Eighty years after he debuted in Batman No. 1, the Joker remains one of the most iconic villains in popular culture. The Clown Prince of Crime has long tormented Batman and the people of Gotham City, seeing the morals and society the world is built on as nothing but a joke.
Many gifted actors have portrayed the Joker over the years, and despite how they capture the heart of the character, each one of them is different in their own way. Take a look at all the best Jokers and see who has the last laugh.
8. Cesar Romero
Character actor Cesar Romero was the first person to play the Joker in live-action with his role in 1966’s Batman, and his character ate up the wackiness of his comic book counterpart. Unlike his successors, who went full-method to play the Joker, Romero never took his character too seriously and just enjoyed himself as the Joker would. He even refused to shave his mustache to play the character, and it is clearly visible despite his white makeup. However, due to the show’s campy and child-friendly nature, Romero’s Joker acts more like a silly prankster looking for a laugh, with no desire to kill people or create havoc, which doesn’t quite hold up in the age of modern comic book stories.
7. Jared Leto
Jared Leto’s Joker was soured by his questionable character design, limited screen time, and somewhat cringey dialogue. His character can be somewhat forgiven due to studio interference in the production of Suicide Squad. Fortunately, Leto’s Joker displayed a drastic improvement in the “Knightmare” epilogue in Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
Referencing how he killed Robin, this scene saw the Joker exploit all the Dark Knight’s failures and losses in a fierce psychological brawl before surprising everyone and teaming up with him. This scene proved there is more to Leto’s character than just style and flair, and that with the right material, he can be the farthest thing from a bad joke.
6. Barry Keoghan
There hasn’t been much of Barry Keoghan’s Joker in Matt Reeves’s new Gotham, but this fresh new talent showed great promise as the Clown Prince of Crime. Appearing in the epilogue and a deleted scene of The Batman, this Joker is born with a disease that has left him with a permanent grin and spends most of his screen time imprisoned in Arkham Asylum.
His backstory may rub some audiences the wrong way, but this Joker has proven himself to be a master manipulator in the vein of Hannibal Lecter, as he manages to make the Riddler his ally and get under Batman’s skin. It’s unknown what Reeves has in store for audiences with this new Joker, but the villain has left people grinning and gawking in anticipation.
5. Cameron Monaghan
Cameron Monaghan stands out in that he has played not one, not two, but three different Jokers in the same series. In the underrated TV show Gotham, Monaghan plays twin brothers Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska, the latter of whom becomes a villain after Jerome posthumously sprays him with a special laughing toxin, bringing his evil out for the world to see.
While Jerome is an anarchist who seeks to spread chaos and hatred throughout Gotham, Jeremiah is a calculating criminal mastermind obsessed with torturing Bruce Wayne. But both versions seem to come together to form something new after Jeremiah falls into a vat of chemicals and returns to villainy years later, transforming into the Joker many fans know and love.
4. Jack Nicholson
As one of the few Jokers to be given a first and last name, Jack Napier is a vile mobster responsible for the murders of Bruce Wayne’s parents in Tim Burton’s Batman. But in an ironic twist of fate, Napier becomes the Joker after he falls into a vat of chemicals during an encounter with Batman, the hero he inadvertently created, many years later.
Much like Nicholson’s version of Jack Torrance in The Shining, this Joker deviates from the comics by being an evil man who only becomes more dangerous after becoming a supervillain. While this might not be as terrifying as some other Jokers’ origin stories, Nicholson still delivers a delightfully wicked performance as the Clown Prince of Crime, blending the villain’s sadism and theatricality to create “the world’s fully functioning homicidal artist.”
3. Joaquin Phoenix
Taking inspiration from Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker (aka Arthur Fleck) is a sympathetic and tragic villain due to how he is wronged by society at a young age. Orphaned, abused, and poverty-stricken since day one, Fleck is left to simmer in his misery without proper care and support until it all boils to the surface in an explosion of anger and violence.
The Joker is meant to reflect the absolute darkest of humanity, and Joaquin Phoenix’s iteration of the character embodies all the rage and sadness that many people secretly carry within themselves over how the world has failed them.
2. Mark Hamill
Who would’ve thought Luke Skywalker would be such a great villain? The legendary Mark Hamill found his breakout role voicing the Clown Prince of Crime in the ’90s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series. In this series, the Joker features the perfect blend of silliness and darkness to stick in the minds of audiences young and old. Also, his hoarse voice as the Joker is arguably the villain’s most distinctive one yet.
Since then, Hamill went on to reprise his role in DC’s greater animated universe, with appearances in many films and spinoff shows. He also voiced the villain in the acclaimed Arkham video games, which made his character far darker and even more memorable.
1. Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger’s Joker is the absolute embodiment of chaos, as well as a tour-de-force of acting. Ledger’s delivery of his lines, as well as his movements and mannerisms, made him such an unsettling presence on-screen that legendary actor Michael Caine claimed to have forgotten his lines while filming with him. But part of what makes this Joker terrifying is that pretty much nothing is known about his past, as he changes the story about how he got his scars each time he tells it.
This ambiguity in his backstory implies that even the Joker doesn’t know it anymore, encapsulating his belief that absolutely anyone can become like him. And he very much succeeds in his plan to spread this idea by turning Harvey Dent into the villainous Two-Face. This Joker set a new standard not just for villains in comic book films, but for cinema in general.