In fictional worlds of heroes and villains who can shrug off bullets like they were nothing, there exists “plot armor” for the lesser folk. Plot armor is the reason why Frank Castle can mosey through a room with an uzi in each hand and somehow kill every single enemy while somehow never getting shot in any vital area. It’s why Stormtroopers have the worst aim and why the red-shirted Enterprise dudes have all the bad luck.
I’m having a hard time coming up with someone with stronger plot armor in comic books than the Joker. Hell, even Frank Castle died at least twice in continuity. The Joker should be dead a million times over, not just due to his injuries, but because with all the lives he’s taken, surely somebody would have murdered him by now. But again, not only does he take vicious beatings, if he isn’t apprehended at the end of a story, he usually falls off a cliff or is at the heart of an explosion or gets hit by a truck.
Then he’s back the next time, no worse for the wear.
The Joker’s been revealed as a playable character for Injustice 2. This is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser because the entire story revolves around Joker being dead. Like, really dead. The previous game had another Joker visit from another reality, but he seems to be off the table this time around. So what is he? Another alternate universe Joker? A hallucination brought on by fear gas? A copycat? A clone? Did he simply come back from the dead?
But that’s what the Joker’s all about. While the comics won’t ever truly get rid of him, there are many continuities that have done away with Mr. J. Yet even then, the Joker is never really gone. He tends to haunt and taunt Batman in one way or another via his violent legacy. For someone with such an ill-defined identity, he sure is a fixture in the universe.
HONORABLE MENTION: TIM BURTON JOKER
Jack Nicholson’s Joker completely ate it at the end of Tim Burton’s Batman. He fell from a great height while dragged down by a gargoyle. We saw the body. Dude was absolutely dead.
And he stayed that way! After that first movie, the most mention Joker got in that universe was a brief allusion in Batman Forever when Batman told Robin that revenge leads to emptiness.
We almost got a bit more of him, though! Before Batman and Robin ruined the concept of fun and killed that franchise, Joel Schumacher was originally going to do a fifth movie in that universe. Batman Triumphant, which you can read more about here, would have revolved around Scarecrow and Harley Quinn as the new villains. Scarecrow means fear gas and that would have meant Batman getting a hallucination sequence.
What would Batman fear the most? Probably the skin-dyed dirtbag that killed his parents. And so, had the movie existed, we would have had a scene of Jack Nicholson Joker confronting Batman during a psychological breakdown.
The movie would have been a dumpster fire, but…man, part of me is bummed we never got it.
Similarly, an unused Superman vs. Batman script from the early ’00s would have included a plot point where Lex Luthor cloned the Joker to bring him back as part of a scheme to traumatize Bruce Wayne out of retirement and trick him into fighting Superman. Probably the most sense-making reason to connect Lex and Joker.
Sunsoft made Batman: The Video Game for NES and the story was the general plot of the movie, only with lots and lots of ninjas and robots added because Batman needs something to fight. The ending is roughly the same, though Batman’s a bit more cold-blooded. He beats the Joker down, tells him, “You killed my parents,” and then tosses him to his doom. We see Joker’s lifeless corpse and roll credits.
Then a year later, they released Batman: Return of the Joker. The Joker’s back with some scheme involving stealing explosive metals and…he’s back. He’s alive again. Somehow. Neither the game nor the manual have any explanation. Just go with it.
Upon further review, both the Genesis and arcade adaptations of the movie make it vague whether or not falling from the top of a cathedral is enough to take out the Joker, so maybe Jack Nicholson’s Joker is more resilient than anyone ever realized.
FRANK MILLER JOKER
Dark Knight Returns features one of the most chilling incarnations of the Joker, who comes out of a catatonic state the moment he finds out Batman’s back on the streets. Joker’s killing spree goes farther than the 1980s comic-reading public was used to and Batman ALMOST has it in him to kill the Joker for good. Since killing Joker is neither a horseshoe nor a hand grenade, Joker finishes the job by snapping his own neck and making it look like Batman’s finally gone over the line, thereby making him a prime target of the authorities.
