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(Credit: Warner Bros.)

Film

Every cinematic Joker ranked from worst to best

@Russellisation

A chaotic maniac, fool and crime lord, the Joker is Batman’s most terrifying adversary for a reason, representing all that which the measured caped crusader isn’t. A longtime fan favourite character, the Joker’s enduring appeal stands in his sheer mystery, with his blurry past never quite being fully nailed down in each of his respective stories. Having been portrayed by multiple actors across film, television and animated mini series’, the Joker has become something of a trophy for actors across the world with both Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger winning Academy Awards for playing the character. 

An eccentric and enigmatic figure, the character of the Joker was the brainchild of comic book artists Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, with each individual having a different account of how the icon came about. For Robinson, the creation of the character came from the image of a Joker playing card, recalling “I wanted somebody visually exciting. I wanted somebody that would make an indelible impression, would be bizarre, would be memorable like the Hunchback of Notre Dame or any other villains that had unique physical characters,” in an interview with Rocket Llama.

The character has since gone through various iterations, with each one consistently drawing fan excitement and speculation even if they only make a cameo role in the respective film or series. With rumours that the character may appear in the upcoming The Batman directed by Matt Reeves and starring Robert Pattinson, don’t expect that buzz for the Joker to die out anytime soon. For now, let’s take a look at the very best cinematic actors ever to don the makeup and green wig.

Every cinematic Joker ranked in order:

5. Jared Leto – Suicide Squad (David Ayer, 2016)

Since the release of Suicide Squad in 2016, Jared Leto has largely been seen as the laughing stock of the superhero universe, with his sickly version of the Joker going down as one of the very worst of all time. 

Not helped by the terrific performance of Joaquin Phoenix in Joker that has been released since Suicide Squad, Leto’s version of the character made a mockery of the character’s enigmatic past. Emblazoned with obnoxious tattoo’s reading ‘damaged’ and ‘hahaha’, this Joker is merely a pop-punk gangster with none of the intrigue, mystery and genuine fear that the history of the character has always carried. 

4. Jack Nicholson – Batman (Tim Burton, 1989)

Recognised as one of the best actors of all time, Jack Nicholson’s theatrical performance in Batman can be partly blamed on the frequently ostentatious displays of director Tim Burton, though it is by no means a disaster. 

With a classic, simple design, Nicholson’s Joker is played with a straight delivery, marking him as quite different from the four other performances on this list who bring a sense of vibrant dynamism to the character. The Joker of Batman feels less like a mysterious, evil figure and more like a gangster in makeup with Nicholson doing little in his own performance to make this anything other than the truth.

3. Cesar Romero – Batman: The Movie (Leslie H. Martinson, 1966)

If Jack Nicholson’s portrayal as Batman is theatrical, then Cesar Romero’s is pure pantomime, with the actor’s colourful impression of the character still retaining a certain charm and thrill to this day.

Starring alongside Adam West’s iconically corny Batman, Cesar Romero delivers a similarly over the top performance, fluctuating his voice with constant flurries of excitement whilst he waves his arms around as the flamboyant villain. Though there are better films than Batman: The Movie, it is the performance of Romero as the Joker which shines through, transforming the film into a digestible piece of early superhero experimentation.

2. Joaquin Phoenix – Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)

The latest portrayal of the live-action Joker was something of a game-changer, with Todd Phillips providing a story that massively downplayed the character’s theatricality in favour of a more grounded film about mental health. 

Joaquin Phoenix stars as a broken, downtrodden version of the character we know and love, with his prospects dampened by an underfunded mental health clinic and the privileges of an ignorant upper-class. Such leads his character down a spiral of insanity in which Phoenix does something with the Joker that we’ve never seen before, eliciting sympathy for a man who is ultimately a victim of his own society. 

1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

There are few contemporary performances quite as significant as that of the late Heath Ledger in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight, making the character into the snarling, maniac that he is so well known as being today.

Dedicating himself to a mentally and physically enduring version of the character, Ledger dominates the screen in every scene of the Dark Knight, carrying an almost ethereal intimidating presence that demands the attention of the audience and the titular character, With many doubting the capabilities of the actor upon his casting in the film, Ledger demonstrated his true power as a performer with nothing but a wretched, malevolent, evil figure being seen below his white makeup.