There is no rivalry in fiction more compelling than Batman and the Joker. A story that’s been escalating in intensity and complexity almost without fail for nearly 80 years, Batman and the Joker have come to define each other in ways that even their creators couldn’t have imagined. They’ve become opposing elemental forces, agents of order and chaos.
Through countless iterations, both in comics and in movies and television, the details are constantly changing, but the core tenets of their violent, perverted relationship always remain essentially the same: the Joker wants to tear it all down, and Batman is the only one who can stop him, no matter the cost. These are the 15 Essential Comics, TV Episodes, And Movies Featuring Batman And The Joker.
15 Batman #1
It’s genuinely impressive how much of the Joker as we know him arrived fully formed. The creative team of Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson conjured a nemesis that, even in this early iteration, seemed a little more dangerous than most of the baddies Batman faced.
In his very first appearance in the inaugural issue of Batman, the Clown Prince of Crime arrives in a form that is remarkably familiar to modern audiences: a chaotic, unpredictable criminal outsider who hatches elaborate schemes in an effort to steal and murder. He incurs nearly as much wrath from the more conventional mob underworld as he does the law.
If this sounds more than a little like Heath Ledger’s version of the character, that’s not a coincidence; Christopher Nolan has often remarked this initial appearance was a tremendous influence on The Dark Knight. The Joker would prove to be one of comics’ more malleable iconic characters, but the fundamentals were there from the very start.
14 Mad Love
Mad Love, created by Batman royalty Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, is ostensibly the origin story of the Joker’s long suffering henchwoman/girlfriend, Harley Quinn… and yet it ends up saying nearly as much about the relationship between Batman and the Joker as it does about her.
While working as a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, Harleen Quinzel believes the Joker to be a victim of an abusive childhood whose anger is exacerbated by Batman. She eventually learns to despise the Caped Crusader and love the Joker. This is, of course, absolute nonsense; the Joker made up the child abuse accusations to turn Harley to his side and get him out of Arkham.
Perhaps most tellingly, Harley takes it upon herself to carry out one of the Joker’s many schemes to kill Batman, and with surprising effectiveness. But to her shock, the Joker is enraged that she would dare try to kill Batman herself; it's a goal that means nothing if it’s not achieved by his own hand. It’s a cold realization for Harley that her love for the Joker can never be a match for the intense, very mixed emotions the Joker harbors for Batman.
13 The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge
Despite the surprisingly dark debut he enjoyed in his initial appearance, the Joker had become one of many victims of changing standards in the '50s and '60s. The Batman comics as a whole had become much lighter and sillier, dealing with increasingly goofy, larger than life plots with aliens and time travel. The Joker had largely become an irritant; a prankster who brandished very little menace.
That began to change in the '70s during the landmark run by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams on the main Batman title. “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” found the Clown Prince newly escaped from prison, methodically hunting down and murdering his former gang, one of whom he believed had betrayed him. Batman undertakes a desperate, exhaustive effort to save the gang members, none of whom harbor any love for Batman themselves.
It’s a dark, unflinching story that reset the parameters of the relationship between Batman and the Joker, and would set the tone for some of the pair’s most legendary encounters.
12 The Lego Batman Movie
There is a fundamental truth to the relationship between Batman and the Joker: it has always meant more to the Joker. Batman would be more than happy to not have to deal with a homicidal clown all the time, but the Joker’s world doesn’t really make sense to him without Batman. No story has made that plainer than the stunning, miraculous fanboy dreamsicle that is The Lego Batman Movie.
Batman’s refusal to acknowledge the Joker as his greatest nemesis so deeply wounds the clown that he orchestrates a plan to conquer Gotham City which involves breaking Lord Voldemort, Sauron, and the Daleks out of the Phantom Zone, and hinges almost entirely on Batman’s unchecked hubris (seriously, go see The Lego Batman Movie if you haven’t). This calamity could probably have been prevented if Batman could only bring himself to say the three words the Joker’s been waiting years to hear: “I hate you.”
11 Death Has The Last Laugh
Batman’s relationship with the Joker has taken some very strange turns over the years. Occasionally, it’s taken several strange turns in a single issue. One of the more notable examples of this is from the long running DC team up book, The Brave and the Bold. The Joker appears to have murdered an entire family for the flimsiest of reasons, sending Batman into an absolute rage as he vows to end the clown’s rampage once and for all. As he investigates the crime, however, he begins to believe the Joker is innocent of this particular crime. The pair form an uneasy alliance in pursuit of a mobster named Slade (no, not that one) who Batman believes is the real killer.
