He’s the Clown Prince of Crime, but he’ll always be the king of comic book supervillains.
This week, along comes yet another Joker, Joaquin Phoenix, in the bat-villain’s self-titled movie, which earned the top prize at the Venice Film Festival and generally positive reviews, although there were a handful of harsh ones. In the era of ever-expanding superhero entertainment, it appears we’ll have a new Joker for every generation. There will never be a last laugh.
Behind the cruel jokes and creepy smiles, the Joker is and always will be pure evil, which makes it all the more fascinating that we sometimes cheer him on — or laugh ourselves. Perhaps the Joker’s wildness helps balance out Batman’s dark whispers.
Here’s where we rank each on-screen Joker. Send in the clowns.
8. Jared Leto, “Suicide Squad” (2016)
Whatever memorable Joker performance Leto could have given was probably left on the cutting room floor. “Suicide Squad” went through extensive reshoots to lighten up its tone after the bad buzz of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The result? Hardly any Joker at all. The Joker wasn’t even the main villain in the final act.
The Joker should never be just a side character, which is why this version never clicked. Other than a few flashback scenes with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn that felt like “Batman: The Animated Series” and some Instagram-gangsta moments in the club (check out the chrome on that whip, and also the chrome in his grill), this Joker performance was as pointless as the “Damaged” tattoo they put on his face.
7. Zach Galifianakis, “The Lego Batman Movie” (2017)
Galifianakis’s gleeful, kid-friendly Joker was just as adorable as he was crazy — probably the least intimidating version you’ll ever see on screen. His major hang-up? That he isn’t the No. 1 villain in Batman’s life, as evidenced by the movie “Batman v Superman.” As he hollered to Will Arnett’s Lego Batman, “Superman’s not a bad guy!”
This Joker didn’t make it to No. 1 on this list either, in part because he’s the only one to be outshined by his on-screen Batman, who’s much funnier.
6. Cameron Monoghan, “Gotham” (2014-2019)
You can say this about Cameron Monoghan: He sure had the grin down.
In Fox’s “Gotham,” the Joker in his purist form can’t exist yet because it focuses on Bruce Wayne’s adolescence. But “Gotham” treats us to “Jerome.” He’s got the face full of mischievous giddiness. The laugh is on point.
Still, “Gotham” gives us too many moments of is-he-the-Joker-or-isn’t-he. Jerome has a twin brother, Jeremiah. And maybe he ends up being the Joker instead. Or maybe not. It’s a worthy attempt at a fresh origin story, but it’s frustrating to try to figure out.
5. Cesar Romero, “Batman” TV series (1966-1968)
The first live-action Joker arrived in this campy Adam West series, which allowed him to be one of the silliest on this list. He could escape a prison baseball match with an exploding baseball or challenge Batman to a surfing contest. (He put his swims trunks on over his full-length suit.)
“This life at best is one long practical joke” were the words of advice Romero’s Joker gave someone before handing them an exploding cigar.
But nothing was funnier than Romero’s refusal to shave off his mustache when applying his Joker makeup on set. All the powder in the world couldn’t make Romero’s lip look hairless (though it still looked better than the CGI mustache job done on Henry Cavill’s Superman half a century later). He probably figured his smile-a-minute performances and devilish laugh were distraction enough from his disdain of shaving.
4. Jack Nicholson, “Batman” (1989)
Typically, so much of a Joker performance is the actor’s transformation, but what makes Nicholson’s turn so iconic is that it appeared he was just being himself. You almost got the feeling his Joker was still celebrating the Los Angeles Lakers back-to-back championships of the late ’80s (his jacket was purple, after all).
It worked to perfection. Deadly gags were his game, from acid-spewing boutonnieres to buzzers that turned handshakes into a murder scene. Even during Michael Keaton’s pop-culture moment as Batman, with a superhero suit ahead of its time and a monster of a Batmobile, Nicholson’s Joker could look at all that and declare he just wasn’t that impressed. His Joker refused to accept Gotham’s fascination with Batman.
No Joker had better one-liners. (“Wait till they get a load of me.” “Where does he get those wonderful toys?”) Have you ever “danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” Neither has this Joker. But he sure loved saying that.
When Bruce Wayne described the villain’s alter ego, Jack Napier, as a “mean kid” and “bad seed” who “hurt people,” Nicholson’s Joker responded with one of the film’s funniest lines: “I like him already.”
3. Joaquin Phoenix, “Joker” (2019)
No movie featuring the Joker has ever given such an in-depth look at the man he was before he became a monster. It asks: Would anyone else go just as mad under the same circumstances Arthur Fleck had to endure?
Fleck is a failed professional clown and an even worse stand-up comedian, living a life beset by cruelty and misunderstanding. This Joker’s uncontrollable laugh is attributed to an illness but also seems to be a reaction to the lack of love and human decency he’s experienced his entire life. He knows he needs help. And he knows none is coming.
We’ve seen the Joker be lethal before, but never so gruesomely, thanks to an R rating. Phoenix’s version is the hero and the villain, in a battle with himself, seeking a sick type of justice. His face always seems to be carrying the burden of mental and physical pain, even when he forces a smile. His slow-motion dances are the briefest moments of bliss, but they always precede carnage. Who knew a movie with a Joker and no Batman could work?
2. Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Never had the Joker been more horrifying on screen. “The Dark Knight” was Ledger’s playground from the opening bank-robbing scene. Gone was the chemically whitened face from the comics, replaced with raccoon black eyes and melting war paint. The big smile? Signified by the long, self-inflicted scars on his cheeks. Fans cried foul when the first online images arrived, but little did they know a legendary performance awaited.
Ledger’s Joker basked in the psychological breakdown of his opponents, using questions as verbal jabs. “Why so serious?” “Do you wanna know how I got these scars?” “Do you want to know why I use a knife?” The answer was never pleasant.
Director Christopher Nolan kept his Joker alive at the end of “The Dark Knight.” But Ledger’s untimely death shortly before the film’s release meant we’d never get the rematch with Batman everyone wanted.
1. Mark Hamill, “Batman: The Animated Series” (1992-1995)
For all of Batman’s live-action achievements, there is no greater love letter to his comic book mythos than this ’90s classic TV show. And where were you when you learned that its Joker voice is none other than Luke Skywalker? If you think Bart Simpson sang “jingle bells, Batman smells” best, wait until you see Hamill’s Joker do it, while climbing on top of a Christmas tree that turns into a rocket that propels him out of prison.
Hamill once said the Joker’s laugh should be a musical instrument that illustrated his mood, which is probably why no one else could giggle better. Most on-screen Jokers are set on one emotion. Hamill’s Joker had them all: angry, sad, scary and funny. (When a terrified onlooker says “Great Scott!” he responds, “Actually, I’m Irish.”)
Hamill managed to create a villain who kept adults compelled even within the confines of a kids’ series. And when he brought his character to the R-rated straight-to-home-video adaptation of the classic comic tale “The Killing Joke,” he proved it could stand alongside Jokers with darker material.
And don’t forget: Without this Joker, there’s no Harley Quinn, who just happens to be one of the most exciting things DC’s live-action movies have going for them at the moment.
The best Joker ever? As Quinn would put it, it’s Mr. J.
This story has been updated.