Batman’s biggest nemesis has certainly gone though some cinematic transformations. From the Joker’s big-screen debut in 1966’s Batman: The Movie, we’ve seen the Clown Prince of Crime portrayed in a multitude of ways, acting as a source of comedic relief but also as a conduit of dreaded terror, chaos and evil. Today, we’re going to be ranking the performances we’ve seen of the Joker on the big screen, from Cesar Romero in 1966 to Zach Galifianakis in 2017. Remember this is only our personal opinion – if you disagree, leave your ranking down below; we’d love to know what you think!
#6 – Zach Galifianakis – The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Maybe it’s just me, but The LEGO Batman Movie was somewhat underwhelming. Partly due to poor pacing, partly due to a weak plot and bloated cast, it didn’t resonate with me as much as 2014’s The LEGO Movie, and that’s perhaps part of the reason that Zach Galifianakis’ Joker is bottom of this list. His Joker isn’t bad per sé, but simply blander than other portrayals: there’s some good jokes and menacing intentions, and his introduction as a scorned, upset villain is interesting, but Galifianakis’ Joker is less unique and memorable than other versions of the Clown Prince of Crime. Galafianakis handles the role well – his performance isn’t the issue, rather the underdevelopment of the character – although since it’s a child-centric film, maybe we shouldn’t have been expecting as deep a Joker as seen elsewhere.
#5 – Jared Leto – Suicide Squad (2016)
The reason Leto ranks higher than Galifianakis is due to the nuance of his performance: sure, there’s elements that not everybody likes (those tattoos are still hauntingly bad), but Leto gave a solid enough performance, and when considering the lengths he went to prepare for the role – sending dead rats to cast mates is just the start of it – his dedication to the role must be commended. Some elements of Leto’s Joker are very promising: he’s undoubtedly a menacing presence that could potentially be very threatening if used correctly, and he’s got one of the best Joker laughs we’ve seen yet, but it’s the design and lack of screen time for Leto’s Joker that prevent him being anything more than average.
#4 – Cesar Romero – Batman: The Movie (1966)
The original Joker, Romero carries an undeniable charm when portraying the Clown Prince of Crime. Even though many have come after him, Romero is, for many people, the quintessential Joker, and it’s not hard to see why. He perfectly balances the unhinged side of the Joker’s persona with wacky, light-hearted overtones, seamlessly bringing the comic portrayal of the Joker in the 1960s to life. Despite a colourful design and animated, lively performance from Romero, there’s always an element of threat and danger permeating his performance, which is what makes it so memorable, standing the test of time. And who doesn’t love that painted-over moustache?
#3 – Jack Nicholson – Batman (1989)
Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up with it, but Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman didn’t click with me upon my first few viewings. There are undoubtedly some problems with his Joker: there’s a very inconsistent tone surrounding him, flitting from a vengeance-seeking crime boss to a wacky, over-the-top cartoon-esque character, and that made it very hard to engage with. That said, Nicholson’s Joker is a slow-burner, and with time I have grown to appreciate his portrayal: his motivations are personal, nuanced and interesting, and although his plan is somewhat wacky, it’s quintessential comic-book Joker. The character design is terrific, especially the devilish smile, and Nicholson certainly set the precedent for how big-screen Jokers should be portrayed. And for that reason, it deserves to be commended.
#2 – Mark Hamill – Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)
While many other actors have portrayed Joker successfully in live-action format, there’s only one man for the job when considering animation: Mark Hamill. Although he somewhat dropped off after Star Wars, he found a new lease of life in voicing The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, its spin-off movies and the Arkham games. Hamill is truly spectacular in the role: it’s no easy feat to capture a character’s nuances using just your voice, but he accomplishes it perfectly. He can go from cool and calculated to unhinged in a split-second, and has held his own in a vast array of storylines across various media, from being on death’s door in Arkham City to being more scheming than even in his only big-screen appearance, Mask of the Phantasm. Some call Hamill the definitive Joker, and when it comes to animation and voice acting, it’s hard to disagree.
#1 – Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
This may be seen as a cop-out result, but Ledger has earned his place in history as the definitive on-screen Joker for a reason. His dedication to the role is unparalleled, taking his sanity to dangerous extremes to perfectly capture the role, and even after dozens of viewings, his performance as Joker is still just as terrifying as the first time. A perfect blend of calculated and unhinged, he commits some truly atrocious acts – his ‘pencil trick’ will never be forgotten – and his chemistry with other characters, notably Christian Bale’s Batman and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel Dawes, is electric. It’s hard to comment on the quality of his performance, as everything has been said before by people more capable than myself, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime, spellbinding performance. Thoroughly deserving of his posthumous Oscar, it’s doubtful we’ll ever see an onscreen Joker as captivating as Ledger.
There you have it, our count-down of the best cinematic Joker performances. Agree or disagree with our list? Hit us with your ranking in the comments, and be sure to drop a like if you enjoyed this list and want more like it. Thanks for reading!