Enduring one massive beating and a fake death (which people regard as “totally beat Superman in a fight” for some reason) later, Batman is fine.
Many years later, Frank Miller made his sequel Dark Knight Strikes Again, otherwise known as, “that mess.” In a story that focuses on Lex Luthor and Brainiac while including lots of DC heroes and Hal Jordan’s dinosaur space penis, the Joker appears a couple times as a looming threat. He kills the Creeper, Guardian, and even Martian Manhunter while bringing up the mystery of who he could possibly be.
Joker II shows up at the end of the comic as the final boss showdown. He is, in fact, Dick Grayson, whose only mention in the original story was not being on speaking terms with Bruce. As the story goes, Batman fired him for being an incompetent whiner once upon a time and rather than celebrate being free of the lunatic that is Miller Batman, Dick instead went a bit mad and allowed Luthor and Brainiac to give him shape-shifting/quick-healing powers.
Even though he’s capable of surviving decapitations and the like, Joker II is eventually done in by being knocked into some lava. Can’t heal if there’s nothing left of you.
Back in the late-90s, Alan Davis and Mark Farmer put together a three-issue Elseworlds story called The Nail. This “what if” tale shows how the DC Universe would have formed had Superman’s rocket not been discovered by the Kents. Without Superman as a symbol, metahumans aren’t exactly looked upon with love and astonishment. It’s more of an X-Men deal where the public’s mood is, “Thanks for saving the world…I guess.”
As part of the comic’s big villain conspiracy (and I won’t spoil who’s behind everything), the Joker is armed with a pair of gauntlets made from Kryptonian tech. They make him virtually unstoppable and he proceeds to liberate Arkham and then make the Bat-villains fight each other to the death for his amusement. Batman, Robin, and Batgirl appear and Alan Davis leans into things to finally answer the question, “What would it take for Batman to murder the Joker?”
The answer: have the Joker use his telekinetic gauntlets to slowly and painfully tear Robin and Batgirl to pieces while forcing Batman to watch. Jesus. Yeah. That’ll do it.
With some assistance from Catwoman, Batman’s able to free himself, damage the gauntlets and snap Joker’s neck. While the public display and selective context makes the Justice League look bad, nobody takes the incident harder than Batman himself. Both the graphic deaths of his sidekicks and the realization that he murdered a man sends him to the brink of sanity. It’s the comfort of Catwoman, who becomes Batwoman, that keeps him from falling apart.
Regardless, once the story is over, Batman gives himself up to the police. He’s acquitted of murder charges, but chooses to leave the Justice League.
Several years later, we get Another Nail, which basically exists to give upbeat closure to a story that had a bunch of downers. Batman continues to fight crime in Gotham, but he starts hearing the Joker’s laughter. Due to the convoluted plot of the miniseries, things are screwy with the afterlife and the Joker is able to escape Hell.
Threatening to kill Batwoman, Joker – who has Carnage-like powers – fights Batman. Batman attempts to sacrifice himself by tackling Joker back to Hell, but the spririts of Robin and Batgirl rescue him. Batman finally decides to get on with his life and rejoin the Justice League.
KINGDOM COME JOKER
The Joker’s death in Kingdom Come is a major turning point for society. After Joker murders Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, and a lot of other people at the Daily Planet, he’s apprehended by the police. We’ll never know how Superman would have instinctively dealt with his loss as new superhero hotness and Cable pastiche Magog stops by to vaporize the handcuffed Joker.
Magog is put on trial, everyone and their mother is pretty okay with the Joker being murdered in any way, and Superman leaves in a huff. This causes a new dawn of “superheroism” where it’s less about heroism and more about people in cool costumes getting into fights with no care for anything but themselves. You know, kind of like a Zack Snyder movie.
While the Joker doesn’t come back from the dead, he does inspire one troublemaker to become the new Joker’s Daughter (otherwise known as Harlequin). Although we never get much on her, as she’s mostly a recurring background character, she represents the chaotic world where the mighty can do what they want while the weak are left deal with the consequences.
