fiance and ruining his face, and Joker says that he did not do it because he was in jail. Two-Face points out that it was the Joker’s men who carried it out, so it must have been his plan. Joker then points out “Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just do things” ( The Dark Knight, 1:48:10-21). This perfectly describes the Joker. He is just a unpridictable force that does something, has no reason for it, and does not care what happens to others because of his actions.
I also want to do some research here on the psychology of a terrorist and fear studies in the modern day.
The Joker is one of the most successful villains because he has no motive. He “isn’t looking for anything logical. [He] can’t be reasoned with, bullied or intimidated. [The Joker] just wants to watch the world burn”(Dark Knight). The Joker has no logical reason, no vendetta to be carried out. He just is evil for evil’s sake. That is what makes him so interesting.