Home > Acting, Movies, Writing > Who Owns a Character? – Iconic Portrayals in the Batman Franchise

Who Owns a Character? – Iconic Portrayals in the Batman Franchise

We see it time and again, great movies succeeding based on great characters. A lot of times we even remember not so great films simply on the strength of a memorable character.

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones

Film franchises have been built entirely on a character. Who can forget when Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) premiered and introduced us to Indiana Jones? Each film after that became serialized and was introduced as Indiana Jones and the Insert Mythical Object Here. This isn’t to say the films don’t stand on their own, the success of The Mummy (1999) proves the Indiana Jones universe itself can engage an audience, but the films would not have been the same without Indy headlining.


Brendan Fraser takes on Arnold Vosloo in The Mummy Returns

But who owns these franchise characters? Not legally speaking, but artistically? Every character goes through so many hands to get to the screen, who has final ownership? Is it the writer? The director? The actor? While logical arguments can be made for all of the above, it’s hard to go against the actor. Their face is ultimately tied to their character and audiences the instant the film is released.

But even with that acknowledgement the answer isn’t that simple. While, so far, Indiana Jones has only been played by Harrison Ford, what about other iconic characters that have more than one actor? As a case study for this article, I thought we could look back at the many faces of The Joker of Batman fame.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight

If you were to ask most people right now who their favorite Joker is, I’d be willing to bet that more people would cite Heath Ledger than not. His brilliant portrayal of the sadistic madman in The Dark Knight (2008) shone a new and different light onto the character. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe, The Joker is a convincing, scary and frighteningly realistic psychopath.

Any cartoonish nature of the character was gone, and The Joker lived for once in our reality. Right now, the popular vote has to go to Heath Ledger.

But how much does the popular vote count for? Let’s not forget in 1989 the popular vote would have swung another way for another fantastic performance.

Jack Nicholson as The Joker from Batman

When Batman (1989) came out, it was in a dry spell for super hero movies. Nobody watched them and the genre had grown stale. So Warner Brothers hired a visionary impressionist director in Tim Burton to bring Gotham City to the big screen and he chose legendary actor Jack Nicholson to play his Joker.

Nicholson’s character lived in Burton’s fantasy world and wasn’t subject to normal laws and realities in the same way Ledger’s was. Nicholson was able to turn up the crazy while dialing down the realism. In other words: Nicholson’s Joker was completely off his rocker. Where it always felt there was more than meets they eye to Ledger’s Joker, Nicholson’s wore his plan on his sleeve. He was going to take over Gotham and kill everyone. No grander scheme. Simple. Crazy.

But his Joker wasn’t entirely original. Many of his comedic elements can be traced to yet another man’s portrayal of The Joker.

Cesar Romero as The Joker from the Batman TV Series

Who can forget the way that Cesar Romero played The Joker in the 1960’s Batman TV series? One of the first mainstream portrayals of the character, Romero made him much more of a comedian than villain. That’s how the universe was set up for the 60’s Batman franchise, however.

The campy, cheesy series was made that way entirely on purpose and succeeded because of it. The villains on the show had to have completely ludicrous schemes for the show to work. The more outlandish the scheme and character, the more fun it was for the viewer to watch. Romero took this ball and ran with it.

So, the nostalgia vote has to go to Cesar Romero. But there is still another vote we haven’t considered.


Mark Hamill as The Joker from Batman: The Animated Series

Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) can be credited with keeping the Batman franchise alive in the early 90’s. DC Comics did fantastic work parlaying that into Justice League (2001-2006) and other cartoon series. In those series can be found yet another iconic Joker performance: that of Mark Hamill.

Many people graduating right now grew up with Mark Hamill’s Joker moreso than Nicholson or Romero. Hamill was able to draw on both Jack Nicholson and Cesar Romero for his performance. However, thanks to the animated format, he didn’t have to worry about taking people out of the performance by being too over the top. Thanks to this, Hamill’s Joker may be the most delightfully over the top of all four. He gets the nerd vote.

But, in the end, which of these four performances is the definitive Joker? Which actor owns The Joker? Does the popular vote, the nostalgic vote, or the nerd vote count for the most?

There is a poll below for your vote, expand your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.


Categories: Acting, Movies, Writing
  1. February 8, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    The answer to this one is simple. Jerry Robinson created the Joker for Detective comics. Jerry still owns some of the original artwork, although much of it was destroyed in the print process. The copyright resides with DC Comics who Jerry worked for. When you work for a comics company or any other company who deals with the creative development of ideas you invariably have to sign a clause that passes your rights of creation over to the company. (Think of the recent Brats Vs Mattel Case where the creator of Brats dolls came up with the idea—allegedly—while working for Mattel and Mattel subsequently claimed ownership of the idea) Concepts and characters can be licensed or sold outright, like major league baseball players. So DC comics who now own the concept of the Joker can sell the rights, to movie companies for example.

    check out http://creativejuicings.blogspot.com/2010/11/jerry-robinson-legend.html

  2. zhogle
    February 15, 2011 at 2:36 am

    That’s true from the legal sense, but how about artistically?

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