Regardless of how you feel about the new Joker movie, nobody could possibly deny that Batman’s most sinister foe is arguably the best character in the history of comic books. From something as innocuous as a trading card to the most sadistic and popular villain in D.C. comic’s rogue’s gallery, nothing trumps the Joker. But not all Joker adaptations are created equal, and someone has to be the best. So here it is, my objective ranking of Joker performances.
No Laughing Matter: Ranking the Jokers
The beauty of the Joker has always been that there isn’t one solid canon for the Joker. From Jack Napier to Arthur Fleck, his true origins are unknown. It’s in that spirit that I’ll confess a few of the lesser Jokers have been omitted from my list. Zack Galifianakis, anyone from Gotham, and the lesser voice actors didn’t make the cut. Only the big-screen, best of the best Jokers make this deck.
If you disagree, make like a pencil and disappear… or leave a comment down below. Dealer’s choice.
6. Jared Leto
So, this performance was terrible. I know it has some fans, and there are those that believe he captures the more human side of Joker’s psychopathic behavior, but I disagree. To me, this was Jared Leto trying to do an impression of Heath Ledger’s joker, dressed like a mumble rapper from the Vine era of viral stupidity.
Also, maybe it’s just me, but if you’re going to go full method and terrorize your co-stars, maybe turn in a performance that anyone cares about. If it were even memorable for being bad, it would be one thing, but instead all it did was tarnish a fantastic performance by Margot Robbie.
Plus, nobody even likes 30 Seconds to Mars. So take that, Leto.
5. Cesar Romero
Cesar Romero’s Joker struggles on my list, not because of his great performance, but because of the type of Batman content he participated in. This is a character that cut his own face off. This is a character who willingly and gleefully mutilates women and children. The yin to Batman’s yang is incapable of love, except maybe for the caped crusader himself.
Romero’s Joker was campy, quirky, and mostly harmless. Enjoyable in his context? Absolutely. But an accurate portrayal of the demented clown prince of crime? Hardly.
4. Jack Nicholson
I really love Nicholson’s Joker, and I don’t think his placement on the list should be held against him. He suffers from the same thing Romero’s Joker does, bad timing. A talent with Nicholson’s range and depth in today’s era? Would be able to produce something so dark and twisted that we talked about it for years. But he was the villain in a Tim Burton movie.
Having said that, I felt like this is probably the most consistently accurate Joker portrayal for a long time, even after the Dark Knight. Even as he (uh… spoilers?) plunges to his death, the trademark grin and laughter can be heard. The Joker isn’t selfish. The Joker isn’t a man that can be reasoned with or intimidated, he’s a monster, and I thought Nicholson did a really good job of portraying that, even in a campy movie.
3. Heath Ledger
Okay, okay, before everyone busts out the pitchforks, I love this performance. It’s transcendent. It changed superhero movies, and there’s an Oscar with Heath Ledger’s name on it for a reason. It’s wonderful, and he completely grasped the chaotic nature of the character.
There’s a scene where (hey, you’ve seen all these movies, right?) people don’t blow each other up, and even if it’s fleeting, there’s a moment where he’s disappointed. You can’t act like the human embodiment of chaos, saying you’re just a dog chasing cars, and then be disappointed when your plans don’t follow through.
I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s legendary. Nobody in any cinematic universe has delivered a performance like this one, but it just felt like it was missing something crucial. I suppose that’s because he exists in Christopher Nolan’s gritty, reality-based Gotham, where he had to remain inside the lines just a little bit.
2. Joaquin Phoenix
Maybe this is recency bias, but I felt like Jaquin Phoenix completely grasped the character in a way that nobody else, not even number one on this list, has. This character is unwell, and you get that from the second he “laughs” onscreen. He’s has no empathy for anyone else, and is completely out of tune with reality. This movie is still in theatres, so I won’t spoil anything about the plot, but he made me, as a viewer, so uncomfortable so many times.
And the worst part is, you can almost empathize with him, because he’s a product of the worst parts of society. This performance is so intense that it has people worried about the way it’ll galvanize the genuinely disturbed in the real world, which, in a way, kinda proves the character’s point.
I can’t really get into more detail without completely giving away the plot of the movie, but if you dare, go see it, and you’ll understand that Phoenix’s Joker has the kind of demented depth that nobody else has been able to sniff.
And then there’s number one.
1. Mark Hamill
Ha! Plot twist, the best Joker never even appeared as himself on the big screen. Hamill, best known as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films, has voiced the Joker on several occasions. He was the voice for the animated series, ironically after Tim Curry bailed (he would’ve been fantastic), and to me, he’s the essential Joker.
Unlike everyone else on this list, he’s played the Joker enough that he’s not defined by a single performance, which does give him a distinct advantage. He was able to be truly depraved in “The Killing Joke” and even “Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker” while logging 15 episodes of the Animated Series, where he could be a little sillier.
When I imagine the Joker, it’s the animated one that Mark Hamill voices, and for me, his trademark laugh will forever be iconic.