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Joker Smackdown
by Mike Thomas

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Joker, Joker - Who's Got the Joker

Joker, Joker - Who's Got the Joker

Although he makes no appearance in the latest installment of The DARK KNIGHT (but we're never really sure, given Christopher Nolan's notorious fetish for secrecy) The Joker has been on my mind lately (maybe because of the endless barrage of Republican debates, but that may be a discussion for another day).

Making his appearance in the very first "Batman" comic ("Batman #1"), The Joker is by far the most dangerous and unpredictable villain The Batman has ever faced. His origin is shrouded in mystery, but the most popular story is that he as a small-time criminal pursued by The Batman - his real name is a topic for debate also - when by accident, he falls into a vat of chemicals, bleaching his skin white, and contorting his face into a grotesque smile, in the process, driving him completely mad. If you've ever had a fear of clowns, The Joker embodies everyone's worst nightmare of clowns. Possessing near-genius intelligence (also debatable), and no moral center whatsoever, he confounds The Batman, for he cannot be figured out. In The Batman mythology, he is also responsible for the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, upping the stakes for revenge for The Batman.

Mythology aside, this column will be examining the actors that have played The Joker on television and in the cinema, and, like the perennial Star Trek argument going on even to this day, starting a discussion, Who was the best Joker?

Let's begin.

Although The Batman has had a long life in movies (There were two movie serials - BATMAN in 1943 and BATMAN and ROBIN in 1949), the first screen
Refused to Shave his Mustache

Refused to Shave his Mustache
appearance of The Joker was in the camp television version of the character, "Batman." (da-da-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah da-da-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah Batman!) Played by veteran actor Cesar Romero. Romero was known for his Latin lover roles and frequent appearances on TV shows like "The Martha Raye Show," and "The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour." When he played The Joker, he refused to shave his trademark mustache, so it was just covered up with the pancake make-up used for the character. Romero's Joker made the villain a harmless TV cartoon villain, laughing gleefully at the so-called nefarious death traps he would set for equally-vintage actor Adam West (he actually starred in The OUTLAWS IS COMING with The Three Stooges) and entertainment virgin Burt Ward (Ward won the Robin role on the very first audition he went on, and disappeared out of sight when the show ended. He can occasionally be found at comic book and Batman conventions.) Romero was called on to do the first feature-length batman movie, along with vintage actors from the series Frank Gorshin (The Riddler), Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), and Lee Meriwether (Catwoman). Romero's Joker is considered the butt of the joke of Jokers faced by The Batman, and by comparison the most harmless of them all.

Tim Burton took a decidedly darker take on The Caped Crusader with his first attempt, titled simply BATMAN, or using just the Bat Symbol as the title. Much darker than his small screen compadre, Jack Nicholson's Clown Prince of Crime was a grand
Wait'll They Get a Load of Me!

Wait'll They Get a Load of Me!
departure from the buffoonish interpretation of Romero's Joker. Being the only one in on the joke, Nicholson was dangerous, murderous, but with little regard for friends, foes as well as even himself. Nicholson would go into fits of dementia where he would go "somewhere," but always aware of the world around him. My issue with Nicholson's interpretation is, that his performance was definitely insanely broad and over-the-top, you could always see the Nicholsonpersona glaring right at you. The mannerisms, the posture, even his famous tagline, Wait 'till they get a load of me smacks of pure Nicholson. And up until recently, he was considered the quintessential Joker, totally insane, totally committed to the role, totally Joker.


With Heath Ledger, The Joker took on a completely new persona. Constantly changing his backstory, showing no regard for his own personal safety, or anyone else's, Ledger's Joker was very dangerous, very psychotic, very scary. His Joker actually frightened this writer because of his total unpredictability. His dangerousness was completely benign and unnoticed until is was far too late. He was a full time job, because, like a true terrorist, you never know where he would strike. Be it a convict time bomb, or an assassination in broad daylight, or taking out a hit on a person national television, or setting fire to millions of dollars, you watched in horror at every stunt he would successfully pull off. Even facing imminent death, he never showed fear, or remorse, or penance, begging for his life, because - his world had no room
Why So Serious?

Why So Serious?
for any of those things. Heath Ledger never shook that character, and no one will ever know if The Joker had the last laugh on him.

With every incarnation of The Joker, he becomes more psychotic, and more dangerous with every movie. it is the prediction of this writer, the next incarnation, if his character is ever revived will up the ante of Ledger's performance, and God only knows where that Joker will take us.

If nothing else, it will be a ride no one will forget for quite a while.

This the opinion of one writer, one reviewer. The are some fervent Nicholson fans out there who will always identify the character of The Joker with him. Others have eagerly crowned Ledger as the reigning Clown Prince of Crime. Then there’s Mark Hamill who voice acted The Joker in "Batman, the Animated Series" and the fan movie GRAYSON where The Joker is featured. I'm sure there are even Caesar Romero Joker fans out there (the others are just too scary).

