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The evolution of the Joker

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One of the most anticipated films of the year is Joker, a fresh take on a familiar cinematic icon. Joaquin Phoenix plays Arthur Fleck, a down-on-his-luck stand-up comedian who's pushed to the very limits by an uncaring society, until he transforms into the painted crime lord.

While director Todd Phillips' movie is a darker, more thoughtful interpretation of Batman’s arch-enemy, the DC Comics villain has enjoyed a rich history on screen. Whether a 1950s gangster, a cartoon prankster, a chaos theorist or a put-upon everyman, each generation has had its own Joker...

Cesar Romero (Batman, 1966)

Romero – who played the Joker in the Adam West TV series Batman, before reprising his portrayal in the 1966 movie spin-off of the same name – defined the character as a giggling yet sinister prince of mischief who came up with increasingly elaborate ways to ensnare Batman and Robin. While Romero's Joker wasn’t one for comic-book purists, it provided a gateway to darker and more intricate portrayals. It also added another chapter to the legacy of Romero, who made his name as a romantic lead in the 1930s.

Jack Nicholson (Batman, 1989)

Cesar Romero was not impressed by his successor’s performance in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster, decrying it as “so violent” and the film as “dreary”. However, everyone else was blown away. Burton’s film was a landmark; darker and richer than the superhero movies that had come before, it offered a more mature take on Batman for a mainstream audience who'd grown up on the 1960s TV show. Nicholson himself was a big part of that – layered in terrifying latex make-up and sporting a natty purple suit, he was a garish 1950s gangster who killed remorselessly, chuckling as he went. Thirty years on, the film's influence can be felt not just in the superhero genre, but in blockbusters as we know them.

• Why Joaquin Phoenix will bring us the definitive version of the Joker

Mark Hamill (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, 1993)

To Bat-fans, Mark Hamill is as synonymous with the Joker as he is with Luke Skywalker, having played the character for over 25 years in animated TV shows, computer games and theatrical release Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (Tim Curry recently claimed that he'd originally been cast in the latter, but was fired after getting bronchitis). With the role bringing out a theatricality in Hamill that hadn't been permitted in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, the actor infused a sinister edge into a show initially designed for young audiences, as well as some intelligence and humour.

Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight, 2008)

For a lot of fans, Ledger's portrayal is the benchmark by which all future Jokers, and all future superhero performances, must be set. Ironically, Ledger’s casting was met with some controversy at the time, with many failing to see how anyone could live up to Jack Nicholson’s portrayal. As it turned out, critics and fans alike were impressed by what the Australian star produced in Christopher Nolan’s sequel. A scarred enigma whose only passion was disassembling the order of society, Ledger’s Joker just wanted to watch the world burn. Ledger remains the only actor to win an Oscar for playing the role, collected posthumously due to his tragic death shortly before the film’s release.

• 8 actors who could totally kill it as the Joker

Jared Leto (Suicide Squad, 2016)

Riding high on the success of his Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, Leto’s time in the role was short (around ten minutes, to be precise) but impactful. He played a secondary villain in the irreverent DC adaptation Suicide Squad, appearing in flashbacks that explained Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) backstory, and interfering with the Squad at certain points (the most spectacular involving a helicopter escape). The look of Leto's joker – neon green hair, bling and tattoos – was not a hit with fans initially, but even Leto's harshest critics agree that the actor deserved more time in the role. Given that he's recently been cast as Marvel character Morbius, a reprisal looks very unlikely.

Zack Galifianakis (The Lego Batman Movie, 2017)

Granted, the Lego incarnation of the Joker may not have been the most revolutionary, but it did poke affectionate fun at certain aspects of Batman lore, such as the Joker’s plans never working out (“Batman will never see it coming,” the villain boasted of his new plan, before a skeptical hostage quipped: “Like that time with the parade and the Prince music?”). The film also explored Batman and the Joker’s need for each other – after all, what's a hero without a villain?

Joker arrives in Cineworld cinemas on 4th October.