I’m sorry, but we just had to do it you. Batman fever has gripped the world once again, and that means it’s time to look back on his arch-rival, the jolly thorn in his stoic side, the one and only Joker! Many actors have slapped on the grease paint and strapped on a flower full of laughing gas to take their turn as Batman’s nemesis, and we are here to rank them all!
The key components to a good Joker are six-fold: 1. Comedic timing (he is called the Joker, after all!!) 2. A barely concealed, bubbling menace. 3. Suave showmanship (think Vaudeville, baby!) 4. Violent outbursts! Lots of them! 5. Relishing the role (extremely important). 6. THE LAUGH. THERE’D BETTER BE A GOOD ONE.
A complex set of requirements, I know! But part of what gives a comic book villain like the Joker staying power is his multifacetedness. He doth contain multitudes. And so here is the definitive ranking of every Joker actor (with the exception of the voice actors from the various video games, because that is a different beast), separated into their respective categories of film, television, and animation!
1. Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight (2008)
This might feel like the obvious choice, but Ledger broke the mold with his radically different take on the Clown Prince of Crime. His Joker dials all of the menace and chaos up to eleven, but he is still a showman and still has incredible comedic timing (as long as you don’t mind getting stabbed with a pencil)! Ledger’s last performance, but also possibly his best, he completely disappears into the role (even his voice!), and while director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy maybe doesn’t stand the test of time, Ledger’s Joker is worth returning to.
2. Jack Nicholson – Batman (1989)
As someone who grew up on Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher’s Batman films and often longs for an end (or at least a reprieve) from the “gritty” superhero movie, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is a classic. Nicholson oozes devilish charm and harsh violence in equal measure. He’s the king of one-liners. Plus, he looks absolutely nightmare-inducing in that smile prosthetic.
3. Joaquin Phoenix – Joker (2019)
I know many of us would love to forget Joker and the unending Discourse that plagued Twitter in 2019 (pre-pandemic? What a sheltered paradise we were living in then), but I have to be honest and say that Joaquin Phoenix’s turn as the chaos clown is actually pretty great! This is a sad sack Joker, a big incel boy, and Phoenix’s physicality and awkwardness is pretty mesmerizing. He’s not a traditional joker—in fact, the story is basically a ripoff of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy with face paint—but Phoenix dives into the role with gusto.
4. Barry Keoghan – The Batman (2022)
The newest Joker on the roster, Barry Keoghan in Matt Reeve’s The Batman! When this reboot of The Bat landed in theaters, audiences were stoked to learn that the rumors of Barry Keoghan stepping into the Joker’s shiny shoes were correct! He only makes a small appearance at the end of the film, but it sets up many exciting potential conflicts for future sequels! And this small cameo was still miles ahead of Jared Leto, who we will be getting to presently.
5. Jared Leto – Suicide Squad (2016)/Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)
Ugh. An easy choice for the bottom of the heap. Sorry, Snyder bros and Ayer bros (not really), but Leto’s turn as the Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad (and his cameo in the Snyder Cut) is a misfire on multiple levels. The look is trying way too hard. His Joker, to be fair, doesn’t really have much to do, but when he’s seen, he’s essentially just a gangster or an abusive boyfriend. The Joker has minions and henchmen, but he’s not the Godfather. Making him a mafioso doesn’t work. The vibes, they were off!
1. Cesar Romero – Batman (1966-1968)
The original Joker! The pinnacle of perfection! His iconic laugh set the tone for every subsequent Joker to don the spats and the clown makeup. The 1960s Batman show will always be my favorite iteration of the comic book legend because it embraces the comedy and the camp. It knows it’s silly and it loves every second of it, and that includes their roster of respected film actors who stepped in to play various villains (like Vincent Price as Egg Head), but none relished it more than Romero, even if he chose chaos by refusing to shave his mustache for the part.
2. Cameron Monaghan – Gotham (2014-2019)
Listen, Gotham was a mess. But much like Marie Kondo, I too love mess. I think what made it enjoyable was that it was not just a superhero prequel story, but it was also a soap opera, and it was also leaning into the high camp of the 1960s series. Everything was always one hundred percent over the top (like Jada Pinkett-Smith changing her accent twenty times in one scene), and so, of course, in Gotham, Cameron Monaghan doesn’t play just one Joker but two! Or rather, a proto-Joker and a real Joker that just happened to be twins (Jerome and Jeremiah) played by one actor.
That’s great because it gave Monaghan so much scenery to chew on. As Jerome, the proto-Joker, he is rabid, almost feral. As Jeremiah (who is poisoned with “insanity gas” by his deceased twin brother—I told you it was a soap opera!), he becomes a posh, effete dandy. And finally, in the last season, he is back to being monstrous. Unfortunately, that monster is now covered in some prosthetics that look they came straight out of the Halloween Town mask section, but he’s still having fun and giving great comedic timing!
