, The Dark Knight (2008)/IMDb
, The Guardian
Awakening in the spring of 1940, the Joker is the first and arguably the most popular antagonist to his superhero counterpart, Batman. Originally known as a criminal mastermind with a sick and twisted sense of humour, this characters’ instant popularity ensured his continued appearance, and evolution as one of the Dark Knight’s most disturbing nemesis.
An immense psychopath with a warped sense of reality, his continued infamy in pop culture as an icon to superhero nerds everywhere carried into his manifestation by numerous actors in plenty of live-action, and animated features on the golden and silver screen.
While few have adorned the clown makeup to take up the form of this glorious sadist, which of the actors that carried this role did the best job?
5. Jared Leto
The amount of cringe I feel writing about Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker is immeasurable.
Ranking an easy bottom of the pile, Jared Leto’s take on the Joker was by far the most erratic and nonsensical presentation of this celebrated character to date. For all the hype that surrounded his appearance in Suicide Squad (2016), Jared’s Joker landing on screen for a matter of minutes was a blessing in disguise.
From painfully desperate maniacal behaviour, to horrible design choices, such as the ‘Damaged’ tattoo on his forehead, shiny grey grill, and pimp-like clothing curated for his persona, his performance fell flat, boiling it down to one reason entirely: He was not a good Joker, and his portrayal was nowhere close to the archetype we anticipated.
4. Jack Nicholson
Truth be told, any of the remaining four entities could easily outdo the other in performance. Why is Jack Nicholson’s Joker fourth on the list? Well, let’s get into it.
Fantastic at every level, Jack Nicholson’s Joker held the cinematic standard of the Ace of Naves for a solid 20 years. His look is spot on, from creepy smile to signature purple suit. Jack took a complex character and marvellously simplified him into a fanatic genius. He is just pure evil, period.
Though his Joker made Batman look practically invisible in Batman (1989), this Jokers’ lack of storyline driving the character wasn’t cohesive with the history of traumas that built up the Joker to be horrifying and deathly.
After falling into a vat of acid and emerging a psychopathic monster, no further complexities are found in Jack Nicholson’s Joker. It was a meagre movement from zero to 100. With nothing more or nothing less, he is just a bad guy.
Without a compelling backstory or driving force motivating his viciousness, Jack Nicholson still pulled off a legendary Joker interpretation that would be hard to top in any other universe before Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger.
3. Cesar Romero
As the OG Joker and the only man of colour to ever play Harley Quinn’s puddin thus far, it’s quite appropriate to contest that Cesar Romero’s Joker broke the mould and shaped our current understanding of who this villain really is.
From his striking laugh of lunacy to overdrawn lips with the clown makeup, Batman (1966) embraced the satire of comedy and camp, none of which have been done in other movie portrayals since!
Though the only actor on this list to have begun playing the Joker on a television series, Batman (1966-1968), none can forget how his ability to enhance a scene from spine-tingling glee to blood-curdling insanity was a mark that will always be associated to the great actor.
Owing a great deal of debt, all portrayals of the Joker that are to come should not forget to pay homage and study the blueprint of Cesar’s venerable exposition that made his psychosis endearing and respected.
2. Joaquin Phoenix
When we refer to the most complex and in-depth version of the Joker ever to be displayed on the golden screen, Joaquin Phoenix takes the crown, easily.
Hard to watch at certain moments, the evolution of Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck, from a miserable and downtrodden adult to the supervillain of macabre humour and gore, is enhanced by captivating plot lines in Joker (2019).
These would include as his emancipated figure, compulsive hysterical laughter as a result of a neurological disorder, and oedipus complex in yearning for his mother, that takes this movie from disturbing to sinister. Anyone who denies his worthy win of Best Actor in the 2019 Academy Awards is probably delusional.
Compelling and brutal, the only ground this entrancing and unforgettable performance takes the second spot is due to the unspoken privilege the Joker received in this adaptation: this movie was about him, and there was no emphasis on Batman at all, besides his introduction.
Complex yet brilliant, we were all left wondering if we should despise this antagonist, or feel sorry for the sorrows he experienced for no other reason than that being his birthright.
1. Heath Ledger
I genuinely find it hard to imagine any actor ever interpreting the Joker better than Heath Ledger did.
In The Dark Knight (2008), Heath Ledger takes on an unrecognisable version of himself, and fully immerses his entire being to become the Joker. Embracing some genuinely funny moments but transitioning to a character that will haunt you in your nightmares, this role elevated Heath’s performance as Joker to one of the most influential movie villains of all time.
But what was the factor that pushed his interpretation to be the best we have ever seen yet? Was it the reinvention of his abused origins that made him captivating? Was it the snarl of that iconic quote, “Why So Serious?”, that would remain relevant in pop culture till present day? Or was it his undeniable talent that made Heath completely disappear into the mould of the Joker? Perhaps, it was all of these things fashioned into one design.
One thing is for certain, his acquired (posthumously) Academy Award in 2009 for Best Actor in a Supporting Role will be one of the most deserving we will ever see in the film industry.
If you’ve seen The Batman (2022), a secret ending scene has a sense of mystery, that most likely hypes up a sequel in the works between the Cape Crusader and the Jester of Genocide himself. This time, Barry Keoghan is set to play the role of the sinister psychopath.
With so much success and interest in the world of Gotham, we should never forget the astute talents of all the actors that opened the door for this comic character, and the many more there are to come.