Last year, actor Mark Hamill announced that the video game Batman: Arkham City would be his final performanceas the voice of The Joker. The game finally went on sale this week, and it looks like Hamill's sticking with his decision. Writing on Twitter today, Hamill bid a fond farewell to the legendary character he's been voicing for nearly 20 years.
In creating the voice of the Clown Prince of Crime on Batman: The Animated Series and a succession of other shows, games, animated films and even roller-coasters, Hamill defined the character for at least two generations of fans in the same way that his co-star Kevin Conroy defined Batman. Hamill performed the role longer and better than anyone else, and it's his version that I hear in my mind whenever I read The Joker in comics books.
Hamill, the star of Corvette Summer and a fairly obscure space fantasy series called Star Wars, wasn't actually the producers' first choice to play The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. The role was originally given to Rocky Horror Picture Show and Clue star Tim Curry, who recorded several episodes. According to producer Bruce Timm, Curry was unable to perform the voice as needed on account of his "violently coughing between takes. Hamill, meanwhile, was brought in to provide the voice of gangster Ferris Boyle in the Mr. Freeze episode "Heart of Ice." When Curry finally dropped out, Hamill was offered the role of The Joker, arguably the most prominent and important part on the show aside from Batman himself.
Obviously, Hamill did a truly incredible job with The Joker, making the character his in a way only the best voice actors can. His nuanced performance -- which included 19 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series plus spin-off movies, video games, and related shows like Superman: The Animated Series and Justice League -- went far beyond previous animated versions and surpassed even the live-action portrayals of The Joker by the legendary actors Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson. Seemingly influenced by Frank Gorshin's role as the Riddler on the 1960s Batman television series and feature film, Hamill's Joker danced seamlessly between manic laughter and sinister, homicidal menace -- sometimes even in the span of a single sentence.
Credit is certainly due to the writers and producers of the various Batman shows for embracing the humor in which The Joker was rooted and twisting it into something genuinely scary when necessary, but it's Hamill who sold those stories to the audience with a note-perfect portrayal every single time. He brought a sense of menace and unpredictability to the part even in humorous episodes like "Joker's Favor," in which The Joker hilariously bypasses the witness protection program by tracking an innocent man to Florida and threatening his family with death simply to get the poor guy to opena door all the way back Gotham City so that Harley Quinn can wheel a giant cake through it. By contrast, in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, Hamill's villain was as a force of evil so terrifying that the film -- which was part of a franchise already noted for its sophistication, darkness and appeal to older viewers -- had to be toned down before it was released.
You can watch "Joker's Favor" on DC Beyond, and the video below compiles some of Hamill's work from the animated feature Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which beautifully demonstrated the range and complexity Hamill brought to the role.
Mark Hamill owned the role of The Joker, and as sad as I am to see him leave it, I feel even worse for the person who gets picked next. Between Hamill and the late Academy Award-winning Heath Ledger, whose performance in The Dark Knight had to have been influenced by Hamill's definitive take, the next guy is looking at some pretty big shoes to fill.
But is Arkham City really the end? After all, at this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego, Hamill told an audience of fans that he's always wanted to record an audiobook version of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's Batman:The Killing Joke, the graphic novel that, like Hamill's own work, defined the character for generations. Judging by the deafening cheers with which that suggestion was met, I'm pretty sure it would be a hit. But even if that never happens, Mark Hamill's 19-year contribution to the world of Batman is more than enough to be proud of.
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