Over the past 80 years, Batman's archnemesis The Joker has become one of the most recognizable fictional villains worldwide. It's not totally obvious why our civilization is obsessed with, of all things, a gangster clown, so this week Cracked's exploring the character's enduring popularity and what The Joker's many iterations reveal about us, the audience. Catch up with: part one, and part two.
Going almost two decades without a live-action Joker seems unthinkable in these Joker-saturated days when we might be about to get the third one in five years (fourth if you count whatever the hell was going on in the show Gotham). Not only were the '90s to mid-'00s completely Jokerless in the live-action front, but he wasn't exactly making waves in the comics, either -- most "Best Joker Stories Ever" lists aren't too generous with this period. It's like after Jack Nicholson and The Killing Joke, everyone decided that we'd said all we needed to say about the Joker.
Well, almost everyone. Who would have guessed that one of the most depraved villains in fiction would be saved by Luke Skywalker?
Today, Mark Hamill is almost as famous for voicing Joker in Batman: The Animated Series as he is for swinging giant glow sticks in a toga. But, originally, he didn't even want the job. That's not to say that he didn't want to work in a Batman show -- he very, very much wanted to. In fact, Hamill personally lobbied to get a part on the series, just out of pure Batman nerdery. The producers were happy to oblige and gave him the honor of voicing a classic character by the name of ... Ferris Boyle, a random business guy who dicked Mr. Freeze around before he turned into a human Popsicle.
Boyle only appeared in a few scenes and didn't do anything to overshadow the episode's main villain -- perfect work for a celebrity guest star who might show up wasted to the recording and refuse to do any retakes. Hamill did the opposite: he was incredibly enthusiastic about the entire process (and Batman in general), making it clear that he was willing to voice any longer part that hadn't already been cast. Which didn't include the Joker. That part had gone to actor Tim Curry, a casting choice that made perfect sense on paper since Curry was already known for playing pale-skinned maniacs in It and Rocky Horror Picture Show.
But in reality, Curry just wasn't working out for the character. He once claimed he was replaced because he got bronchitis, but according to show co-creator Bruce Timm, they didn't like his Joker because it "didn't sound natural" -- his laugh "never really sounded like he was genuinely amused by anything." It's kind of fitting (and a little mean) that they ended up using Curry's laugh only for a crappy animatronic clown:
So, they canned Curry and offered the part to Hamill. Who said no. He was aiming for someone more like Two-Face or Clayface -- you know, someone who hadn't recently been played to universal acclaim by a guy who at the time had been nominated for nine Academy Awards for acting (with two wins). And while Hamill was intimidated by the idea of competing with Jack Nicholson, there was something he feared even more: the fans. He thought they'd never accept Luke Skywalker playing such an iconic evil character, and the whole thing would be a shitstorm (SPOILERS: turns out they'd find "Luke playing a morally conflicted character" way more offensive). Hamill agreed to audition for the Joker only because he figured the producers would anticipate the backlash and pull the plug before any guillotines were erected outside the Warner Bros. lot.
Ironically, the assumption that he wasn't actually getting the part freed Hamill to play the Joker with the mix of manic energy and wild abandon that makes his interpretation so perfect. Compare Curry's laugh up there to Hamill's, which sounds like it comes from someone who has murdered at least 28 people in the time it's taken you to read this far into this article and finds it hilarious:
Once he was cast, and upon seeing that no one was planting any car bombs on his X-Wing, Hamill went all in. He insisted on voicing the Joker in stuff like talking toys and overseas rollercoaster rides for little money, just because he felt so protective of him. While the movies continued to avoid Nicholson's shadow and focused on other villains, Hamill's version of the Joker quietly spread beyond the cartoon through every Happy Meal toy, Pez dispenser, and pair of Underoos sold with his image. And that's significant because it could be argued that this Joker was far more appealing than any seen in mass media before.
Hamill's Joker was just as threatening as Nicholson's, but also ... kind of endearing? Some comics had already managed to make this homicidal maniac a somewhat sympathetic figure, but most people had only met the total psycho from the movie and the two-dimensional goofball from the '60s show. Batman: The Animated series introduced general audiences to the idea of an evil but nuanced Joker you could occasionally root for. This was a Joker who had money problems ("Joker's Millions"), a sincere and rarely met desire to be acknowledged as funny ("Make 'Em Laugh"), and relationship issues with the hot blonde who inexplicably loves him (all the Harley Quinn-centric episodes). He was every dude trying to make it as a stand-up comic in LA.
The Mask of the Phantasm movie established that, before his skin-clearing accident, this Joker was a low-level enforcer and chauffeur for some gangsters. The accident turned him into something like a parody of his former bosses: he surrounds himself with the most inept goons in Gotham and hatches absurd plans that inevitably end in frustration and humiliation (in one case, he ends up with his pants down in the middle of the street). Under all that violence, he was another one of this show's many "chump who finds himself over his head" characters, like Sid the Squid or his pal Charlie. This might explain why his theme song is a tune that wouldn't sound out of place over a Curb Your Enthusiasm scene.
Hamill went from resisting the Joker to being physically unable to stop playing him -- he reprised the character in Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Static Shock, some animated movies, several video games, and more. Hell, he just voiced Joker in a Scooby-Doo episode in 2019, eight years after the first time he "retired" him. Joaquin Phoenix's interpretation might be more popular in the current zeitgeist, but there's a chance it wouldn't exist if Hamill's hadn't been there all along, reminding the public at large that the Joker could exist (and that he's a sad sack deep down) outside of Nicholson's performance. And he did it with a laugh.
Top Image: Warner Bros.