3. Nick Creegan – Batwoman (2019-)
Ok, I have to admit, I am not a huge fan of The CW/DC live-action shows so far. Part sexy soap opera and part procedural, they always just fall kind of flat. Things have to be sexy—and serious!—but mostly, sexy. This means that they often don’t delve into the darker, grosser sides of their villains, which is a damn shame. Unfortunately, this also appears to be the case for Batwoman‘s new “big bad,” Marquis Jet, who was just revealed to be the new Joker. Played by Nick Creegan, he is the first Black Joker, which is rad as hell! Unfortunately, while this Joker is charismatic, charming, and vaguely threatening, he so far lacks the truly chaotic, change-on-a-dime nature that makes a great Joker, and any proper comedic timing. However, hopefully the show will give him Creegan better material to work with in the future (and stop drawing inspiration from Jared Leto’s version).
1. Mark Hamill – Batman The Animated Series, The Killing Joke, Batman Beyond (and more!)
Ok look. Mark Hamill is not just the Clown Prince of Crime—he is the Clown King! Hamill has voiced the Joker more times than any other actor in everything from Batman the Animated Series, to video games, to movie specials—he is the GOAT! When you think of the voice of the Joker, I guarantee you are thinking of his voice! His iconic performance has such staying power because of its fluidity. It is slick and oily; it is giddy and giggly; it is furious. Hamill knows how to deliver a one-liner and a punch. Part of what makes him such a successful voice for the Joker is the absolute control he has over his voice (and also how easy he makes it seem). He can send the Joker’s voice up into a reedy nasally whine or down into a gravelly pit (what my vocal instructor once referred to as “broken earth”) in a split second. All other Jokers inevitably get compared to him.
2. Alan Tudyk – Harley Quinn (2019-)
Alan Tudyk has carved out quite a niche for himself as a sought-after voice actor. He pops up in everything from Star Wars: Rogue One to Wreck-It Ralph, and his voice is completely unrecognizable every time. So, naturally, he would have to take a stab out our purple-garbed supervillain! He voices several characters in the animated Harley Quinn series (like Clayface), but his turn as the Joker is near perfect. He is definitely following Hamill’s lead with this one, and I’m not complaining about the results!
3. John DiMaggio – Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010)
Known mostly as being the voice of Bender on Futurama and Jake the Dog on Adventure Time, John DiMaggio has a distinct gravelly roar that is recognizable anywhere—a trait that doesn’t seem like it would mesh well with what we think of as a classic Joker voice, and yet, it provides a performance that feels delightfully unique. DiMaggio gives us Joker that is vocally a little rougher around the edges but no less deliciously devious. His cackle becomes a wheeze, but it still hits the sweet spot.
4. Kevin Michael Richardson – The Batman (2004-2008)
Another king of the voiceover world, Kevin Michael Richardson‘s deep baritone has been heard in everything from The Simpsons to Family Guy, to even The Matrix Revolutions. Now, a baritone is maybe not something that comes to mind when imagining the Joker’s voice, but Richardson is a master of his instrument and pulls out all the stops for his performance as the Joker and Joker 2.0 (The Joker’s consciousness is accidentally downloaded into an army of nano-bots) in the 2004 animated show The Batman. The only thing that hinders it is an unfortunate character redesign. Even still, Richardson is fantastic and even received two Daytime Emmy Award nominations for the role.
5. Jeff Bennett – Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011)
Bennett‘s turn as the Joker in the animated series Batman: the Brave and the Bold is also excellent. He really excels at the suave, posh side of the Joker, but not so much so that it overwhelms his wild side. He gives good banter with the Bat and even gets to sing, however his poshness becomes a strange almost mid-Atlantic accent at times and Johnny Bravo at others, and his laugh, while good, isn’t as inspired as some of the ones higher up on the list.
6. Michael Emerson – The Dark Knight Returns (2012)
On paper, casting Michael Emerson (one of our great character actors and go-to for TV villains) as the Joker feels like the perfect choice. Unfortunately, Emerson’s voice is just too recognizable, and the contrast between his high, weasel-like voice and the absurdly large, beefy character design creates a dissonance that becomes distracting instead of intriguing.
7. Zach Galifianakis – The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
This one breaks my heart. I love Zach Galifianakis, and I enjoy the Lego movies, but his Joker (despite the image above) lacks teeth. Granted, the Lego movie is supposed to be a comedic, more lighthearted, twist on the franchise (with Will Arnett’s Batman being a jerk to all), but Galifianakis’ Joker lacks any seething menace. He’s just too likable! He feels more like a hurt kid (or ex) lashing out, and while that can be a solid villain origin story, it’s not right for the Clown Prince of Chaos.
(images: DC Entertainment/Warner Bros/Warner Bros Animation/20th Century Fox)
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]