A definitive take on a character is always a blessing and a curse. There’s no greater feeling than reading a comic, sitting in a movie theatre or even watching the small screen and thinking to yourself, “That’s it. That’s the core of a character that’s been around for decades, who has been shaped by numerous creative voices, who has been a hit top seller and a wash out, a compelling character and a joke, who has survived multiple wars and experienced shifting cultural attitudes and trends. That’s a character who can’t be defined and just has been.”
For superhero fans, this is our white whale, the moment we all long for. But it truly is a double edged sword – once a character has been defined to that memorable of a level, they become, rather unfortunately, chained to this one representation. Miller’s cultural critique take on Superman in the pages of THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS tainted the character for decades. Morrison’s meta-exploration using Animal Man turned the character into a one-note tune for years. And then of course, there’s the two characters who have probably seen the most varied interpretations since their creation (and survived them all), Batman and the Joker.
Specifically, I find myself thinking of Batman and the Joker’s relationship as hero and villain. In the Golden Age, of course, it couldn’t be more black and white – the Joker was evil to be punished, and Batman took that role with gusto (in fact, probably a little too over zealously – he made no qualms about practically attempting to murder the guy over his first handful of appearances). Modern readers cringe at Joker’s turn as merry prankster in the Silver Age, and hail his return as a psychopathic and inventive criminal bent on torturing Batman morally and emotionally under Denny O’Neil’s pen. The character went through many more changes yet, but it wasn’t until BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES that fans would see what can only be called a definitive take on the character.
With a giant yellow smile akin to the Blue Meanie, the Joker of B:TAS appeared to have crawled out of a playing card, his face more like a symbol appearing out the shadows than that of a real man’s. Mark Hamill’s performance of the character is so legendary I’m embarrassed to try to match the wonderful things said about his take over the years – a sadistic version of Frank Gorshin dripping with a bored sense of ’90’s disenchantment, this version of the Joker was a prankster and a killer, impossible to not root for, more likable than the man labeled the hero. Watch any Joker episode of the legendary ’90s animated series and you’ll find yourself begging for the Joker to win, or at least put a sock in that spoil sport Batman’s growly ‘it’s over, Jokerrrrrr.’
As well remembered as that portrayal of the character is, looking back, it’s rather surprising how little the series explored the unique relationship between Batman and his greatest rogue. In fact, this may sound sacrilegious, but the Joker episodes of that series are some of my least favourite. In episodes like THE FORGOTTEN or TWO-FACE, the series had a level of depth that rivaled the Dark Knight’s greatest comic adventures. Of the two Joker episodes I find worth watching – JOKER’S FAVOUR, HARLEQUINNADE or MAD LOVE – the stories are more about the effect evil has on other people. Aside from THE MAN WHO KILLED BATMAN, an incredible episode which explores Joker’s need for a Batman, there’s less exploration of the Batman/Joker dynamic than you’d imagine.
Then, of course, there was Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT, a film practically devoted to exploring the relationship between two strange, fragile men. As much as comics fans were hung up on Hamill’s take on the character, Heath Ledger’s performance had most of us asking ‘Mark who?‘ There’s no use documenting the Joker mania that swept fandom the moment the credits rolled on that night in 2008, but suffice to say, if you can tell me with a straight face that you weren’t living in that character’s voice for one whole summer, you’re a better actor than Ledger.
Except, where to go after Hamill and Ledger? In the often maligned animated series THE BATMAN, the writers, designers and voice artists took things in a very different direction indeed for the iconic character. A primal, shamanistic clown prince of crime, with a low rumble of a voice, many fans failed to recognize the Joker they knew. In the serialized team-up show BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, the producers initially promised their new and far less serious series wouldn’t feature the character at all. It’s easy to understand – after Ledger’s terrifying and unforgettable portrayal, suddenly a children’s animated cartoon seemed like the last place the Joker should show up.
But wait – that can’t be right. After all, the guy’s a clown – a pun-loving, purple zoot suit wearing prankster, with a hatred for Batman’s stuffy and morbid pretense, a lust for fun and adventure. Or at least, he was that thing at one time, even if Ledger made audiences collectively forget this version of the character. In ‘GAME OVER FOR OWLMAN!’, the creators behind BATMAN THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD would remind audiences just how powerful this version of the character is, and that it’s possible to tell a story exploring their relationship as deeply as THE DARK KNIGHT without being so relentlessly grim.
Batman returns from a dimension hopping adventure only to discover himself a wanted criminal – Owlman, a version of himself from an alternate Earth where the Justice League are the most feared group of villians in the world, their only threat the last remaining superhero and fighter for justice the Joker, has committed an endless series of crimes in Gotham City. With his friends thinking him a criminal and the world against him, Batman turns to the Joker for help.
There are several scenes that explore the two characters relationship in a pretty fascinating way. When the Joker first learns of Batman’s criminal exploits, he reacts with a sense of calm, an odd kind of disappointment. “Task, tsk. Our game was so simple–brooding hero, dashing devil-may care villain. I strap you to a drill press, you lock me in a rubber room. and it’s fits and giggles till Aunt Fannie comes home.” A crucial and seemingly obvious aspect of the character – to him, this whole thing really is a joke. Whether he treats human life without reverence or merely scoffs at Batman misplaying his part, I think it’s crucial to have the Joker apathetic to the value of existence. Of course, as with anybody claiming to be apathetic, there’s an element of control and narcissism there as well – the Joker needs to see the plot go a certain way, and when it doesn’t, he’s disconcerted that people have failed to follow his cues.
The other most memorable moment comes during Joker’s visit to the Batcave, where he sees various weapons, traps and devices he’s used in his battle against Batman over the years (fans will recognize them all from specific episodes of BATMAN ’66) – “an entire wing for moi? I knew you cared.” The Joker enters a dream-filled ecstasy upon proof of his and Batman’s need for each other, Batman clearly filled with resentment, even nervousness. What makes the team-up so interesting is that tension, Batman’s fear that the Joker is right and they’ll be dancing together till the end of time. In fact, at the episodes end, Batman tries desperately to convince himself of a possible good deep in the madman’s psyche. He doesn’t seem truly convinced. In fact, again, the Joker puts it rather aptly – “if you weren’t the stalwart hero and I wasn’t the homicidal maniac, we could have been friends.”
The Joker will always keep playing his part as long as Batman plays his, and that’s the chilling core of his character, whether wacky prankster, a sadistic murderer with multiple personality disorder to the extreme, a man bent on pointing out the hypocrisy of morality, or a warped and succinct cultivation of all of these many facets. The Joker reveals something terrifying to Batman, and to us – we created heroes, and we created villains. We decided, in our narratives, that you couldn’t have one without the other. That’s what’s makes their team-up in GAME OVER FOR OWLMAN! so compelling, and Joker’s closing words so heart wrenching – if we accepted the moral complexities of all our characters and selves, if we looked inside and saw the hero and the maniac that’s inside each of us, maybe we could be friends. And when another human being can make you question who you are and how you live your life, as the Joker does to Batman, it doesn’t matter if he has a scarred in smile, a Dick Sprang grin or Hamill’s cackling laugh – that core strength of the character, that spark that makes us question our humanity – that will shine through.