It’s downright bizarre to see Batman and the Joker, if not exactly as allies, then cooperating and working toward the same goal. Of course it all ends up being an elaborate scheme orchestrated by the Joker to kill Batman in his trademark convoluted fashion, but to see Batman vacillate in such emotionally extreme ways shows the power the Joker holds over him, even if he’d rather not admit it.
10 Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker
Batman Beyond, the story of Terry McGinnis, who takes up the mantle of the Bat in the near future with the assistance of an elderly Bruce Wayne, is one of DC animation’s greatest and most unlikely successes. It opened up the mythos of Batman’s world in new and fascinating ways. During its initial run, however, the exact fate of the Joker was left decidedly ambiguous. The answer to that open question would come in the direct-to-video film Return of the Joker.
Much to everyone’s horror, the Joker reemerges, seemingly in his physical prime, to take on Terry McGinnis’ version of Batman. In his investigation of how this could be possible, Barbara Gordon tells Terry the story of the final conflict between Bruce’s Batman and the clown. Having kidnapped Tim Drake (Robin in the later seasons of Batman: The Animated Series), the Joker both physically and mentally tortures the boy, making him into his own, brainwashed protégé. This would lead to one final, brutal confrontation between the pair, which left the Joker seemingly dead and Tim emotionally scarred for life.
The Joker still had a few surprises left though, tormenting Batman long after his apparent demise.
9 The Dark Knight Returns
A seminal achievement in comics, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is rightly hailed as a masterwork. The story of a middle-aged Batman coming out of retirement is many things to many people: a revitalization of the mythos, a decidedly darker tonal shift, a definitive voice of the Dark Knight, even a canny political statement. These days it’s likely that people remember the book’s final battle between Batman and Superman more than any other aspect, but its portrayal of Joker was just as iconic.
Batman’s return rouses the Joker from years spent in a catatonic state in Arkham Asylum, where he manipulates his fame-hungry caretakers into booking him on a television talk show. He proceeds to murder everyone in the studio audience and escapes to a nearby county fair, where he begins picking off more innocents. Batman manages to violently subdue him, but with the police closing in, the Joker decides to snap his own neck, framing Batman for his murder. It’s a final, perverted gift that neatly defines their nightmarish relationship.
8 The Laughing Fish
If there’s a prototypical Batman/Joker story, it might be the Batman: The Animated Series episode “The Laughing Fish.” A composite of several classic Batman comics, the episode begins with a group of fishermen finding a horrific batch of fish bearing the Joker’s signature grin and green gills. Soon after, the Joker accosts a patent clerk who tells him he cannot trademark fish, as they’re a natural resource. Enraged, the Joker threatens the man unless he approves his request. Batman acknowledges the Joker has made his move and plots a way to stop him.
It’s a classic setup: the Joker carries out a plan that seems absolutely nonsensical to the public and the police, and yet Batman slowly pieces it all together. You can spin it as Batman simply being the World's Greatest Dectective, or maybe, after all these years, he’s starting to speak the same bizarre language as the Clown Prince of Crime.
7 Batman (1989)
While Batman was enjoying something of a renaissance in the comics by the '80s, the general public still perceived him as, essentially, Adam West, dancing the Batusi with his Bat-shark repellant. That all changed with Tim Burton’s blockbuster Batman. Marrying the recent darker comics with Burton’s own visual flair and taste for the weird, Michael Keaton played Batman with a cold intensity that fit the character like a glove.
Perhaps an even bigger draw was Jack Nicholson’s version of the Joker, reimagined here as a sadistic veteran mobster named Jack Napier who falls into a vat of chemicals during his first encounter with Batman, bleaching his skin and driving him insane.
One of the most controversial aspects of this iteration of the story involves how the Joker is woven into Batman’s past in an incredibly important way: it turns out he killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. This obviously makes this particular version of their relationship decidedly more emotionally charged, and there are several good arguments that it wasn’t really a necessary change to the mythos. What can’t be denied is the antagonistic chemistry between Keaton and Nicholson, which keeps the movie glued together from start to finish.
6 The Man Who Killed Batman
When people think of the elemental battle between two forces of nature like Batman and the Joker, they probably don’t think of Sid the Squid too often. An incredibly low-level crook in Gotham, Sidney is just trying to make an indecent living when he runs afoul of Batman. The clumsy Sidney ends up needing saved by Batman, but an explosion makes it appear as if Sidney has carried out the dream of every mobster: he killed Batman.
An incredulous Joker hears of this and kidnaps Sidney. He orchestrates a bank robbery to smoke out Batman, who he is positive is still alive. The look of absolute despair on the Joker’s face when Batman doesn’t show up, seemingly really dead, is maybe the closest we ever get to genuinely feeling sorry for the Joker. The idea that Batman could be ended by such a pedestrian criminal deeply offends him, and he attempts to kill Sidney for the offense.
