In his memoir, Dark Night: A True Batman Story, Batman: The Animated Series creator Paul Dini calls the Joker “a gift” for creators.
“It’s fun to think like a joyful nihilist for a while,” he writes. The Joker gives “permission to artists, writers, and actors to go to their darkest places.”
And many actors have done so, from the colorful world of 1966’s Batman right up to the gritty streets of this weekend’s Joker. But who did it the best?
That’s the question that I, Polygon’s comics editor and Batman fan, and Patrick Willems, film essayist and Batman fan, set out to answer. To keep the list full of notable performances — and to keep it from ballooning out of control — we restricted ourselves to Joker actors who’ve appeared in theatrically released movies. (Sorry, WB Animated Movie Universe, The Batman, and others.)
This is Polygon’s list of the cinematic Jokers, ranked.
6. Jared Leto in Suicide Squad
Jared Leto’s Joker arrived with maximum hype. It was his first role after winning an Oscar three years earlier, and the character’s first cinematic appearance since Heath Ledger’s iconic take. There was his radical new look, covered in tattoos (“damaged”) and with a shiny grill in his mouth. And leading up to the film’s release, an endless stream of articles detailed Leto’s infamous on-set behavior, in which he went so deep into the character that he would antagonize his co-stars by sending them bizarre, disgusting gifts like dead pigs, live rats, or anal beads.
In the end, all this was in service of a character who is almost entirely inconsequential to the story of the film. He’s not even the primary villain, but rather a pest who shows up every twenty minutes or so. The result is a character who feels less like the Joker and more like a low-rent criminal who took his Joker fandom way too far. No matter how bizarre and menacing his laugh, or how many knives he arranges in circles on the ground, it’s hard to take a villain seriously when he tattoos his own name across his abs. —Patrick Willems
5. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker
[Ed. note: This blurb contains minor spoilers for Joker.]
It’s not entirely Joaquin Phoenix’s fault that he’s so low on this list. Where Leto was given bad material and made it worse, Phoenix does the opposite. His Arthur Fleck is impossible to look away from, even when you desperately want to. Phoenix sways, grimaces, shuffles, and delivers terrible, involuntary paroxysms of laughter even as he openly weeps.
He just does it in service of a character who isn’t particularly Joker-like, other than in the most superficial ways. There’s no great obsession with Batman and what he represents, no goal of proving a broader point with his crimes. He’s terrifying, yes, and we are asked to sympathize with him, but out of pity rather than a dark appeal. Perhaps most damningly, Phoenix is a Joker who is, explicitly, terrible at being intentionally funny. —Susana Polo
4. Zach Galifianakis in The Lego Batman Movie
Rarely has there been a Joker so endearing, so sympathetic — and not in a twisted way — than this blocky lil trickster. In a movie where Batman’s biggest foe is arguably his own self doubt, Galifianakis’ Joker still machinates his way into what might be the most ambitious win scenario of any of his cinematic peers. After all, what other Joker can say they’ve rallied King Kong, the Wicked Witch, the velociraptors from Jurassic Park, and Sauron himself to their villainous banner?
And though most of that is due to the meaty and hilarious script on The Lego Batman Movie, and though the physicality of Galifianakis’s Joker is reduced to Lego constraints, the actor still makes the character his own. With a motivation of “I want Batman to recognize how important our relationship is” it would have been easy for the Galifianakis to slip into a tired, homophobic pastiche. But he keeps things upright, delivering a cheeky, scrappy, and above-all-hilarious Joker on a journey to the self-actualizing realization that he can be his own person, without Batman’s attention. —SP
Tied for 3: Cesar Romero in Batman: The Movie
The greatest legacy of Cesar Romero’s take on the Joker is the fact that the actor refused to shave his mustache and had his white makeup applied over it. That makes the performance sound lazy, when really it’s anything but. Romero’s Joker is not the mythic, chilling arch-nemesis we’ve become accustomed to. He’s not out to spread anarchy or go on a killing spree. He just wants to blow up Batman with an exploding shark and take over the United World Security Council by turning them to dust with a dehydrator ray (it’s a weird movie).
Romero’s Joker is simply a villainous clown, part of an ensemble of colorful villains. He’s a delight to watch, and the only reason he’s not higher is that the film forces him to take a backseat to the other villains. The Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman are the main villainous masterminds of the story, while Joker just seems to be along for the ride. It’s one of the only movies the character doesn’t steal. —PW
Tied for 3: Jack Nicholson in Batman
Jack Nicholson’s Joker has a lot working against him. The actor was in his 50s and a little doughy around the midsection. The film’s screenplay makes a significant change to the source material by making the Joker the killer of Bruce Wayne’s parents, turning Batman into a more conventional revenge story. It commits the unforgivable sin of giving the Joker a real name.
