Editor’s Note: This year, the iconic Batman: The Animated Series turns 30 years old. “Return to Gotham” is a monthly column looking back at the cartoon that remains a touchstone of the superhero genre and one of the most iconic portrayals of The Dark Knight.
Of all the things about Batman: The Animated Series you might point to as being either well-executed or highly influential in later portrayals of Batman’s world, I humbly argue this: Mark Hamill’s Joker is emblematic of the show at its absolute best. Hamill, who continues to voice the character in any number of other productions, including the wildly popular Batman: Arkham videogame series, is simply the Joker in the minds of a generation, in the same way Kevin Conroy is vengeance, the night, and Batman. I can’t be the only one who picks up a comic book and, when I read Joker’s speech bubbles, hear them in Hamill’s unhinged tone.
The character ranks among some of the most twisted villains in fictional history, rooted in disturbing Expressionist imagery from the turn of the century, and a profound sense of tragedy that’s been explored in depth by Alan Moore and Scott Snyder and every artist in between them. As the Joker’s forebear Gwynplaine cries through his permanent rictus grin: A king made him a clown and a queen made him a lord, but before that, God made him a man. The most interesting portrayals of the character get at that desperate anger at being wronged by forces beyond our control, and so it’s somewhat surprising that, in looking back at the Joker’s catalog of episodes in Batman: The Animated Series and all the shows that share its continuity, the lead writers really didn’t take that direction with him. And Mark Hamill’s portrayal is really key to why that still worked so well.
In the director’s commentary of the Mr. Freeze-centric episode “Heart of Ice,” the show’s creators revealed that Hamill, who voiced a minor villain in the episode, came to them lobbying hard to voice any villains. It’s worth it to remind people that this is the same Mark Hamill who is Luke Skywalker, less than a decade removed from that role while he was beginning production on the show in 1990. Hamill has popped up in things here and there over the years, many times poking fun at his iconic Jedi character, but he’s rarely taken a central role in anything big until Star Wars again came a-knocking in the 2010s. It’s fascinating to compare the two, really: Even after his heroic transformation from cocky flyboy to cyborg samurai wizard, he’s not too complicated a dude.
That the Joker almost immediately eclipsed that earlier role is fascinating both because this is Star Wars we’re talking about here, and because it’s the exact opposite of that earlier, iconic role. The show does, eventually, portray a brief glimpse of the Joker’s origin. In this version, he is Jack Napier, a mob hitman who at some point took a bath in chemicals and emerged as the Clown Prince of Crime. We are not meant to feel sorry for the guy, nor meant to regard him as the victim of circumstance. He really is just fucking evil, a sadistic creep even before his accident. A big reveal in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is that the Joker was the kind of button man who would kill your father and then smile in your face when you came home to discover his body.
I’m often forced to reach past B:TAS to other shows in the continuity for examples, and in this case the direct-to-video Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker encapsulates the real heights of his evil the best. For you see, in this version of the mythos, Batman—whose one rule is not to kill—actually fails in that endeavor. In a very real way, Joker actually wins in this version of the story.
In a flashback to the night Joker died, we learn that the Joker abducts Tim Drake (Batman’s younger Robin), and subjects him to horrific torture and mind control over a period of weeks. Drake is transformed into a grotesque and deranged miniature version of Joker, one who spilled all of Bruce Wayne’s secrets during his torment. With Batman down for the count, Hamill delivers one of the most chilling line readings of his career here, all mirth and merriment gone from the Joker’s voice. The last thing Batman will hear, he says, is the sound of their laughter.
There are two versions of the film, one edited for TV and the other, far grimmer unedited cut. In this latter one, the one available on HBO Max right now, the bewitched Drake snaps out of it long enough to just gun the Joker down. The Joker has one pathetic moment after knowing he’s been shot and then just dies. The clown is gone and Batman lives, but at horrific cost to his family. It’s heavily implied that this was the incident that ultimately broke up their team, and led to Batman operating as the lone, overmatched senior citizen who renounces his duty in the first scene of Batman Beyond. It’s the Joker’s ultimate victory.
