The laugh-filled yin to Batman's growly yang; the Darth Vader to The Dark Knight's Luke Skywalker; The Caped Crusader’s Kryptonite. We are, of course, talking about the Joker.
Unlike Batman’s other rivals, the Clown Prince of Crime has been continually re-invented over the years on the big screen, with each new actor who steps into the iconic villain’s oversized shoes adding a new spin on his unique brand of mixing punches with punchlines. As such, everybody has their own favourite. In celebration of the iconic villain we've ranked each iteration of the character from worst to best, including Heath Ledger, Mark Hamill, and Joaquin Phoenix's turn.
Note: while dozens of actors have donned the clown makeup in various incarnations, only a handful can stake a claim to be the best Joker. So, to trim the field, we're only listing the major Joker interpretations. That means the likes of Zach Galifianakis' LEGO Batman movie portrayal is out, while Jared Leto (who has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist far more readily) is in, despite each only making one appearance as the Joker.
8. Jared Leto (Suicide Squad)
Widely derided at the time, Jared Leto's Suicide Squad cameo as the Joker isn't as bad as the critical reception would have you remember. Unfortunately, though, the character’s lumbered with some baffling design choices – horrible tattoos, shiny grill – and a stilted script that makes his inclusion in the movie feel like an afterthought. Still, during his fleeting moments on-screen, Leto's version commands your attention with his erratic behaviour and slimy menace. Ultimately, following Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning portrayal of Joker was always going to be an uphill battle, though that could be reversed somewhat thanks to an upcoming new look for Joker in Zack Snyder's Justice League. The jury's still out, but early signs are promising and offer a shift in the right direction.
7. Troy Baker (Batman: Arkham Origins)
Baker also had to follow an iconic Joker performance – taking over voice acting duties from Mark Hamill in Batman: Arkham Origins. Where Leto decided to make creative choices to differentiate his version from Ledger’s, Baker instead chose to mostly mimic Hamill's voice register. That makes this Joker merely a pale imitation of what came before and leaves you aching for the real thing. His initial reveal, having hidden behind the Black Mask, though, is well worth a re-watch, just to see Joker get more and more frenzied as his adopted persona begins to slip.
6. Cameron Monaghan (Gotham)
Never officially named Joker, Gotham's version of Mistah J is the Clown Prince of Crime for all intents and purposes. Monaghan plays two versions of the character. The original, Jerome, is closer to an archetypal Joker, complete with sudden tics and a shuffling, violent energy that threatens to explode on-screen. Later, a beastly Jeremiah is later introduced, making for something very different and unique, thanks namely to the Frankenstein's Monster-style portrayal which sees the actor caked in prosthetics. Monaghan plays both superbly and adeptly juggles the two Jokers – one familiar, one fresh.
5. Cesar Romero (Batman '66)
Those of a certain vintage may recall Cesar Romero’s Joker with a real fondness – and for good reason. His portrayal playfully enhances the already colourful, camp nature of the ‘60s Batman series with his rolling Rs and screen-filling laugh. The actor’s lack of edge may blunt him in the eyes of 21st Century viewers, but he could still be threatening when required. Of course, he set the blueprint for future Joker actors for decades to come, with each one owing him a debt.
4. Jack Nicholson (Batman)
The 1989 version of Batman's rival is, for all intents and purposes, just Jack Nicholson in makeup – curved sickly smile and all – but that doesn't make him any less of a great Joker. Whether it's asking whether Batman would like to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, or his shadowy, six-shooter introduction, Nicholson is so utterly unmissable that he makes Michael Keaton's Bruce Wayne look like a wallflower by comparison. He can flit between serious, sad, and terrible stand-up comedy all within the same beat; Nicholson never had more fun with a role than here.
3. Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
It’s hard to pinpoint where Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck fits into the Joker rankings. He’s fortunate enough to have – by far – the most breathing room to explore the character’s psyche and does so with such wide-eyed terror and he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. The shrill, piercing laughter Phoenix conjures up hides a strangely sympathetic performance that appears to blame society’s ills for the killer clown’s origins, but lacks the instantly iconic status of Ledger or the body of work of Mark Hamill. Still, Phoenix’s effort feels like a definitive full stop on the character and, much like post-Heath Ledger, you struggle to see how anyone can top this version of the Joker.
2. Mark Hamill (Batman: The Animated Series/Batman Arkham series)
Whether it's across video games or animation, Mark Hamill simply gets the Joker like no other. At once funny and frightening, he's equally as comfortable belting out Batman Christmas songs as he is glowering his way through various foiled schemes. It's a testament to Hamill's range that he makes each work without ever straining the believability of the character. He's not all jokes and japes, though. Hamill's Joker evolved into a nasty piece of work, most notably in the Batman Beyond: Return of Joker flashbacks, which sees him bludgeon Jason Todd to within an inch of his life.
Hamill's the longest-serving Joker, having played him for nearly a quarter-of-a-century, and you get the impression he could find dark, unexplored corners of the character for years to come.
1. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Probably the number one you were expecting, but that doesn't make Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker any less groundbreaking or iconic. Not only has he become the definitive Joker – compared endlessly to new and old actors alike – but Ledger has more iconic scenes in The Dark Knight than most actors do in a career.
Where to start? It could be the continual reinventions of his scarred origins; the daring opening bank job; the snarled "Why so serious?"; or maybe, the pièce de résistance, the interrogation scene with a bruising Christian Bale bouncing off him as a never-better Batman. Despite Ledger's untimely passing, the Australian actor's legacy is intact thanks to this completely captivating performance – and his Joker may never be bettered.