There are few characters as ubiquitous across all media as Batman. He’s appeared in almost a dozen movies at this point, not counting the direct-to-video animated movies. He has had several television shows, both live action and animated; in fact, he currently has both a live action and an animated show. He has appeared in a number of video games as a point-and-click detective, as a beat-em-up brawler, and as a conflicted billionaire with trust issues. As successful as various artists have been in translating Batman across mediums, they have been decidedly less so with the Joker. In fact, more and more I find myself asking the question: why can’t anyone get the Joker right anymore?
Let’s just look at this year. The year started with the highly anticipated Lego Batman movie, which was a fun romp as Batman learned an important lesson about family and friends. The Joker, portrayed by the always awesome Zach Galifianakis, is the villain of the movie and plots to free villains from various Lego worlds to help him take over Gotham. That’s all good, but his motivation is that he wants Batman to admit they have a connection. Early on, Batman laughs off the Joker’s suggestion that they are arch-enemies in a funny sequence, but the movie decides to make that the center of the Joker’s motivation. Worse, the Joker otherwise doesn’t act like the Joker. He doesn’t have a maniacal laugh, he doesn’t have any moments that make him feel dangerous. He just feels very needy. This is Sad Sack Joker. It literally feels like this is the Joker as played by Baskets, and it’s easily the least fun incarnation in any movie.
Of course, the most recent live-action movie depiction was Jared Leto’s romantic emo Joker, which was unique but hard to embrace. He wasn’t in much of the movie so it was difficult to gauge whether this Joker was violent and dangerous or just love-struck and misunderstood (please no!). Unfortunately, that Joker seems to have imprinted on the designers for Injustice 2, who bring the Joker back to life as a knife wielding rock musician with a weird gutteral laugh. He doesn’t look dangerous as much as misunderstood, and none of his intelligence or wit is anywhere to be seen. He’s just a giggling thug with a knife here, and he’s considerably less scary and interesting than almost any of the other characters in the game.
My least favorite Joker right now, though, has to be Telltale’s whiny, cloying Joker. This guy gets on my nerves. He has a great introduction in the series; he just shows up unexpectedly when your Bruce Wayne gets locked up in Arkham Asylum. He’s mysterious and without a backstory. He soon starts trying to buddy up to you and responds to your friendship with real need or your cold shoulder with hurt feelings. I couldn’t wait to get the hell away from him when I finally escaped from there. Needless to say, I was not happy to see him materialize in the sequel, still just as obsequious as he was before. Here he’s trying to earn your favor with some information and he’s still just annoying generally. Telltale tells a great story, but their Joker is the most irritating by far (so far, anyway).
I don’t know why it’s so hard to depict the Joker in an interesting way, but it seems to completely escape current game designers. Maybe Heath Ledger really did change everything and every depiction after him seems less worthy. More likely, Mark Hamill captured the character too memorably and no other depiction will top his for quite some time. I’m glad to see he’s still voicing the Joker on the current Justice League Action. He’s still got it. Now, if they could just do something about James Woods as Lex Luthor.