Batman’s arch-nemesis has grinned through 80 years of diabolical schemes in the pages of DC Comics. But in recent years, he’s proved to be the top clown at the box office, too. The Harlequin of Hate has netted two Academy Awards for acting, and since 1989 the character has starred in four top-10 grossing movies of the year.
The Joker’s on-screen appearances are a significant part of his purple-gloved grip on popular culture. Unlike many other popular fiction characters, the Harlequin of Hate has change built-in. Audiences expect to see a change in every incarnation that comes to screen and every version has proved memorable in its own right. Jared Leto and Heath Ledger’s Jokers may be a world apart, but they’re undeniably Jokers.
There are several reasons for the Joker’s continuing popularity, one that rivals his crusading arch-enemy. Unlike Batman, the Joker doesn’t have a fixed or definitive origin. Ever enigmatic, the possibilities are endless.
Despite the range of interpretations, the Joker’s premise remains mysterious but simple. Like a good stand-up comedian, which the Joker may have been once, the audience has an expectation when the Joker walks onto the stage. A lot of that is context. After all, a clown in a circus could be funny, but a clown on your doorstep at midnight definitely isn’t.
The Joker was an instantly formidable foe for the Dark Knight from his first appearance in April 1940. A criminal mastermind, brilliant chemical scientist, and pathological serial killer, he even bested Batman in a one-on-one fight. Since then, he’s been continually revised, providing a wide range of inspiration for movies to draw on.
But his core simplicity, mystery, and a lack of baggage masks a string of complications that has ensured his lasting popularity. Here are thirteen of the Ace of Knaves’ greatest quotes.
The Best Joker Quotes
“Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?” – Joker (2019)
The Joker film let the Clown Prince of Crime shine on his own. Arthur Fleck’s disintegration is harrowing, like a Greek tragedy we know where it’s going – but it’s seeing how that fall happens which matters. Joker caught lightning in a bottle. After years of mystery, digging into a very specific Joker’s origin is acutely scary. When Fleck says these words, we know it’s a little bit of both. One thing Joaquin Phoenix’s incarnation of the character has in common with others is that he’s an unreliable witness.
“I believe whatever doesn’t kill you simply makes you stranger.” – The Dark Knight (2008)
Reducing the Joker’s brand of humor to one-liners and constant puns is impossible in the modern age. Here has to be something more, and The Dark Knight did that brilliantly. Heath Ledger’s Joker wasn’t just the contrast of clown and crime, but a force of anarchy, subverting philosophy as he went.
“I hope my death makes more cents than my life.” – Joker (2019)
Joker drew on several inspirations. They included Alan Moore’s legendary 1988 one-shot The Killing Joke, which gave the Joker a tragic backstory as a failing stand-up comic unwittingly drawn to crime. Joker picked up on the stand-up roots for some self-commentary.
“All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy.” – The Killing Joke (2016)
The animated adaptation of The Killing Joke didn’t do justice to the original one-shot comic. But it did provide another chance for Mark Hamill’s Joker to take on Kevin Conron’s Batman after Batman: The Animated Series, with these two definitive performances of the characters, this line is one thing they got right. It was a perfect mix of the Joker’s mix of comedy and tragedy.
“Can you introduce me as Joker?” – Joker (2019)
A pivotal moment shortly after the Joker’s transformation, as Fleck returns to Murray Franklin’s chat show. We know the vast difference between the insignificant request Murray humors and what it really means.
“Wait ‘til they get a load of me.” – Batman (1989)
The idea that Batman’s emergence was responsible for the rise in Gotham’s theatrical criminals has been explored a lot in the character’s later history. That rivalry was at the heart of Tim Burton’s Batman and Jack Nicholson’s performance.
”Do I look like the kind of clown that can start a movement?” – Joker (2019)
At 80-years young, the Joker remains responsive to changing times. Joker may have been set in an atmospheric 1981, but Joaquin Phoenix’s version was very much a 21st-century character, drawing upon the Occupy movement, in an age of QAnon and Wikileaks.
“Where does he get those wonderful toys?” – Batman (1989)
Whether insane or super sane (as the comics have sometimes suggested), the Joker is a fiendishly intelligent opponent. His chemical genius is nodded to in the 1989 film, as his Smylex serum Jokerizes victims across Gotham. But as his occupation of Gotham Museum showed, the best laid, Prince-backed plans, can always go wrong when he’s up against Bruce Wayne’s defensive arsenal.
“Oh, I’m not gonna kill you… I’m just gonna hurt you really, really bad.” – Suicide Squad (2016)
It’s no wonder this Joker quote made it into the trailer for the ensemble film. Jared Leto’s Joker divided fans and suffered in the DC Extended Universe’s world-building. But Suicide Squad was the first live-action film to bring us Joker and Harley Quinn’s relationship, and the sequences that show their early days are mesmerising.
“I used to think my life was a tragedy…” – Joker (2019)
Joker lets us into the Joker’s journey more than any other film, and brilliantly gets away with it after The Dark Knight played on his mystery and anonymity. Flecks’ unreliable self-reflection is uncomfortable and challenging, but it’s Joker’s dawning sense of purpose that drives the film.
“A joke a day keeps the gloom away!” – Batman: The Movie (1966)
Cesar Romero’s larger-than-life performance in the famously flamboyant 60s television show was the first live-action Joker. He remains one with the most screen time, too. His more comedic take is very different from recent darker transformations. The performance without prosthetics, Romero famously refused to even shave off his moustache, does create an interesting parrallel to Joaquin Phoenix’s version. Also nice to see a Joker who’s not afraid to get stuck into a scrap, even if he wasn’t particularly good at it. Thwapp!
“You ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” – Batman (1989)
It was a mistake to tie the Joker into Batman’s origin, as poetic as it seemed. Most of all, it robbed Batman of his motivation in his first blockbuster movie. Fortunately, the line that provides the compelling link between the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents and the Joker Batman helped create is a great one.
“Why so serious?” – The Dark Knight (2008)
It’s a simple question, but it’s the ultimate line for Batman’s ultimate antagonist. Introducing a little anarchy, Heath Ledger’s Joker was an unpredictable force for chaos. Emerging from nowhere, asking questions, talking a lot but giving nothing away.