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It’s rare that a super villain can achieve anywhere near the same amount of popularity that the hero they frequently battle, but The Joker is definitely at that level. Debuting in 1940’s Batman #1 (the same issue where Catwoman first appeared), the Clown Prince of Crime has long been cemented as the Caped Crusader’s arch-nemesis, so naturally he’s also been adapted in other media numerous times. In fact, we’ve reached a point where The Joker is now the star of his own movie, and he won’t even be fighting Batman!
As one can logically assume from this kind of prominence, The Joker isn’t a simple role. With so many years of history, there are various ways one can play this character, so with that in mind, we’ve decided to look at the actors who’ve bring this cackling fiend to life on the silver screen. Just to be clear, this feature is only discussing theatrical portrayals of Joker, although I do recommend checking out Cameron Monaghan’s performances as Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska on the Fox series Gotham, as those twins cover the Joker spectrum excellently.
Cesar Romero's Joker in Batman (The 1966 Movie)
Although Batman made his first live action appearance in a 1943 film serial, it’d be another 23 years before The Joker got to follow suit in the live action Batman TV series. Cesar Romero, who had an extensive movie and TV resume and was arguably known best beforehand as The Cisco Kid in six Westerns released between 1939 and 1941, was cast as the Clown Prince of Crime, and for the most part, he nailed the character quite well. Modeled off how Joker was portrayed in the Silver Age of Comics, when superhero stories were more kid-friendly, Romero’s Joker was more of a goofy prankster than a psychopathic murderer, which fit with the TV series’ tone nicely. Romero also refused to shave off his mustache when playing The Joker, requiring the white makeup be applied over the facial hair.
Two months after the Batman Season 1 finale aired, these versions of the characters made the jump to the big screen in the first ever full-length theatrical Batman movie, simply and appropriately titled Batman. Cesar Romero’s Joker teamed up with Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, Lee Meriwether’s Catwoman and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin teaming up to cause all kinds of trouble, with this clip demonstrating their dynamic together and Romero’s overall Joker personality.
Naturally, Romero’s Joker in the Batman movie didn’t differ in any way from how he played the character on the Batman TV series, and the movie was critically well-received and performed decently commercially. In the grand scheme of things, while Romero’s Joker is definitely not nearly as frightening as later versions of Joker, he still has a sizable amount of fans all these years later.
Jack Nicholson's Joker in Batman (The 1989 Movie)
As popular as the 1960s Batman TV series was and still is, there’s no question that it’s campy and kooky, basically meaning you can show it to fans of all ages. The 1989 Batman movie, on the other hand, isn’t something you necessarily want to show to the kids. It marked the Caped Crusader’s first on-screen entry into adult territory, and Jack Nicholson was hired to play The Joker in this tale. Nicholson was unquestionably the biggest actor in this movie thanks to his performances in Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and he beat out actors like Brad Dourif, Tim Curry, John Lithgow and James Woods for the role.
Jack Nicholson had many memorable moments as The Joker in Batman, but arguably the weirdest one was when he and his goons defaced the paintings inside a museum while dancing to Prince music.
There were two chief differences with Jack Nicholson’s iteration of The Joker compared to how he’s depicted in the comics: one, we knew his real name (Jack Napier), and two, he was the one who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents as opposed to the traditional culprit, Joe Chill. Beyond that, though, Nicholson’s Joker was a relatively faithful adaptation of the super villain, from gaining his clownish visage after falling into a vat of chemicals to preferring to kill people “artistically” and with dramatic flair. We were only treated to one appearance from this Joker, although had the movie Batman Unchained moved forward, the plan was for Nicholson’s Joker to appear when Batman hallucinated him after being dosed with Scaercrow’s fear gas. In any case, for nearly two decades, it’s safe to say that Nicholson’s Joker was the definitive live action Joker, and even now, he’s still fondly remembered by many for portraying the character not as a pest, but as the psychopathic murderer he is at his core.
