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The Possible Inspirations For Joaquin Phoenix's Joker Makeup


The first image of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker is a gritty and menacing interpretation of the iconic villain, but where was the inspiration for his clown makeup derived from? The evolution of The Joker on the big screen has resulted in some wildly varied character designs and, with the villain a firm favorite of many DC fans, this has sometimes led to frustration within the Batman faithful.

Back in the mid-2000s, many Joker fans recoiled in horror at the news that romantic-comedy regular Heath Ledger would be portraying the Caped Crusader's arch nemesis. Any such doubts were swiftly put to bed when images of Ledger in costume began to surface and the actor went on to deliver a universally praised performance. While Ledger's Joker would always be an impossible act to follow, the reveal of Jared Leto's highly stylized version of the villain was met largely with derision and his fleeting appearance in Suicide Squad did little to alter those opinions.

Related: Joaquin Phoenix's Joker Reveal Is Incredible (& So Much Better Than Leto's)

Clearly, first impressions are very important when it comes to The Joker and after images of him sans clown makeup were revealed last week, it's now Joaquin Phoenix's turn to face fans' judgement. Directed by Todd Phillips, the Joker movie will be entirely separate to the DC Extended Universe, taking place in an alternate Gotham pre-Batman.

With unsettling smeared clown paint and green-tinged locks, Phoenix's Joker attracted a positive reception from fans on social media and took the character as far away from Leto's tattooed gangster as possible. Love or hate Phoenix's look, it's difficult to deny that the image leaves a lasting and menacing impression and, given the possible inspiration behind the clown makeup look, that perhaps shouldn't come as a surprise.

John Wayne Gacy

John Wayne Gacy was a notorious serial killer in Illinois during the 1970s who was ultimately convicted and executed for the murders of 33 young men and teenagers. Disturbingly, Gacy was known to work as a clown at children's parties, hospitals and charity events, going by the names "Pogo" or "Patches." Naturally, the media would dub him "The Killer Clown" after his arrest. Gacy designed and applied his own clown makeup and although many in the clown profession would, understandably, attempt to distance their business from the serial killer in the years to follow, several of them pointed out the while clowns tend to use rounded shapes in their makeup to avoid looking scary, Gacy opted for sharp demonic points, emphasizing the amateurish and sinister nature of his clown appearance.

While no one from Warner Bros. has come out and admitted that a serial killer provided the inspiration for their latest Joker design (and, frankly, none are likely to), the similarities are too abundant to ignore. The wide red mouth with pointed edges. The high, azure blue eye paint with a hint of black. While certainly not an outright imitation, it seems likely that Gacy's Pogo the Clown provided some level of inspiration to the appearance of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker.

Related: Is This Really Joaquin Phoenix's Finished Joker Look?

This rather clearly sets out the Joker movie's intentions. Phoenix has previously stated that his interest in playing the villain was in making a dark, low-budget character study and if this is indeed the direction the Joker movie is headed, basing the villain's makeup on a real-life serial killer is an effective way of highlighting that this Joker will be presented like the murderous criminal he is, rather than the kooky troublemaker other interpretations have opted for.

The Tramp/Hobo Clown

Those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the clown profession may not be aware that there are, in fact, several different types of clown performance. Although, somewhat characteristically, The Joker doesn't fit neatly into any of them, the villain does share much in common with the Tramp and Hobo types. Indeed, according to the ISCA (International Shrine Clown Association), a Tramp clown is recognized by his shaggy, unkempt appearance with red around the mouth to give an unshaven and burnt impression. Often seen with painted-on tears, Tramp clowns tend to wear ragged three-piece suits and the performer would usually use their own hair, ruffled up, instead of a wig. Tramp clowns have a sorrowful attitude and a resentment towards the world, while their Hobo counterparts look distinctly cheerier, characterized by a painted smile and more open eye shapes.

Generally speaking, the character of The Joker throughout his history has incorporated elements of both the Tramp and Hobo clowns, and Joaquin Phoenix's makeup also shares several consistencies with the descriptions provided. The blue teardrop and wide, red smile mix together elements of the Tramp and Hobo types of clown, while his suit and messy hair embolden the image of someone down on their luck and angry at the world around them.

