The role of the Joker is a Holy Grail for a certain type of actor, demanding a deranged kind of charisma. Here are the best and worst Joker portrayals.
Todd Phillips’ already-controversial Joker is cackling away in cinemas, telling one Scorsese-infused version of the rise of Batman’s arch-nemesis. Joaquin Phoenix slaps on the greasepaint to portray the rictus-grinning psycho, but of course he’s not the first. Many fine actors have graced our screens as the Joker, and a couple of duds as well.
Who’s the best, you might ask? We’ve taken the liberty of compiling this handy ranking that you’re free to bookmark for reference in any future Joker-related debates (you’re welcome).
To keep life simple, we’re sticking to action TV and cinema only. Otherwise it’d be Mark Hamill, who voiced the Joker on the immortal Batman: The Animated Series, all the way down. And here… we… go…
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7. Roger Stoneburner (Birds of Prey, 2002)
In a nutshell: Who?
Now largely forgotten, the Birds of Prey TV series saw female heroes Oracle/Barbara Gordon (Dinah Meyer), Huntress (Ashley Scott) and Black Canary (Rachel Skarsten) fighting crime in New Gotham City in the aftermath of Batman’s disappearance. At the time audiences rejected a Batman series without Batman and the series was canned after a mere 13 episodes. But Gotham just ran for five seasons, so things seem to have changed.
The main recurring villain has Dr. Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn, played by Mia Sara of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Legend fame. But the Joker did get one brief cameo in a flashback sequence showing how he crippled Barbara Gordon, forcing her to give up her Batgirl identity. Although voiced by Star Wars alumnus and voice acting legend Mark Hamill, the Joker was physically portrayed by stuntman and actor Roger Stoneburner. No, we have no idea who he is. Heck, he probably has no idea who he is.
Verdict: Honestly only here on a technicality. Barely counts.
In a nutshell: The Joker you have when you’re not having a Joker.
So, here’s the thing: the CW’s Gotham TV series, which explores the titular city in the years between the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and the debut of the Batman, wasn’t allowed to use the Joker as a character.
Not about to let that stop them, the showrunners introduced not one, but two proto-Jokers, reasoning that the actual Joker must have been inspired by some prior criminal (which is a weak line of reasoning, but let’s see how we go…).
Enter not one but two ersatz Jokers: twins Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska, played by Cameron Monaghan. Jerome, introduced in season one as a psychotic killer sent to Arkham Asylum, is swiftly killed off as a bit of misdirection, setting the stage – after a bit of resurrection, cult-building, and a second death – for his twin brother to take up the mantle, after being dosed with chemicals in an echo of the character’s comic book origins.
Although everyone involved in Gotham swore up and down that Jeremiah was not the Joker, even after dumping him in yet another vat of chemicals and bleaching his skin white, it’s clear from the clip below who the character is meant to be, even though they were never permitted to explicitly state it. Still, points off for dissembling.
In a nutshell: What if Eminem was a juggalo gangsta?
Look, even eight years later Our Heath was a hard act to follow and poor Jared Leto was cruising for a bruising following his Oscar win for The Dallas Buyer’s Club. In Australia, at least, the combo of tall poppy syndrome and being seen to be disrespecting a beloved and now deceased local icon is near-fatal. Poor Jared was always 30 seconds from a flogging.
Still, you can’t say they didn’t try something different. As portrayed in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, the Joker is more crime boss than capering loon; more calculating killer than anarchic psycho. With his gang tattoos, purple alligator-skin trenchcoat, and cold, dead, yellow-sclera-ed eyes, Leto’s Joker was at least a different take on the character. His manic, scenery-chewing performance fit Ayer’s garish, street art sensibilities perfectly.
Leto was mired in a pretty goddamn poor movie, though. And the rapidly-shifting DCEU production landscape means we never got to see him really clash with Ben Affleck’s now equally DOA Dark Knight.
Verdict: Not as bad as you remember, but not good enough to rank higher.
In a nutshell: What if the Joker was directed by Martin Scorsese?
The latest iteration takes us deep (allegedly) into the psyche of one Arthur Freck. He is a deeply depressed and put-upon would-be stand-up comedian, who eventually puts on clown make-up and picks up a gun – because we live in a society, dammit.
Yes, that meme is getting stale, but that really is director and co-writer Todd Phillips’ thesis here. By gum Joaquin Phoenix gives it a red hot go, giggling disconcertingly and contorting his scarecrow-thin body as he takes us down these mean streets and into the black heart of Gotham City circa 1981.
However, no matter what thespianic wonders Phoenix can perform, his Joker is hamstrung by the fact that the whole exercise is deeply informed by the works of one Martin Scorsese, especially Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which means we’ve seen it done better. A lot better: Phillips lacks Scorsese’s empathy, visual flair and eye for telling detail – he can only pastiche, to obviously lesser effect. Pro tip: when making a film, try not to remind people of better films.
Verdict: What if the Joker was directed by Martin Scorsese with a severe head injury?
We tend to forget that, no matter how you slice it, these characters were invented to entertain children. While there’s some perverse pleasure to be derived from the demented, method-mired performances of a Ledger, a Phoenix, or even a Leto as the Joker, this garish villain is designed to put a grin on kids’ faces. Nobody understood that better than Cesar Romero.
The classic ‘60s TV series managed to draw some really incredible talent to fill out its rogues’ gallery, including Burgess Meredith as The Penguin, Eartha Kitt as Catwoman and Vincent Price as Egghead. But Cesar Romero was a real get. Already a huge star with a “Latin lover” persona, Romero took the role with one condition: he would not be forced to shave off his trademark mustache.
Today, watching the show in HD, it’s clearly visible through the greasepaint, but that just adds an extra element of kookiness to Romero’s playful and boundlessly energetic turn. His Joker is camp, crazy, capricious and weirdly charming: the perfect supervillain for the short pants set and those who appreciate the lighter and loonier things in life.
In a nutshell: Forget about it Jack, it’s Gothamtown.
In 1989 there was simply no better choice. Nicholson’s knowing leer – practically his trademark – was begging to be slathered in red makeup and projected onto the big screen. Warner Bros. knew it and were happy to pay a premium for the privilege. With profit participation, Nicholson took home something in the region of $50 million.
It was totally worth it. Nicholson’s fearless, OTT performance, coupled with director Tim Burton’s art school pretensions, gave us a Joker for the ages: part Mafia torpedo, part prancing Dadaist art thug: the perfect centerpiece for the film’s towering, impressionistic, art deco Gotham City. All poor Michael Keaton’s Batman can do is hang his largely immobile head and brood in the shadows. This flick belongs to Jac – er, that is, the Joker.
Verdict: The world’s first fully functioning homicidal artist.
The Joker is an Agent of Chaos in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This Joker has no past and no future. He simply is, existing in the moment and at the centre of an intricate (and, be honest, improbable) web of plans, conspiracies and contingencies, tying Batman, the cops and Gotham City up in knots as they try to figure out exactly what he wants. Meanwhile, Michael Caine’s Alfred has already made the correct diagnosis.
Following in the footsteps of Romero and Nicholson, what still amazes about the late Heath Ledger’s turn as the Joker is how complete his performance is. For all his quirks, tics, and mannerisms, his strangled delivery, his hunched posture…it all comes together to create a whole character. Ledger’s Joker might be unknowable, but he is instantly, iconically recognizable in a way that goes beyond the surface details of makeup, scars and hair dye, and communicates something deeply unsettling. It’s simply a bravura performance.
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