Mark Hamill Voice Acting Joker in Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm
Obviously everyone has their favorite version of The Joker, but it’s not exaggerating to say that most Batman fans label Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, as the definitive voice of the Clown Prince of Crime. Hamill has voiced across Joker across numerous projects for nearly 30 years, but he’s chiefly known for playing the character within the DC Animated Universe, specifically Batman: The Animated Series. A year after that TV show debuted, it jumped to the big screen with Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm, which didn’t fare well commercially during its theatrical run, but was met with critical acclaim and has had a wonderful home video life.
Serving as the secondary antagonist in Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm, Mark Hamill’s Joker was largely the same as it was on television. He could be wacky and absurd one minute, but then turn on a dime and become incredibly horrifying the next minute. This was highlighted nicely when Joker first shows up to meet Salvatore Valestra, his boss from his pre-clown days.
However, because the movie wasn’t subject to the same censorship rules Batman: The Animated Series had to follow airing on Fox Kids, that allowed more wiggle room with making Joker more adult. Even under a PG rating, Mask of the Phantasm got away with Joker much more adult, such as him actually killing people and making sexual innuendos. While I’ll argue that the direct-to-video Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker gave us the darkest version of Mark Hamill’s Joker in the DCAU, Mask of the Phantasm is nonetheless a great example of how Batman’s arch-nemesis can tread a fine line between funny and terrifying.
Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight
After being teased at the end of Batman Begins, The Joker surfaced several years later as the main antagonist in The Dark Knight, played by Heath Ledger. I don’t need to remind any of you that Ledger’s take on The Joker was acclaimed and netted the actor a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. That said, it is worth remembering that in the lead-up to The Dark Knight’s release, there was skepticism about Christopher Nolan’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime. Along with Ledger’s previous acting work causing concern that he could properly pull off a villain like this, this version of The Joker is quite different from how he is usually depicted, particularly his physical appearance (wearing makeup, dying his hair green and having a Glasgow smile carved into his face) and use of traditional weapons rather than dangerous gag items.
Nevertheless, this Joker was incredibly dangerous, as shown in the scene when he killed Gambol (who’d put a bounty on Joker’s head) and basically turned the phrase “Why so serious?” into one of the most unsettling lines in movie history.
Ultimately, though, the spirit of the original Joker was alive in Heath Ledger’s Joker. He thrived off chaos, and rather than wanting to be just another powerful, money-obsessed crime boss in Gotham City, he aimed to spread anarchy and give the people a better class of criminal. Ledger’s Joker was definitely a more politically-skewed version of the character, but he went all out with giving audiences something incredibly different from what had come before, which included locking himself in a hotel room for six weeks to figure out his Joker’s voice, movements and mannerisms. The result was that Ledger’s Joker is not only widely considered to be the best live action interpretation of the cackling madman, but also one of the best movie villains overall.
Jared Leto's Joker in Suicide Squad
Eight years after we watched Heath Ledger’s Joker nearly bring Gotham City to its knees, Jared Leto put his own spin on the character in Suicide Squad, the first movie not to have Batman and Joker directly fighting one another. Although Leto’s Joker saw the return of some of Joker’s traditional physical traits, like naturally chalk-white skin and green hair, like Ledger, he also had some drastic differences, like tattoos covering his whole body and bejeweled teeth. Because Suicide Squad featured his main squeeze, Harley Quinn, in her first live action film appearance, his role in the movie revolved around his relationship with her: how he manipulated Harleen Qunizel when she was a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, how he became depressed after she was imprisoned and his efforts to free her from Task Force X.
Like his comic book counterpart, Jared Leto’s Joker was also a powerful figure in Gotham City, as show in this clip where he kills another crime boss simply for making a lustful comment about Harley Quinn.
