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Joker explained: the complete DC history of Batman’s greatest villain

Wherever Batman goes, his grinning, clown-like nemesis is never far behind. Here we explain the Joker and his origins as the DC villain.

The Joker explained: The Joker in the comics and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker

Though Batman has faced off against the weirdest and wildest villains Gotham has to offer — penguins, riddle-loving pranksters, and ice men, to name a few — his biggest challenge has always come in the form of the vicious clown known as the Joker.

In fact, the Joker has become so integral to the DCU that if you asked anyone to name their favorite DC villain, he’d probably be the first one they pick. But since he’s spent over eight decades appearing in comics and new movies alike, analyzing this Arkham regular is no laughing matter. Thankfully, we’ve got everything you need to know about Batman’s iconic nemesis.

Who is the Joker?

The Joker is a long-running Batman villain and one of Gotham’s most infamous criminals, named for his clown-like appearance and maniacal, over-the-top ways.

The Joker first appeared in the debut issue of the Batman comic in April 1940. He was created by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson, but the actual credit for him has been massively disputed over the years between the writers and has never actually been agreed upon.

Shockingly, Joker was supposed to be killed off during his first appearance since it was thought that having a recurring villain would make Batman seem…well, bad at his job. Thankfully, a last-minute editing addition meant that Joker ended up in prison, alive and well, thus beginning the long-running reign of the most iconic Batman villain.

The Joker explained: Joker in the comics

The Joker is a high-performing criminal mastermind and certified psychopath. (He’s spent a lot of time in Arkham Asylum.) Initially, he began as a simple serial killer who left playing cards at the scene of the crime. During the 1950s, due to the Comics Code Authority, Joker turned into a campier, more comedic villain. Then, when the much more lenient ’70s rolled around, he returned to his darker tendencies.

Throughout his campaign of terror, his appearance has been pretty consistent. Usually, he’s shown wearing clown make-up, which he uses to disguise (or highlight, depending on who you ask) his huge, disfigured smile. He also sports green hair and typically wears a purple and green suit. One of the snazzier-dressed foes, in our opinion.

Joker doesn’t have any superhuman abilities, and yet he’s one of the most threatening and creative villains in Gotham. He’s completely maniacal and unhinged but also shows intense intelligence, outwitting most around him. He’s usually found with some crafty weaponized props, like razor-tipped playing cards, and has been known to create elaborate traps.

The Joker explained: Joker in the comics

Make no mistake — Joker may be an antagonist, but he doesn’t try to avoid Batman. In fact, Joker is obsessed with Gotham’s savior. Desperate to un-weave Batman’s delicate moral fabric, Joker has made it his life’s mission to unmask his status as a hero.

During his run, Joker has worked with a quirky collection of other Batman villains, like Penguin and Two-Face. Most famously, he’s in a relationship with Harley Quinn (a psychologist at Arkham Asylum who he manipulated until she turned mad). It’s clear that Joker is a toxic boyfriend, but together, the pair have become a cultural symbol and a cosplay go-to for many real-life couples.

In fact, the Joker’s infiltration into real-world pop culture is nothing short of a phenomenon. T-shirts, dolls, posters…the Joker is everywhere. He’s become a representation of anarchy and chaos and has become one of the most emblematic elements of the Batman franchise.

The Joker explained: Joker in the comics

The Joker’s origin explained

The Joker’s origin story is one of the most widely disputed in the history of DC, though it’s generally agreed that he fell into a vat of chemicals when he was a petty criminal. 

As most DC characters go, the Joker’s backstory is an enigma. His origins have shifted across the years throughout different iterations, and even the Joker can’t keep his origin straight. Basically, when it comes to unreliable narrators, he takes the crown.

That said, most stories over the decades can be linked by a few consistent details. It’s believed that the Joker was originally a failed comedian called Jack Napier and that he became a criminal to support his pregnant wife. During a robbery, he was pursued by Batman and fell (or jumped, according to some stories) into a large vat of chemicals.

The chemicals bleached his skin and mutilated him, a disfigurement that would eventually drive him insane. This, paired with the accidental death of his wife, birthed his new criminal persona as the Clown Prince of Crime.

The Joker explained: Heath Ledger as Joker in The Dark Knight

Joker’s on-screen appearances explained

Being one of the most recognized Batman villains, the Joker first appeared on-screen in the Batman TV series in 1966 and has been brought back in almost every Batman story. 

The first live-action Joker actor was Cesar Romero. He was depicted with bright white face paint and a mustache (because Romero famously didn’t want to shave for the role). This version of the Joker was more of a prankster — less harmful and aggressive than future versions.

Romero would also play a role in the 1966 Batman movie, the first of what would become a long, long list of the Batman movies in order.

The Joker was then played by Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton’s 1989 movie Batman. This version made some notable changes, including the fact that Joker, as a young criminal, was actually the one to murder Bruce Wayne’s parents. He’s also working for the mafia, as opposed to being a small-time criminal.

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Joker’s TV appearances continued throughout the early 2000s, with Mark Hamill voicing the character across a handful of animated projects, including Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm, and New Batman Adventures. He also appeared on the small screen in live-action in the prequel series Gotham. Here, he was played by Cameron Monaghan as a younger, mentally ill Joker.

One of the most critically and culturally praised Joker performances (and our favorite) came from Heath Ledger in the 2008 Christopher Nolan movie, The Dark Knight. This saw the Joker as a violent, playful psychopath and focused on his obsession with Batman. Ledger tragically passed away shortly after filming the project and won a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

After this, things took a downward turn. (…You know where we’re going with this.) In the DCEU’s Suicide Squad, the Joker was played by Jared Leto. This time, Joker was a modern-day gangster with tattoos and grillz. This performance was widely panned, and his upcoming appearances in the DCEU were quickly cut or toned down.

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The Joker was given his own titular movie in 2019, with Joaquin Phoenix in the leading role. The movie, which was intended to be a dark, gritty commentary on how society looks upon outsiders, was met with an overwhelmingly positive response and earned Phoenix an Oscar for Best Actor — making the Joker one of only three characters to have earned separate actors Academy Awards for playing the same role.

The most recent actor to take up the mantle is Barry Keoghan, who played the Joker in a cameo role (and in a deleted scene, which you can watch below) in 2022’s The Batman. We’re all expecting him to play the role in earnest when The Batman 2 comes around, and considering how much we loved the first movie (you can read all about that in our The Batman review), we have high expectations for their take.

So, what’s next for The Harlequin of Hate? Well, he’s set to appear in upcoming DC movies, with Phoenix returning to the role in Joker 2, and with Keoghan coming back, too. As for the distant future, we’d be willing to bet that there’s space for him beyond James Gunn’s Gods and Monsters slate, given his popularity and endurance. And besides, we don’t think the Joker is done with his beloved Batman just yet.

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That’s it for Joker! For more of the best DC has to offer, check out our guide on how to watch the DC movies in order, and see what else is out there with our list of the best superhero movies. We’ve also got a breakdown of all the best Batman actors so you can see who’s a worthy opponent.

For what’s to come, keep an eye on our guides to Aquaman 2 and Superman: Legacy. Finally, check out our features on why DC has doubled down in the wrong direction, and the five things we want to see from James Gunn’s DCU, and one we don’t.