And yet, it works.
Nicholson made a career out of playing charismatic characters who felt dangerous, who seemed like they could snap at any moment and turn violent. And maybe most importantly, he had one of the most memorable smiles in Hollywood. So sure, Nicholson’s Joker might be an aging mobster with a penchant for the music of Prince, but he captures the essential elements of the character: He’s funny AND he’s scary.
He has no real master plan, no real motivation. It’s all a joke to him (and some of his jokes are genuinely funny), and he’ll do whatever he wants and kill whoever he wants as long as it amuses him. Nicholson gets it, playing the Joker as someone having the time of his life every moment he’s onscreen. Whether he’s murdering a museum full of people, having dinner with Vicki Vale, or losing a fight to Batman, it’s all a joke to him. —PW
2. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger’s Joker gained mythic status before The Dark Knight even hit theaters, thanks in part to a sensational marketing campaign but largely because of Ledger’s death at the age of 28. But even without this tragedy, the performance would be no less monumental.
Christopher Nolan’s take on the character ditches the classic chemical bath origin, making the Joker’s white face simply the result of hastily-applied makeup. The scars at the edges of his mouth resemble a smile, and while he offers several explanations for how he got them, we can’t believe any of them. Without the necessity of a comic book-y metamorphosis, Ledger’s Joker is a man who has transformed himself completely, to devote his existence to being a self-described “agent of chaos.” Every tick in the performance, every tongue flick, every burr in the weird nasal New York City accent, feels like an extension of this. He’s someone you can never truly know or understand.
Like Nicholson, Ledger understands the character’s balance between funny and scary. His quick “yeah” when the mobsters ask him if he thinks he can steal from them and walk away is one of the movie’s biggest laughs. Later, the way he drops his voice to a guttural “LOOK. AT ME.” is absolutely chilling. There’s an unpredictable energy every moment he’s onscreen that is impossible to look away from. It’s a performance so good it’s worth forgiving it for all the terrible Halloween costumes and cosplays it inspired. —PW
1. Mark Hamill in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm
In an era when Hollywood royalty like Jack Nicholson seemed to have put an indelible mark on the character, the actor best known for playing Luke “savior of the galaxy” Skywalker walked into a Warner Bros. studio to voice a corrupt billionaire in the nascent Batman: The Animated Series. When he was done, he prevailed upon Bruce Timm and Paul Dini: Have him back to play a villain. Any villain.
At the same time, the showrunners were having particular trouble casting the Joker, who would appear in nearly a dozen episodes of the first season. Veteran villain portrayer Tim Curry had seemed like a shoe-in, but there was a big problem with his screen tests. They could get him to be dark and scary, sure. But they couldn’t get him to be funny.
To that directorial difficulty, we owe Mark Hamill as the Joker, a performance so definitive that when anyone other than he is cast in a Warner Bros. animated production, you will see fans immediately asking the question: “What, was Mark Hamill busy?” Reasonable, considering the number of times he has returned to play the Clown Prince of Crime — in cartoon shows, straight to DVD animated movies, video games, and one theatrically released feature film, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which allows him to stand alongside the other cinematic Jokers listed here.
Hamill is the voice of the Joker not just of one film, but of a generation, a performance only enhanced by the possibilities of animation. Though, given behind the scenes stories, even that owes a bit of itself to him. Unlike many of its peers, voice actors in Batman: The Animated Series shared a booth, old-time-radio-play style, instead of recording separately. Where his costars would sit with their microphones and scripts, Hamill stood, the better to gesticulate and emote.
But Hamill doesn’t top this list because he has become the actor that every other Joker actor is compared to, and it’s not because he is the voice that so many hear when they read a Joker comic. The Joker’s 80-year history, just like Batman’s, cannot be confined to a single aspect, and Hamill has demonstrated that he can play them all.
From the camp of Romero and Galifianakis in BTAS episodes like “The Joker’s Millions,” to the dark menace of Nicholson and Ledger in Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker or Batman: Arkham Asylum, to the full twisted horror of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.
Hamill is better at doing scary and funny and darkly appealing than any other actor here, and that’s why he’s the best. —SP