What about you, dear reader (both of you). Who was the best Joker? You have this writer's opinion. Am I right, or are one of the others better? Or (the third alternative) which actor would have made a better Joker than any of the ones discussed here.

Inquiring minds want to know.


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Apr 8, 2012 11:15 AM
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Good column, Mike. I'll always believe Nicholson's Joker is the best. Sure, the actor himself doesn't really disappear like you said, but in my opinion he best portrayed what The Joker is supposed to be about. I didn't like Ledger's portrayal. He was evil and malicious, certainly, but where was the joking? Where was the fun? I think The Joker should be half amusing and half scary, which makes him that much more unpredictable. Ledger's Joker was all scary. I'm not looking forward to the next version of him.
Mike Thomas
Apr 8, 2012 12:37 PM
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Your opinion is not an unpopular one. The Joker, in my opinion, is a misnomer, because - he wasn't funny. His smile and laugh belied how insanely dangerous he really was.

Still, many people believe Nicholson is the one and only Joker, much like Connery is the one and only Bond. And I respect that.

Thanks for your opinion.

Apr 8, 2012 9:02 PM
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I prefer the Romero-type Joker. He wasn't very funny and his jokes were stupid, but I liked the whole Batman TV show and he suited his part quite well.
Mike Thomas
Apr 8, 2012 9:09 PM
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Thanks for you opinion. I knew there were some Romero fans out there.

Thanks for reading.

Apr 12, 2012 3:53 PM
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Awesome column, Mike! The "both of you" line at the end is funny, but now I'm going to have to prove that prediction wrong - hee hee.

Quite honestly, I love the character, and I love all of the portrayals equally. They were all completely individual takes, and they were perfect for the tones of each production. I also have fond memories of all of them. They all remind me of different times in my life. And I still watch each of them. Infact I still watch the show every night on Hub.

Something I've noticed is that each new one seems to define the character for a different generation. I think a lot of people see Ledger as The Joker, and I think that's one of the best performances I've ever seen. A lot of people didn't know what to make of him being cast, but - just like you said about the character - his impact was underestimated. I like his psycho take, and I also thought he was funny in a really dark way - he also had a scene my mom had to look away from, and that shows the intensity of his performance. When he kept changing his story, that was like a serial killer. And he really was intimidating. Since he took it about as far as I would think is possible, I don't think they should try it again with anyone else, but I'm sure they will.

Nicholson was very Nicholson-ish in his performance, but he's so likeable and popular that I think he went a long way towards making the movie as funny and crowd-pleasing as it was. Plus he's the man in everything, and I thought he was a great Joker.

As for Romero, he was exactly what he needed to be. The first Joker I saw, the most recent Joker I've seen. Hey, what can you say about a Joker that faced Batman in a surfing contest? Classic.
Mike Thomas
Apr 12, 2012 4:01 PM
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Great commentary, Nathan! I have a feeling you're going to give your readers a run for their money!

You've got a perspective that's original and daring - something everyone likes to read about.

Thanks for reading mine.

Apr 12, 2012 8:20 PM
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Wow, thanks man! I like your style too.

Apr 13, 2012 11:05 AM
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The 1928 film, The Man Who Laughs, starring Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin, had Veidt as a carnival freak performer with a permanent grin on his face. In the great tradition of The Phantom of the Opera and similar films, a scary visage on the villains face made audiences cringe and boo at the same time. Nice column as always, Mike.

Apr 15, 2012 1:19 AM
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I have to state it.... even though its already been stated.... burtons batman (the first one) with Nicholson as the joker is still my favorite batman adaptation ever..... The film is timeless, more one liners then you could ever remember and to me when someone say the words Jack Nicholson....the face of his joker portrayel is what pops into my mind. Since we are on the subject......
"Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?"

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Science Fiction, Double Feature
Every other Sunday

This column will explore my taste in film. I watch all kinds of movies - all kinds - but likes science fiction/fantasy - action, animated, funny, even stupid. He will speak of his experience and his encounters with science fiction and the way it colors his - and our - everyday life.

Other Columns
Other columns by Mike Thomas:

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

Kids in Peril

Twenty Questions with Michael Bonomo

Twenty Questions with Scott Wheeler

The Clip Show

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Mike Thomas
Mike Thomas was introduced to science fiction when he first watched 2001 - A SPACE ODYSSEY, and was hooked ever since. But he doesn't just watch the gee-whiz, gollee-gee special effects. He watches the costumes quirks, evaluates the musical scores, even identifies favorite actors of directors. He collected comic book, but has moved on to weapons: he currently owns the Mj?llnir - the Hammer of Thor, Electra's Ninja Sai's, Mace Windu's Light Saber, and a couple of Batarangs.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Mike Thomas by clicking here.

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