With Matt Reeves’ The Batman ready to stream on HBO Max this week, it feels like Bat-mania will continue for the time being (or until the next superhero film hits theaters). Included with its arrival is a deleted scene of Barry Keoghan’s blurred out Joker, teasing the Clown Prince of Gotham’s inevitable return. Balancing between being a prankster and a sadistic madman, depictions of The Dark Knight’s main rogue have ranged from Oscar-winning to widely panned. Yet, all of those versions owe some thanks to Jack Nicholson’s sinister transformation of The Joker in 1989's Batman.
In a video that was recently resurfaced by The Hollywood Reporter, Jack Nicholson explained how he went about forming his menacing version of the Joker in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Instead of going for a more comical rendition of the character as seen in the 1960s Batman series and movie, Nicholson saw the opportunity to change the superhero genre at the time.
“I was afraid because of my feel of the television series and the way movies tend to be done and talked about. I didn’t want this to go through the normal, ‘Let’s brighten it up for the kids,’” Nicholson says in the behind-the-scenes featurette. “I thought this was a very strong—in every way—transitional movie about the genre, and really why they wanted me in there.”
Within the same interview, Batman producer Peter Guber revealed that Nicholson’s connection to the film elevated its status far beyond than just a kid’s comic book flick in the industry.
“It changed the nature of the ‘comic’ framework into a film—from a movie into a film with the inclusion of Jack Nicholson,” Guber said. “There was something to be discovered there by the critics and by the media because they would find it intriguing that Jack wanted to do that.”
Nicholson also anticipated how kids would react to seeing villains on-screen. Going the route of “the scarier the better,” the 85-year-old actor decided to lean into terrifying the audience as a believable enemy of Batman. It made his bits of humor even more unsettling.
“My early experience in working for an audience full of children: the more you scare them, the more they like it,” said Nicholson with a smile. “The worse you are, the better, because that was my response to the Joker. This is a hateful occurrence, this man, if you looked at it literally. Every kid loves this guy, I believe.”
Whether you loved him or cried when his stretched smile came on-screen, Nicholson’s Joker remains a mainstay for all versions that came after, even the one’s who alight terror through their interesting costume choices.