Batman has appeared on screens big and small for over half a decade now. Over the years there have been some pretty incredible versions of the character, and some not-so-incredible versions. But, that’s not what we’re worried about today. Today, we’re taking a look at Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, who’s had just as many on-screen iterations as his caped counterpart. With Todd Phillips’ controversial new Joker film hitting theaters, we decided to take a look back at all the Joker performances over the years and rank them from worst to best. So, here’s Def Pen’s Definitive Ranking of Joker Performances:
5. Jared Leto – Suicide Squad (2016)
So I’m going to be blunt here Jared Leto’s Joker is hands-down the worst Joker performance. That’s not to say I hated it honestly, there were aspects of this Joker that I really liked. But, Leto, along with Suicide Squad as a whole, is so inconsistent. One scene he’s menacing and legitimately terrifying (I personally loved all the scenes of him in the club as a mob boss of sorts) but, a couple of scenes later he’s going WAY over the top and hamming it up to the point of mockery. Leto has mentioned how his favorite parts were cut so I believe there’s a ‘good’ version of this Joker out there somewhere. But, that’s not the version we got in the film.
4. Cesar Romero – Batman (1966-1968)
Alright, next up is Cesar Romero’s Joker from the 1960s Batman TV series. And it may be weird to rank him higher than Leto for a lot of fans. Romero was the definition of over-the-top campy in this role and that turns a lot of people off now. But, the entire series was over-the-top campy and Romero was consistently the best villain to face off against Adam West’s Batman. It’s also worth mentioning that for an entire generation, Romero was THE Joker, there wasn’t another live-action version until Jack Nicholson in 1989. Plus, without Romero, we never would’ve gotten the surfing showdown of the century. Truly iconic.
3. Jack Nicholson – Batman (1989)
Speaking of Nicholson, here he is at number 3. This is where things started to get tough because he set the bar for live-action Joker performances opposite Michael Keaton in 1989. This was the first truly terrifying, menacing take on the Joker movie-going audiences had ever seen. He landed much closer to the source material here than ever before. And, it’s Jack Nicholson we’re talking about here so of course, he brought that extra ‘oomph’ that only he can. Both of the actors in the top 2 spots likely wouldn’t have been pushed to the performances they gave without Nicholson’s foundation here. In a perfect world, I’d put all three at 1a, 1b, and 1c because they all brought something unique to the role
2. Joaquin Phoenix – Joker (2019)
But, this isn’t a perfect world so coming in second place in Joaquin Phoenix in this year’s Joker. By far the most controversial rendition of the character on this list (though Jared Leto is a strong second in that regard), Phoenix’s performance of the character actually isn’t that controversial. While some are questioning the film’s subject matter and way of portraying the character, Phoenix’s performance has been praised near-universally. Most impressive to mae about it is the physicality he brought to the role. We’ve seen imposing Jokers in the past and this one’s no different. But, we really haven’t seen the disturbed man behind the white face paint before and Phoenix brings Arthur Fleck to life through his movement and the strange, twisted shape of his body. The strange, slow dancing motif that Joker features throughout perfectly conveys the strange, twisted mind of Fleck and Phoenix’s commitment to portraying that part of the character, as well as the rest of the incredible little things he does as Fleck, makes this possibly his best role to date. However, unfortunately for him, there’s a large Heath-Ledger-sized shadow still looming large.
1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
And finally, we have Heath Ledger, THE Joker. There’s just no way around it, he’s was the best to ever take on the role, he still is, and if Phoenix operating at full power can’t beat him, he probably always will be. Every other actor on this list, while good in their own right, is still ‘Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker’ or ‘Cesar Romero as the Joker.’ The latter wouldn’t even shave his mustache to take on the role so they had to paint over it. Go look at his picture again, you can see it under the facepaint. But when Ledger appeared on screen he WAS the Joker, the way he moved, his mannerisms, his speech, all perfected. He was menacing, unhinged, absolutely terrifying, and he embodied everything about the Joker. Sadly he passed before truly seeing the impact he left on the genre but it’s still the mark every other comic book movie villain is judged by. Hell, he’s the only actor to win an Oscar for his performance in a superhero movie. I know much of that narrative was probably affected by his tragic death. But, in a time when the most notable superhero movies were the campy Fantastic Four films, Ledger won an Oscar for playing a super-villain. I rest my case.
For this list, we tried to stick to live-action performances because there have been too many animated Jokers to count. HOWEVER, Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill is the stand-out here as he’s been voicing the character for over 20 years. For a lot of people, all of the actors mentioned above, Ledger included, pale in comparison to Hamill when it comes to the Joker. There’s no easy way to explain it but Hamill has somehow perfected the character. He first voiced the Joker on Batman: The Animated Series and became the go-to for the character after that. Just his laugh alone is still enough to rattle my bones.
The latest version of the character can be caught in theaters right now in Joker.
Movie Night With Def Pen below: