The idea of a standalone Joker movie is nothing new. Recently though, things have picked up somewhat, with word leaking out that Joaquin Phoenix had entered into talks to star. Whether this ends up happening or not, it immediately brings to question where an actor like Phoenix would fit into the hierarchy of on-screen Joker performances, because after all, the role is iconic and has already been portrayed masterfully by others.
With that in mind, we decided to look back at all the TV and movie Jokers of the last half a century, and rank them from worst to best, or should we say from Leto to Ledger? Read on to see where your favorite Joker ranks on our list.
*Note: Video game depictions of the character, as well as fan films, Joker in LEGO form, or Jerome in Gotham have been omitted from this list.
10. Kevin Michael Richardson – The Batman (2004)
Kevin Michael Richardson was always an unusual choice to provide vocals for Batman’s biggest foe, and in fairness to him, he did the best he could with one of the worst small-screen Batman adaptations out there. It’s just there’s simply nothing about his performance that screams the Clown Prince of Crime to us. You could watch The Batman with your eyes closed and have no clue who Richardson was portraying.
9. Jared Leto – Suicide Squad (2016)
OK, we know it’s fashionable to knock Jared Leto’s performance as Joker in Suicide Squad, but it’s completely justified. We’re all for actors taking roles and making them their own, but there is simply nothing good about the way Leto handled his time in the face paint. Jared Leto’s Joker was all style over substance and, in an attempt to distance himself from Heath Ledger’s breathtaking turn, he went too far, becoming some pale, green-haired Gangsta with horrible, horrible tattoos. This Joker had no fiendish plans, no darkly comedic plot to rid the world of the Batman, he was just – to be frank – boring, and Joker should never be boring.
8. Jeff Bennett – Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008)
There’s no taking away from Jeff Bennett as a great voice actor, but he really missed the mark when he took on the challenge of reinventing Joker for the Batman: The Brave and the Bold TV series. He doesn’t even come close to imitating the Cesar Romero incarnation, even though this series was actually intended as a spin-off of the old live action show. He’s still head and shoulders above Jared Leto though.
7. John DiMaggio – Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
6. Brent Spiner – Young Justice (2011)
When Young Justice aired on Cartoon Network in 2011, many were unaware that Brent Spiner – the former Data of Star Trek TNG fame – was the man behind the voice of the young Joker. Spiner, though, has actually enjoyed a ton of success in the comic book voice acting world, with stints on shows like Justice League Action and Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. Here he takes the Joker into a much darker realm than previous animated interpretations of the character, giving him a gravelly and instantly identifiable tone that would have been well suited to one of the latter more adult animations.
5. Michael Emerson – The Dark Knight Returns (2012)
Michael Emerson is brilliant in everything he does, so it’s no surprise his interpretation of the iconic clown is among the very best. There’s just something about the way Emerson delivers his lines – be it in Lost as master manipulator Ben, or Zep in Saw – in a matter of fact way laced with arrogance, that defies his Sunday school teacher appearance. He can also play crazy really well, as evidenced by his wicked laughter throughout The Dark Knight Returns.
4. Jack Nicholson – Batman (1989)
It’s easy to forget just how good Jack Nicholson was in Tim Burton’s 1989 Bat-flick. Sure it’s Jack Nicholson, so he was always going to be good, but it’s worth revisiting his performance from time to time to fully appreciate why no one thought he could ever be topped. For some, Nicholson is the greatest Joker incarnation ever, and it’s hard to argue otherwise. But for us, his vaudeville villain instead ranks in the top 4 as, unlike the 3 names who sit above him, there is simply too much ‘grinning Jack’ on view to be truly the embodiment of the role.
3. Cesar Romero – Batman (1966-68)
Cesar Romero is not only famous for playing Joker in the so-camp-it-hurts TV show, he is also the only person to ever perform the role with a mustache, making him the only mustachioed Clown Prince of Crime ever depicted. Silly facial hair aside, Romero’s Joker was as wild and colorful as his hair and set such a high standard for all future actors in the role to follow that it has been almost impossible to do so, even now some 50 years later.
2. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
What can we say about Heath Ledger’s performance that hasn’t already been said? For the last decade, the late 10 Things I Hate About You star has been praised and heralded as the greatest on-screen Joker of all time. And we’d agree. He embodies the character, bringing to life every comic book fans greatest fantasies about who or what the Joker should be. Mark Hamill once described Ledger’s performance as being like that of Sir Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, which proves just how good a DC movie universe could be if they didn’t try to mimic Marvel so much. Although we agree that Ledger is the greatest on-screen Joker of all time, in that he physically appears as the character in front of a camera, there’s one more person that we feel pips him as the greatest Joker in the history of film and television.
1. Mark Hamill – Batman: The Animated Series (1992)
Can you remember the moment you found out that the man behind the Joker in the excellent Batman: The Animated Series was actually Mark Hamill? It probably blew your mind, just like it did ours. After all, the last we’d seen of Hamill was as the Emo-before-his-time Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars trilogy, and in a pre-internet world, he’d seemingly vanished from the public eye. What he was actually doing, though, was amassing quite an impressive array of voice acting work, largely in the English speaking adaptations of Studio Ghibli movies, as well as appearing as the Trickster in the ill-fated 1991 Flash TV series. This latter role would prove pivotal in him being hired by Warner Bros. as the Joker character, and would heavily influence his performance.
So good is Hamill as the Joker, that he is completely unrecognizable as himself. Sure, we all know now because we’re in on the joke, but 26 years ago we’d never have thought that the greatest Jedi who ever lived would have traded in his lightsaber for face paint and a squeaky-voiced, hammer-wielding girlfriend to become the most revered and requested Batman villain of all time.
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