That’s the Joker at his absolute most grotesquely heinous in the continuity of B:TAS. But I argue that the episode that best encapsulates him is actually one that shows him at his most petty.
Collins: This is how it ends, Joker. No big schemes. No grand fight to the finish with the Dark Knight. Tomorrow, all the papers will say is that the great Joker was found blown to bits in an alley alongside a miserable little nobody. Kinda funny, ironic really! See, I can destroy a man’s dreams too. And that’s really the only dream you’ve got, isn’t it?
In “Joker’s Favor,” Charles Collins (prolific character actor Ed Begley Jr.) is one of the regular joes whose thankless jobs keep Gotham running. Stuck in a frustrating commute after a deflating day at work and on the way home to his ho-hum life, he loses his cool at a fellow commuter. The driver just so happens to be the Joker, who is none too happy with Collins. He offers Collins a deal: Do the Joker a favor, and he’ll spare the man. When we join Collins again in a few years, we find that he’s gone into witness protection to get away from the Joker’s constant threats and torment, but it hasn’t worked: The Joker gleefully calls in his favor.
Collins returns to Gotham, finding that he’s supposed to help the Joker and Harley Quinn wheel in a big cake to a dinner in honor of Commissioner Gordon. It’s a setup: Joker has rigged the cake to blow and ensured Collins can’t escape the blast. When Batman does finally show up in the episode, it’s almost perfunctory, and the show needs to shove in a somewhat contrived action sequence just to make sure we’ve got some capes and punches. It’s not remotely the point of the episode, because, like so many episodes of this show, Batman isn’t actually the protagonist. In this case, Collins is.
As the Joker prepares to slip out, he encounters Collins, freed, and with a bomb. There won’t be any escaping this time, Collins rants at him, no more threats to his family. Collins is a nobody, and the most vindictive thing he can do to the Joker is rob him of whatever glory he might glean from an epic showdown with Batman. That, Collins realizes, is what the Joker fears.
Hamill’s performance in just this one scene could be a highlight reel for the character. He’s dismissive as the scene begins, enraged as Collins asserts himself, and then after the reveal of the bomb, he manages to sound terrified while still delivering crackerjack comedic timing. All of it reinforces this version of the Joker that Hamill and the show’s creators and voice director Andrea Romano so painstakingly created.
Hamill’s Joker doesn’t just kill people because he thinks it’s funny—that could honestly describe several of Batman’s villains. He doesn’t just want to stage elaborate spectacles of death and mass destruction: Ra’s al Ghul lives for that kind of grandiose nonsense, and he’s a villain with whom Joker shares basically no commonalities. Hamill’s Joker does what he does because he is, at base, pointlessly and reflexively cruel in ways entirely familiar to folks like you and me. Anybody who has suffered at the hands of an omnipresent school bully, a shitty boss, an asshole customer, or an abusive romantic partner will recognize the Joker’s numerous toxicities immediately.
Hamill’s performance was informed by an understanding of all of these deranged motivations, such that he could play a scene like the one above with different nuance in every single line in the span of less than two minutes. His performance, and the way he bounces off a one-shot character who never shows up again, are so good that you find yourself almost annoyed that the show takes a detour to have Batman run around to do an action scene.
There are all sorts of arguments for whether Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger or Cesar Romero are the best Joker, depending on how you want to judge it. But 30 years on, Mark Hamill’s Joker, I argue, is the most Joker, not just by sheer virtue of quantity but of depth. In a show that many regard as the best iteration of Batman, nothing less than the best iteration of the Joker would do.
Tune in next month, as Return to Gotham celebrates Harley Quinn, who The Animated Series invented and who has since become one of the most iconic and enduring Batman characters.
Kenneth Lowe has had a busy day! All this running around, all this excitement with BATMAAAAN!!!! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.
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