The Joker on Film: Jack Nicholson (BATMAN '89)
Author: Bill "Jett" Ramey (Follow: @BATMANONFILM)
May 26, 2015

PREVIOUS: Cesar Romero's Joker in BATMAN (1966)


Jack Nicholson
BATMAN (1989)

In the 1989 live-action theatrical film BATMAN, The Joker was portrayed by the legendary actor Jack Nicholson.

The Joker in BATMAN was heavily influenced by the character’s depiction in the 1970s Batman comics – in particular The Joker in DETECTIVE COMCIS during the creative run by writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers.

While Batman’s origin was not detailed in the film, The Joker’s was. This is one of the very few times in the history of the character that The Joker's identity and pre-Joker life was revealed.


"The Laughing Fish" from DETECTIVE COMICS #475 (February 1978/Cover by Marshall Rogers)

In this incarnation, the Joker was once a high ranking member of the Gotham mafia named Jack Napier who served as consigliere to Boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). When Grissom discovered that Napier was having an affair with his girlfriend Alicia (Jerry Hall), Grissom ordered Napier to be murdered under the pretense of carrying out a job for his boss at Axis Chemicals. However, the plan was disrupted when Batman (Michael Keaton) intervened. After a shootout between the police and Napier, Batman confronted the mobster leading to Napier falling in a vat of green chemicals. Upon emerging from Axis Chemicals’ waste water, Napier discovered his hair had turned green and his skin bleached white. Taking on the name “The Joker,” Napier shoots and kills Grissom and takes over as the mafia family’s boss.


Michael Keaton as Batman vs. Jack Nicholson as The Joker in BATMAN (1989)

Not only was The Joker’s pre-Joker identity and backstory revealed, there was yet another twist in BATMAN ’89 that altered one of the most iconic moments in Batman history. Right before the film’s grand finale – a showdown between Batman and The Joker in a towering Gotham cathedral – Bruce Wayne figures out that the murderer of his parents was none other than a young Jack Napier. This goes against Batman comic book canon in which a mugger named Joe Chill is responsible for shooting Thomas and Martha Wayne.

At the end of BATMAN, Batman repeatedly beats The Joker and ends up knocking him off the cathedral’s balcony. However, The Joker reaches up and pulls both Batman and Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) over the railing; leaving them hanging off a narrow ledge. When The Joker's helicopter arrives to save him, Batman used his grappling gun to tie The Joker's leg to a one of the cathedral’s gargoyles. Unable to break free from the gargoyle, The Joker lost his grip on the helicopter's rope as it pulls away, causing The Joker to fall to his death.

In BATMAN TRIUMPHANT - the planned, but ultimately canceled sequel to 1997's BATMAN AND ROBIN - it was planned forJack Nicholson was to resprised his role as The Joker. The Joker would appear in Batman's hallucinations caused by The Scarecrow's fear toxin.

NEXT: Heath Ledger's Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT (2008)


BATMAN ON FILM, © 1998-present William E. Ramey. All rights reserved.
BATMAN AND ALL RELATED CHARACTERS AND ELEMENTS ARE TRADEMARKS OF AND © DC COMICS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Read BOF's PRIVACY POLICY.