The Best Joker Actors Ranked From Worst to Best
Todd Phillips’ Joker movie won’t be hitting theaters until October 4. But it’s been provoking both heated outrage and acclaim from the internet filmgoing community already. Some have said Joaquin Phoenix's performance could be Oscar worthy. Others have denounced the film as one-note, or worse, with certain critics making the case that a film like Joker could even be dangerous in today’s sociopolitical climate.
However the movie ends up being received by wide audiences when it’s finally released later this fall, one thing’s for sure–the decades-old DC Comics character called The Joker is a force of nature. The villainous Clown Prince of Crime has been the subject of several famous–and tragic–portrayals over the past half a century, making the careers of some actors, and, as in the case of Jared Leto, bringing performer’s reputation down into the gutters. There is just something about The Joker. He’s an enigmatic and fully terrifying Batman foil who was created all the way back in 1940 by the DC Comics team of Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson. A shocking phenomenon to behold, Joker’s possibly the greatest villain in pop culture history. His hilarious, sociopathic, and downright demonic presence has become something of a filmmaking tradition. Just like with James Bond, or even Batman himself, it’s no small news when an actor signs on to play the infamous Dark Knight nemesis. Here we've ranked the most famous Joker portrayals from worst to best [insert maniacal laughter here].
7. Jared Leto (Suicide Squad)
To really get into his character, Method Actor Jared Leto decided to go full method with his performance, which meant reportedly sending dead critters and, in some reports, condoms to his co-stars. This gross behavior made for quite a bizarre performance, as Leto seemed to be attempting a clown villain that fell somewhere between Heath Ledger’s unhinged performance in The Dark Knight and a disgruntled Hot Topic employee. Cringey and ridiculous, Leto’s Joker is hard to watch at times–and the writing in the Suicide Squad script didn’t do him any favors either.
6. Zach Galifianakis (LEGO Batman)
Can you believe Zach Galifianakis, the mumbly, slapstick darling of Between Two Ferns got to play the Joker? Well, at least as a voice actor, he did. Galifianakis took his clowning skills from Baskets to the surprisingly enjoyable LEGO Batman animated movie. Though he’s not as menacing and villainous as most of the others on this list, Galifianakis’s Joker is memorable for being as hammy and bizarre as the actor himself. Leave it to Zack Galifianakis to make The Joker feel like an alt-comedy weirdo straight out of Tim and Eric.
5. Cameron Monaghan (Gotham)
The recent Fox/Warner Bros. TV series was a drawn-out prequel to Bruce Wayne’s life behind the cowl of Batman. It took about five seasons for the show to finally reveal the real Joker of the series, with producers throwing countless misdirections along the way. But by the series finale, we finally had our Joker, portrayed by Cameron Monaghan in a startlingly grotesque white, mutilated face, looking almost like Frankenstein’s monster. Unlike much of the series, Gotham’s take on The Joker’s origin story was quite faithful to the comics, and when Monaghan’s Jeremiah Valeska fell into the pool of acid at the Ace Chemicals tower, his transformation had some serious Tim Burton vibes. Monaghan did a fine, albeit short-lived take on the laughing nemesis.
4. Cesar Romero (Batman TV Series)
Romero’s performance as the Clown Prince of Crime is perhaps the most controversial one on this list. Though players like Leto and Ledger both offered increasingly maniacal and revolting portrayals of Mr. J., it’s Romero’s lighter touch that has become something of a contentious subject these days. Like the rest of the Batman TV series of the '60s, Romero’s portrayal is stupid and goofy. Some longtime fans of the franchise still think this is the defining Joker: an oddball who’s a little scary and a lot weird. Others say it was just too cartoonish. Whether you think Joker should be gritty or silly, no one can deny that Romero has left a huge fingerprint on the enduring legacy of the character. Fun fact: it’s said that Romero refused to shave his mustache for production, so if you look closely, you can see that the hair above his lip is covered in white makeup. Insane.
3. Jack Nicholson (Tim Burton Batman)
The role that revitalized Nicholson’s career is also one of the actor’s all-time greatest performances. Nicholson perfectly balanced the lightness of Romero with the darker roots of the character’s 1940s noir origins. Backed by Burton’s spooky aesthetic, with a soundtrack that combined both Prince and Danny Elfman, Nicholson’s Joker has become a bonafide film legend. At the end of the day, what’s great about Nicholson’s take is that, well, it’s 100 percent Nicholson. The guy knows his brand, and he brought it fully-formed to Burton’s 1989 Batman movie. Together with Michael Keaton, the film helped bring a resurgence to comic book filmmaking, laying the groundwork for the new golden era that we’re experiencing today.
2. Mark Hamill (Batman Animated Series)
Hamill’s take on The Joker may not be very well known to casual audiences. But for many fans of the Batman, his sharp, cunning, hyena-like voice acting for the character in the kickass Batman Animated Series is the defining Joker of our time. Though most remember Hamill for Luke Skywalker, the legendary Star Wars performer actually owes a ton of his renown to his work in voice acting. Paired with Kevin Conroy’s performance as Batman, Hamill made for an exquisite Mr. J., especially when the animated series introduced the strikingly complex and fascinating character of Harley Quinn, Joker’s complicated partner who’s a tragic victim of abuse and cultish mind control. With Quinn at his side, Hamill’s Joker became a much wilder force, full of tons of extreme tension and terror. He’s always split between his lover and his life as a criminal mastermind. Though we’ll likely never see a live-action Mark Hamill Joker, the actor’s voice will forever be associated with the clown.
1. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Christopher Nolan brought Batman into the modern era. His Dark Knight trilogy changed the game for the hero, warping the spooky of aesthetic of the Burton era into the much scarier, much more realistic world of a post 9-11 America. And fitting right into Nolan’s surveillance and terrorism-obsessed Gotham City was the perfect embodiment of chaos, Heath Ledger’s Joker. Unlike Romero and Nicholson, Ledger’s Joker feels truly disturbed. The actor reportedly took cues from esoteric and unexpected sources like Tom Waits, A Clockwork Orange, and text from old comic books as well. Of course, with the brilliant legacy of Heath Ledger’s Joker comes the tragic ending that we are still mourning to this day. Ledger died before The Dark Knight ever hit theaters, winning a posthumous Oscar, and becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest tragedies. The breadth of his career shows that the actor was capable of staggering dramatic depth. His performance as The Joker is electrifying, and it’s the best the character has ever been.