In comic book movie history, only one character has led to an actor winning awards and highest acclaim for their role: The Joker.
Both Joaquin Phoenix and Heath Ledger won Academy Awards for their starkly different portrayals of The Clown Prince of Crime. Their wins are the only two performances in comic book films to garner such acclaim.
But, why? What makes The Joker such a fun and complex character to portray, just as compelling to watch no matter which way the character is taken in terms of personality and tendencies?
Some have played Mista J with flare and over-the-top zeal, while others have toned down his crazy nature only to shock audiences with moments of relentless violence when they least suspect it.
The truth of The Joker is that he’s malleable, ever-changing, never limited to one style or portrayal. And while some have given him better twirls than others, the clown remains one of cinema’s greatest villains.
Here’s our take on all the actors who have portrayed The Joker to see which cinema Joker was the best, and what made them so.
5. Cesar Romero (in 1966’s Batman)
If The Joker is defined by his relationship with Batman, then Cesar Romero was the perfect Joker for his era.
Going up against Adam West’s iteration of The Dark Knight, Romero was over-the-top, funny, and bombastic—everything that his role in the classic TV series and film called for him to become.
As the first actor to portray The Joker in live-action, Romero was also first to perfect the clown’s smile, laugh, and penchant for evil. He created character touchstones as he went, ones that would last decades.
Romero’s incarnation felt borderline Shakespearean as he combated Batman in their conflicts, while always setting out to please a young audience. That takes added skill to pull off with this character.
4. Jared Leto (in Suicide Squad and Zack Snyder’s Justice League)
Was this a case of a performance ruined by terrible storytelling and editing? Or was it just a bad performance? For years, fans of the character argued over Leto’s manic portrayal of The Joker because he didn’t have the screentime for a complete showing.
However, when Zack Snyder’s Justice League finally came out, there was one scene added by Snyder that involved The Joker’s return—with Leto getting another shot at the character.
During the scene, in which he discusses the deaths of Robin and Harley Quinn with Batman, Leto’s performance in Suicide Squad became clearer and showed that the poor outing of The Joker in that film pretty much did come down to its awful narrative and editing.
Watching Leto and Affleck verbally spar has become one of the most iconic moments in cinema for the comic book hero and villain pair, leaving fans wishing that there was more to come.
3. Jack Nicholson (in 1989’s Batman)
After the sweeping performances of both Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix in modern years, Jack Nicholson’s performance as The Joker has been somewhat forgotten.
However, in Batman, his character—which was a mob boss version of The Joker—was a villain that matched Michael Keaton’s Batman every step of the way. Nicholson’s comedic flush and warped sense of humor was the definitive incarnation of The Joker for almost two decades.
Of course, an actor with Nicholson’s pedigree was perfect for the role—given that Nicholson has made a career out of playing slightly unhinged characters—and his iteration remains a unique experience to this day.
The scene where Nicholson’s Joker pulls an extraordinarily large gun from his trousers and brings down the Batplane? One of the best Joker moments, one that feels like an homage to Cesar Romero’s performance.
2. Joaquin Phoenix (in Joker)
The difference between Heath Ledger’s Joker and Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker is vast. Neither actor looked at the role in the same way, which ended up with both giving starkly contrasting performances. The two only share the name as a commonality.
However, Phoenix’s Joker feels the most real of all Joker incarnations we’ve seen thus far. He’s the truest form of the character in the modern world, even if the film itself is set in the 1980s.
Phoenix’s Joker represents all downtrodden folks, the people who have no help available to them, which is why he comes across as relatable in many ways. Everybody can empathize with Arthur’s struggles in wanting to be something better. Yet when he starts to transform, it’s a horror.
Arthur, a man who isn’t horrible or evil, loses himself inside his psychopathic tendencies and begins to rise against those people in lofty positions. Arthur Fleck is a sick man driven to murderous tendencies by the world around him.
In the end, he kills people with a cold viciousness that isn’t a comic book translation of violence; instead, it feels wholly genuine.
1. Heath Ledger (in The Dark Knight)
The one thing missing from Arthur Fleck’s world was a nemesis. One who would stand toe-to-toe with him. In other words, a Batman.
Heath Ledger’s Joker may not be as realistic as Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, but he’s everything the character is in the comics: intelligent, sharp, combative, and able to pull off elaborate plans with ease.
As the ultimate challenge for Christian Bale’s Batman and one of cinema’s best-loved villains, Heath Ledger’s Joker is—as the kids say—box office. Every second he’s on screen is one you can’t turn away from. We’re engrossed by The Joker turning Gotham into a world of fiery chaos.
The main strength of this Joker iteration is that he remains a nobody. He’s unknown and no one can find any trace of his real name. He’s pure chaos in human form who just wants to turn Batman on his head.
Though only on screen for about 30 minutes, Heath Ledger’s role is the definitive version of the clown—a character that retains his sense of mystery even over a decade later.
Honorable Mention: Mark Hamill (in Various Animated Batman Series)
We couldn’t get away with ignoring Mark Hamill. His performance as The Joker crossed into several mediums, including radio, television, and video games. For millions of people, he’s the iconic voice of The Joker.
Hamill’s cackle, tone shifts, and vocal range are able to convey The Joker’s internal thoughts and desires so well, to the point that his performance is truly a work of art in itself.
If there’s a perfect make-up of The Joker in modern pop culture, it would have to have the voice that Hamill gave him. When a voice other than Hamill’s comes from an animated Joker, it doesn’t feel complete—as though we’ve been cheated by an inferior actor.