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. 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. 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.
The evolution of the Joker in the movies is a response to the change in culture. At first, the Joker was a source of entertainment. In the 1950s and 1960s, America was happy, and DC comics did not want to depress people. This explains why Caesar Romero’s Joker was amusing and did not murder anyone. In the 1980s, America was afraid of drugs. “In September 1989, a whopping 64 percent of the respondents in the New York Times/CBS News poll said that drug abuse represented the most important problem facing the country” (Goode 1994). The Joker adapted, and drugs became his weapon of choice. He used “smylex gas” to kill people by causing them to laugh themselves to death, leaving a contorted smile on the victim’s face. In 2008, Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker lost all comic 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. I still 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.
The Joker made his first appearance in 1940 in “Batman vs The Joker.” He is a murderer and a burglar, using his “Joker venom” to kill owners of expensive rubies. The venom kills the victim and leaves a grin on his face. He also kills a judge who sent him to prison once. This comic shows the Joker in his first stage, where he was a killer, but not exactly a crook. He does steal diamonds that belonged to his victims, but he does this for the sport of it. He announces his plan to the police ahead of time, giving them time to protect his victim. He then kills Wilde and steals the diamond while the police are there. He tells the reader that he injected his venom into Wilde and stole the diamond the previous night. His radio tip was for a crime that had already been committed. Joker then smiles and says, “If the police expect to play against the Joker, they had best be prepared to be dealt from the bottom of the deck” (Kahn 13). The Joker sees his crimes as a joke; He wants to see how often he can outsmart the police. The Joker finds his ability to outwit the police more important than any diamond. This is why the Joker goes after the judge. The judge represents a time that he was caught. By killing the judge, he is making up for past mistakes.
The Joker began his second stage in the 1950s. Part of this transition is due to the Comics Code Authority. In 1956, the Comics Code Authority came in to power, and halted the Joker’s murderous ways. General standards, part A, rule 9, states that, “Instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal's activities should be discouraged.” The Joker killed a judge in his first comic book appearance. Rule 5 states that, “Criminals shall not be presented so as to be rendered glamorous or to occupy a position which creates the desire for emulation.” The Code saw Joker as too offensive and he, like many comics, was a cause for juvenile delinquency (“The Joker’s Dozen,” 7).
“The Joker Jury” best shows the Joker’s second stage. The Joker stages crimes that are based on Gotham city’s departments. He sends a clue to Batman saying that he will “use my (Joker’s) own sanitation department” to commit his next robbery (Kahn 147). He then uses a giant vacuum cleaner to “clean up” a precious gem exhibit. He does not kill anyone in the process.
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 2008 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 103). This comic shows the Joker’s disregard for innocent lives and his desire to wreck the city. His goon describes the Joker as a disease, that is older than Gotham and one that has no cure (Joker 121)
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. The audience is so busy laughing as the Joker “improves” the paintings to realize that he has killed at least fifty innocent people in the gallery.
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 an unpredictable force that does something, has no reason for it, and does not care what happens to others because of his actions. I still need to find some sources on the psychology of fear.
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.