Batman, of course, is not dead, and ends up saving the witless Sidney yet again. It’s yet another instance where we see, in a demented way, how much Batman means to the Joker.
5 The Clown At Midnight
Grant Morrison is one of the most singular minds the world of comic books has ever seen, and his mid-'00s run on Batman is rightly hailed as a dense, complicated work of genius. Not only was Morrison looking to expand the Dark Knight’s world in the wake of a particularly grim and gritty, street level era for the character, he was playing with basic form as well. One of his greatest achievements was The Clown At Midnight, a prose story that told a graphic, horror-tinged story of the Joker recuperating from a gruesome injury and simultaneously shedding his previous persona like a snake shedding skin.
Morrison has long held to the idea that the Joker is a constantly evolving monster, regenerating into a new version of himself in response to his circumstances and his era, like some horror movie version of Doctor Who. The Clown At Midnight sees the birth of a particularly unsettling version of the Joker, with a plastered grin and an especially pointed taste for gory violence. It’s the most nightmarish iteration of the Joker to date, which is saying something.
4 Mask of the Phantasm
When non-nerds ask their nerd friends what the best Batman movie is, they’re almost certainly expecting to hear them say The Dark Knight, but chances are at least a few of them are going to respond with Mask of the Phantasm. Produced by the creators of Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm had an extremely limited theatrical run, but has become one of the most beloved pieces of Batman fiction of all time. A mysterious masked vigilante begins executing a group of elderly mobsters, and in his effort to thwart the killer, Batman has to grapple with a chapter from his past that revolves around his lost love, Andrea Beaumont.
This might seem like an odd choice for inclusion in a list about the relationship between Batman and the Joker. Indeed, the Joker doesn’t figure into the story until relatively late in the game. However, when the Joker’s ultimate role in the mystery is revealed, one can’t help but acknowledge the ominous feeling that Batman and the Joker’s fates are linked in ways they can’t even really comprehend. When the Joker ultimately disappears, cackling in a puff of smoke, it feels like he’s absconding with a tiny piece of Batman’s soul.
3 A Death in the Family
One of the eternal moral questions surrounding Batman and the Joker inevitably boils down to this: with all the horrors the Joker has committed, and promises to continue committing, why doesn’t Batman break his rule just this once and kill him? Never was Batman’s moral code tested more severely than in A Death in the Family.
During a plot involving selling nuclear weapons to terrorists, the Joker brutally beats Jason Todd, the second Robin, with a crowbar, leaving him in a warehouse rigged to explode. Batman is unable to save him in time, and Jason dies. In his grief, Batman seriously weighed killing the Joker. While he ultimately didn’t, Jason’s murder would reframe his relationship with the Joker for years, and in some ways was the most defining moment of his life since the death of his parents, making him all the more reclusive and reluctant to endanger other partners in his crusade.
2 The Killing Joke
“One bad day.” The Joker’s perverse thesis statement in Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s classic, controversial one-shot, The Killing Joke, is that everyone is really just one particularly horrific day away from being as broken and evil as he is. He decides to test his theory on Commissioner Jim Gordon, perhaps the most purely altruistic character in the Batman mythos. The Joker breaks into Gordon’s home and shoots his daughter Barbara Gordon, paralyzing her from the waist down. He kidnaps Gordon, putting him through a nightmarish obstacle course of torture at an abandoned amusement park that includes making him look at images of his daughter’s broken body.
As Batman pursues him, he contemplates his relationship with the Joker, how responsible he is for the clown’s reign of terror, and if perhaps it’s time to finally end him. Batman, abiding by Gordon’s wishes to take down the Joker by the book, eventually offers to help him, to try to cure him of his insanity. As crazy as he might be, even the Joker knows that it’s far too late for that.
1 The Dark Knight
The greatest comic book movie of all time, The Dark Knight is also the perfect encapsulation of the relationship between Batman and the Joker. A chaotic force of nature, the Joker doesn’t play by any rules, even the ones the criminals ostensibly follow. He tells multiple versions of his own origin, all of them seeming equally authentic and artificial. He’s not interested in money or conventional power; to quote Alfred, “some men just want to watch the world burn.”
Batman must acknowledge his role in the creation of this seeming monster, who the shell-shocked Gotham mob turned to in desperation-- a result of the escalation Jim Gordon once warned him about, and at great personal cost. The tragedy of the destructive relationship is that neither is capable of ending it. Batman cannot cross the line of killing him, and the Joker eventually realizes Batman gives him sadistic purpose. The two are locked in a war they’re destined to fight forever.
Which Batman and Joker story is your favorite? Let us know in the comments!