Although Suicide Squad was a commercial hit, it was thrashed critically, and Jared Leto’s Joker performance was among the more negatively received elements. For starters, Joker didn’t get that much screen time in the movie, so that meant for some people, there wasn’t enough scenes to properly judge this version of the character. Others were just dissatisfied with this Joker’s physical appearance and/or his weird mannerisms, or just the fact that he came across as a standard, if eccentric, gangster rather than the colorful super villain we know best. It also didn’t help that Leto’s refusal to break character during principal photography led to him doing some crazy things, including sending bizarre gifts like a briefcase full of bullets, a live rat and used condoms. So Jared Leto’s Joker performance certainly isn’t one of the more popular ones, but he may have an opportunity leave a better impression in the future. Assuming he doesn’t become too busy with playing Morbius the Living Vampire or DCEU plans don’t change further, that is.
Zach Galifianakis Voice Acting Joker in The Lego Batman Movie
The Lego Batman Movie is a humorous celebration of Batman’s decades-long history, so naturally The Joker would be involved in the festivities. This movie portrays Batman and Joker’s feud through a romantic-like lens, so when the former tells the latter that he doesn’t mean anything special to him, Joker is hurt. But that just leads Joker to crafting his most ambitious plan yet: surrendering both himself and the rest of Gotham City’s super villains into police custody, and then tricking Batman into sending him into the Phantom Zone when the Caped Crusader suspects he’s up to something. The result: Joker allying himself with villains from other areas of pop culture, escaping the Phantom Zone and attempting to destroy Gotham City. Eventually Batman, having realized he’d been selfish to everyone in his life, “makes up” with The Joker, and the two work together to save the city and send the other villains back to the Phantom Zone before resuming their usual rivalry.
The scene when Joker surrenders himself to the GCPD is a good demonstration of how Zach Galifianakis’ Joker has a more playful edge, but still acts incredibly suspicious.
While there’s nothing wrong with Zach Galifianakis’ Joker performance, there’s also nothing particularly exceptional about it either. It simply sounds like Galifianakis as you hear him in movies like The Hangover and Keeping Up with the Joneses. The actor is amusing enough in the role and is given some good lines, but ultimately, there’s nothing particularly memorable about it. Which is fine, as Galifianakis does a satisfiable job with what he’s given, and fans of the actor will likely appreciate what he did. If The Lego Batman Movie 2 does move forward, the filmmakers might as well bring him back for it.
Joaquin Phoenix's Joker In The Upcoming Movie
Admittedly, we can’t comment too much yet on what’s in store for Joker since the movie is months away from being released. That said, from what’s been revealed from this movie so far, both officially and unofficially, this is going to be a significantly different depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime. For one thing, Joker is telling the eponymous character’s origin story without Batman’s involvement. Bruce Wayne will be in the movie, but as a child and with both of his parents still around. Then there’s the fact that like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is wearing clown makeup instead of falling into a vat of chemicals. However, the leaked set photos and videos show Phoenix’s Joker leading a crime wave across Gotham City, so clearly this incarnation of the character is just as talented in igniting chaos as his predecessors.
Although Joaquin Phoenix had expressed interest in starring in a comic book movie as early as 2014, he was more interested in doing a “character study”-kind of movie, hence why he declined to play Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since Joker doesn’t take place within the DCEU and isn’t adhering closely to the comics source material, this allowed Phoenix more freedom with putting his own stamp on the main character, who in this continuity is Arthur Fleck, a failed stand-up comedian who is driven insane and turns to crime after being disregarded by society. We’ll have to wait for a trailer to get our first taste of Phoenix’s Joker performance, but at the very least, this movie will be an interesting experiment that could shake up the comic book movie genre, as well as satisfy Phoenix’s desire to contribute to the genre without being locked in for numerous sequels.
Be sure to let us know in the comments below not only which of the above actors gave your favorite Joker performance, but to name anybody you like who played the character on TV, direct-to-video movies or video games. Joker hits theaters on October 4.