Related: Joker's Gotham Subway Map Is Packed With Easter Eggs - Including Snyder and Nolan

Bearing in mind Joker will be an origin story, it perhaps makes sense that Phoenix's look would be similar to that of the Tramp. The Joker is typically known to be a purveyor of disorder and chaos; a rebel against social structures and norms and although he hints that some tragic event earlier in life made him that way, re-tellings and inconsistencies mean that fans can never be sure of the truth. In Joker, there's a strong possibility that viewers will see the villain's first sense of being dealt an unfair hand by the world and, just like the Tramp clown, the Joker is going to be angry at those he feels have wronged him.

Page 2 of 2: Connections Between Joker And Previous Batman Movies/Comics

The Possible Links To Previous Batman Movies

The first image of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker has more than a hint of Heath Ledger about it, from the unkempt hair and roughly applied makeup to the low lighting and homemade aesthetic. However, that isn't the only connection to Christopher Nolan's seminal The Dark Knight. In the 2008 movie's opening sequence, Ledger's Joker executes an armed bank robbery using hired goons in various clown masks and Phoenix's makeup shares many similarities with the mask worn by Ledger himself in this scene.

Although the colors of the mouth and eyes are inverted, both designs utilize the same red, white and blue palette, and sharing a large, red comedy nose. Ledger's mask also employs a high arched eyebrow which is another prominent feature of Phoenix's look. Interestingly, the mask from The Dark Knight was itself inspired by the 1960s Batman television series, in which Cesar Romero's Joker once donned a clown mask of his own as part of a cunning disguise. A neat nod to wider Bat-history.

Related: The Best Dark Knight Joker Origin Theory (And How It Improves The Movie)

The level of influence from The Dark Knight on Joaquin Phoenix's Joker is not subtle and the images released so far seem to send a clear message that the franchise is heading back to Nolan's approach of realism and suburban grit; a sentiment that wasn't lost on former DC Entertainment president, Diane Nelson. Although some might question the wisdom in sticking too close to Ledger's unbeatable performance in terms of tone and appearance, there's no doubt that Leto's Joker has failed to attract the same level of excitement and buzz as his predecessor and a return to territory that has been historically successful for The Joker in the modern era seems logical.

The Laughing Fish

Typically, The Joker of the DC comics isn't seen with the bright blue eye makeup that is so striking in Joaquin Phoenix's version of the character. However, there is a history of such a look in Batman lore, perhaps most notably in the Detective Comics 475/476 story "The Laughing Fish!" and "Sign of The Joker" which is frequently hailed as one of the best ever Joker tales and was partially adapted for Batman: The Animated Series.

The story sees The Joker embark on a ruthless killing spree while evading both Batman and Gotham police, as he attempts to copyright fish he has mutated to look like himself. DC 475's famous cover Joker resembles Joaquin Phoenix's look perhaps more than any other design in the comics, with his longer hair, blue shaded eyes and high arching brows. Naturally, this might indicate that The Laughing Fish/Sign of The Joker will provide some level of story inspiration for Joaquin Phoenix's movie. The fact that the Joker movie will reportedly include a Rupert Thorne-style character (a key figure in that comic) only strengthens this theory.

Theory: Joaquin Phoenix's Joker Is A Trump Version Of Batman

While it might be a stretch too far to expect lipstick-wearing carp or an appearance from Batman (although Thomas Wayne does have a role to play), the concept of The Joker attempting to get a business deal off the ground and murdering anyone who gets in his way is something that could work exceptionally well as an origin story for the character; an initially genuine entrepreneur, desperate to provide for his family, turned criminal by a constant series of harsh rejections and a seemingly unfair system.


Clearly, there's much more to come from Joaquin Phoenix's Joker and there's also no guarantee that his look won't evolve throughout the course of the movie. However, if first impressions are as important as recent Joker history suggests, Phoenix's incarnation of the character has made a very strong start and the sources of inspiration peeking through his makeup only make Joker even more of a tantalizing proposition.

More: Joker Origin Movie: Every Update You Need To Know

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