It does remind me that one of the most clever moments in the whole comic is when Batman betrays Lex Luthor and admits to only joining up with him in the first place in order to see what Captain Marvel’s deal was. As he puts it, Captain Marvel is a wild card and if there’s anything Batman hates, it’s a wild card.
BATMAN BEYOND JOKER
Batman: The Animated Series is arguably better than sliced bread and its dark future Batman Beyond wasn’t bad either. Despite taking place years in the future, the writers were stingy on the details of what became of a lot of the old guard. While we got to see what became of Mr. Freeze and Bane, bigger deal characters like Robin and Joker were glazed over.
At most, during the show’s run, we saw that the Joker was replaced with an ever-changing circus-themed gang called the Jokerz. That was cool and all and fits into the nature of this list, but Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker went beyond just that.
In the dying days of the Animated Series era, the Joker kidnapped and tortured Tim Drake Robin. He warped the poor boy, made him squeal about Batman’s secret identity, and then transformed him into a giggling child version of the Joker. Depending on which version you watch, Tim would get his revenge by either shooting Joker in the chest or electrocuting him to death.
In the Beyond era, the Joker appears yet again, making the futuristic Batman Terry McGuiness question the many ways that’s possible. In the end, the Joker turns out to be Tim Drake, unknowingly taken over by a secret implant that transforms him into having the Joker’s DNA and personality. Terry is able to put an end to this Joker by frying the implant with an electric joy buzzer.
DIGITAL JUSTICE JOKER
Speaking of the future, there’s this Elseworlds taking place towards the end of the 21st century. While the Joker presumably died of old age, considering Batman retired, he lives on in the form of a sentient computer virus and…
For God’s sake, look at that thing. Actually, better idea, let’s not. Just…next entry.
RED RAIN JOKER
Throughout the ’90s, Doug Moench and Kelley Jones did a trilogy of Elseworlds stories based on the very simple high concept of Batman being a literal “bat man.” In the story Red Rain, Batman gets bitten by a vampire and fights Dracula. It’s pretty rad. Batman wins and Dracula’s dead for good.
A couple of years later, they do a sequel called Bloodstorm, which is based on the very human Joker leading Dracula’s horde for the sake of taking over the criminal underworld. Vampire Batman teams up with Selina Kyle, who also goes literal by being a werecat. Selena’s love is the only thing keeping Batman from going all-you-can-eat-buffet, so once Joker kills her with a crossbow, Batman has nothing left to keep him in check. Although part of him tries to fight it, he still powers through multiple crosses and holy water to snap Joker’s neck and feed on his blood.
Being that Batman is the smartest dude, he knows to shove a stake through Joker’s heart just in case because Vampire Joker is the last thing we need.
It’s moot, since not only has Batman killed his rival, but he’s given into his vampire instincts. He has his buds Alfred and Commissioner Gordon stake him to prevent any further benders.
Those two, unfortunately, never got around to removing his head, so despite being rendered immobile, Batman is still kicking. A few months later, Alfred removes the stake because Alfred is dumb as hell in this world. Not only does Batman have a taste for blood while being driven insane from months of his body rotting, but it’s implied a few times that ingesting Joker’s specific blood makes him even more out-of-control.
Yeah, things do NOT end well for any named character in that final chapter.
BATMAN 666 JOKER
During Grant Morrison’s lengthy run on Batman’s comics, he wrote a one-off story it Batman #666 that depicts Damian Wayne as a more ruthless Batman in the future who may or may not have sold his soul to the actual devil. There are two alternate follow-ups to this story. One of which has Damian adopt and raise Terry McGinnis, leading to a take on the Batman Beyond era.
Then there’s a path where everything goes wrong. The Joker has died and while we don’t know the details, we do know that the madman had his own failsafe. In his death, he releases a virus that transforms its victims into Joker-like monsters, like a clown version of 28 Days Later.
Damian Batman finds a baby who appears to be immune to the virus, but his attempts to use the child to create a cure leads to disaster when he discovers that the baby is merely a carrier. Overwhelmed by infected clown people, Damian watches in horror as Gotham is nuked to contain the outbreak.
I think I like the first future better.
In the Rocksteady Arkham trilogy, Joker suffers from injecting himself with Titan, otherwise known as Super Bane Juice II: Turbo. In the aftermath, he’s dying, so he figures he’ll inject his own poisoned blood into Batman’s veins to push Batman into finding a cure. I’m guessing Joker saw that episode of South Park where Cartman had AIDS and had a moment of inspiration.
Though Batman cures himself, Joker shivs him. Either because he thinks Batman’s going to leave him to die or because shivving seemed like a good idea at the moment. That makes Batman drop the antidote and Joker succumbs to illness and dies, laughing at Batman’s claim that he was totally about to give him the antidote after all.
Then in Arkham Knight, we discover that having Joker blood in your system plus breathing in Scarecrow’s fear toxin transforms you into superhero Fight Club. Joker appears in visions while Batman (and some other soon-to-be-dead saps who also have Joker blood) gradually becomes Joker-like in behavior and appearance.
Batman ultimately wins out by turning the two infections against each other and confronting Joker with his own fear: being dead and forgotten. Batman goes back to normal and gets back to his mission of handing Scarecrow a knuckle sandwich.
The Batman prequel series features Jerome Valeska, as played by Cameron Monaghan. Jerome is what I’d call the How I Met Your Mother of Jokers. He’s the Joker, but not really. Maybe. He could be. He might not be. He’s possibly a red herring. Or he can lead to the actual Joker. We’ll just have to wait and see to get an answer.
For all intents and purposes, he’s the Joker. Pretty much.
The charismatic psychopath and showman is killed off early in the second season during an attempt on the life of the adolescent Bruce Wayne. He gets stabbed in the neck by Theo Galavan in an act of betrayal, but dies with blood covering his lips as he smiles. Various people watch footage of Jerome on TV and go into giggling fits, including two guys who laughingly murder a homeless person, then turn on each other.
With that not being enough for viewers, they then go and bring Jerome back to life via televised comic book science. So maybe he’s the Joker after all! Or not. Again, How I Met Your Mother.
Coincidentally, Jerome’s father, a fortune teller, claimed that Jerome would leave behind a legacy of death and madness. Sounds about right.
The Injustice storyline is the aftermath of the Joker growing bored of messing with Batman and moving on to Superman. Using some kryptonite-laced fear gas, Joker gets Superman to hallucinate that a pregnant Lois Lane is Doomsday. Lois’ heart is linked to a detonator that nukes Metropolis upon her thrown-into-space death.
This especially puts Superman in a bad mood to the point that he appears before the captured Joker and impales him with his fist. Over the next five years, Superman doubles down on his decision and ultimately transforms into a frustrated dictator.
Over the years, as Superman’s hold on the world becomes more frightening, Jason Bard starts up a protest group invoking the Joker’s image. Superman doesn’t take this well and fries a whole lot of them in a fit of anger. Even then, the Joker Clan grows to become an anarchist underground counter to Superman’s regime. Even though Harley Quinn’s grown to despise the Joker and what he stood for, she chooses to become the leader.
Then a handful of superheroes from the regular DC Universe are brought in via portal. Inadvertently, Joker is one of them. He quickly takes over the Joker Clan and wins over the heart of Harley, undoing years of personal progress on her part. Eventually, that world’s Lex Luthor helps Harley break the spell and she not only beats the shit out of that Joker until he begs his world’s Batman to take him home, but her more loyal Joker Clan members rebranded themselves as the Harley Horde.
Even with that all cleaned up, we’re now about to get another appearance by the Joker. A Joker. What’s his deal?
Who’s to say? There are just so many options.
Gavin Jasper appreciates that Flashpoint Batman killed the Joker a couple hours before the world exploded. That’ll get you the last laugh. Follow Gavin on Twitter!
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