Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips are setting the stage on a new era for the Clown Prince of Crime. Digging deeper than Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, the new Joker looks create an intricate character study on how Arthur Fleck became the Jester of Genocide.
But before Phoenix sets into the shoes of Batman’s most famous and lethal nemesis, many others have put on the facepaint as well. And to be clear, they have all been great. Even the most over the top performance of the Ace of Knaves is still entertaining as hell to watch.
In fact, I’m gonna put it out there and state that every Joker critic who put together a “worst to best Joker” list with the idea that any Joker is legitimately bad doesn’t have an appreciation of the source material or the performance.
So with that in mind, here is a look Joker performances from both the silver screen and the small screen. Each are memorable in their own, weird, wonderful, wicked ways.
Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010) Lego DC Comics Super Heroes: Justice League: Attack of the Legion of Doom (2015)
Influences: Mark Hamill
The great John DiMaggio is better known for Bender, Jake the Dog, and Crosshairs than his turn as the Joker in a handful of Batman outings. That said, the man is a professional and was able to add a depth of character to his version of the Clown Prince in Under the Red Hood, which hit audiences with an unexpected emotional wallop thanks to the brilliant script and fantastic voice work of the entire cast.
Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014), Batman Unlimited (2015), Batman Unlimited: Monster Mayhem (2015), Batman Unlimited: Mechs vs. Mutants (2016)
Influences: Batman: The Killing Joke
The is only one Harlequin of Hate when it comes to the video game world, and that is Troy Baker. Although initially dismissed by the fanbase, the Batman gaming world has come into its own, adding The Dark Knight mythos by expanding storylines and offering new details and backstories on its characters.
Such is the case for the Joker, often a central figure to many of the storylines. His life in Arkham, his association with other characters and his ability to pull the strings on countless situations to make them go awry is fully explored in the multiplayer world. And thanks to Baker’s efforts, the Joker is truly the game’s big bad. In every sense of the word.
The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Sometimes, you just want to see the Joker on the verge of tears as a boy in makeup, just standing in front of another boy…asking him to hate him.
Watching the emotionally invested Joker of the Lego World is a bit of a treat, really. Really years of serious psychopaths looking to rob banks, kill innocents, and wreck havoc, it is nice to see a hilarious interpretation of the character.
Galifianakis bring his comedy chops to the table as a Joker who can go from evil to butt-hurt on a moment’s whim when he gets a sense that Batman doesn’t care. After all, where is the fun in making mischief if mom is busy with her stories?
A great perf that is often overlooked, but shouldn’t be.
The Suicide Squad (2016)
Main influence: The tatted joker from All-Star Batman & Robin #8, Batman: Detective Comics #1, The Killing Joke, Harley Quinn and Joker: A Mad Love
While the main event might have fallen flat with critics, Leto’s twisted turn as hipster Joker was still an entertaining performance. More nightclub gangsta than bank robber, Leto’s take on the classic character incorporated a new, modern look, new laugh, and new mannerisms that showed off the Joker’s unhinged persona.
In the end, what made Leto’s turn as the Joker memorable was his love for Harley Quinn. Both in many of the comics and the original source material from the animated series, Quinn is seen as the deranged sidekick whose schoolyard crush on Mistah J is met with a fist. This is a truly a chance to explore the softer side of that relationship (deleted scenes featuring shock treatment included). And for that, it deserves more recognition than it gets.
Gotham (2014 – 2019) – Jerome Valeska
Influences: Mark Hamill’s animated Joker
This is by far one of the more interesting takes of the Joker. The journey to get to the joker was riddled with weird missteps and odd character developments which resulted in one of the best
Joker performances of all time.
This isn’t a hyperbole. This is genius. It just happened to take place on a second-rate Batman show.
Now, Gotham isn’t bad, but it was uneven. It went from exciting to boring to completely missing the point and playing with the Batman narrative for its own amusement. That said, Monaghan’s turn as the proto-Joker who was technically not the Joker because of contractual agreements is a performance for the ages. As the unhinged son of a slutty snake charmer with a detachable face, Monaghan’s portrayal of Jerome is a combination of terrifying, insane, and chilling.
In essence, Monaghan’s “Joker” is no joke.
Batman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993), Justice League, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker (2000)
Influences: Claude Rains as The Invisible Man, 1928’s The Man Who Laughs
On the small screen, Hamill is the gold standard for voice work. For those not in the know, Luke Skywalker made a career for himself with his golden pipes, becoming the top tier of talent in voice work. This is best seen with his work as the Joker, adding nuance and depth to each 2D performance through his demented laugh and turn-on-a-dime demeanor.
Hamill’s work on Mask of the Phantasm was so outstanding that it became canon material for the Joker. In fact, Hamill’s work was so influential on the series as a whole that he helped with the acceptance of the animated show within the Batman fanbase.
Batman (1966 – 68), Batman the Movie (1968)
Influences: Golden Age Detective Comics
Cesar Romero was the first man to really step into the shoes of Batman’s biggest rival, so he became the inspiration for all that followed. His purple threads, his iconic green hair, and his demonic smile are all ripped from the comics. But Romero was able to put his spin on the fledgling character by making him charming.
Early Batman comics portrayed the Joker as evil and insane, a point that was driven home by his clown makeup and colorful wardrobe. However, it wasn’t until Romero that fans were able to see him as charismatic. When Romero is on screen, he steals the attention of the viewer. There is a draw to him, and therefore, we are drawn to the Joker. He is villainess, but my goodness, he is fun to watch.
Batman (1989) – Jack Napier
Influences: Golden Age Detective Comics
Nowadays, everyone seems to be taking aim at Nicholson’s Joker as over the top, cheesy, and “phoned in.”
Apparently, these folks have no memory of the late ‘80s and the buzz that was associated with Nicholson taking the role. At the time, Nicholson was an A-list actor. Getting an actor of his caliber to even look at a superhero script was a fete on itself. The fact that he took it…well, that was some dream casting right there.
No one seems to recall that at that time, everyone was up in arms about Michael Keaton being “miscast” as Bruce Wayner/Batman. The casting of Jack Nicholson is what saved the movie. His legacy is that he added gravitas to a role that no A-lister would touch. He legitimized superhero films.
Marvel owes him a thank you note.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Influences: The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, Clockwork Orange, Sid Vicious, Tom Waits
It is safe to say that Ledger elevated the role of the Joker. His performance turned a fun little role in a superhero movie into an award-winning turn that causes chills. It was a memorable performance that made the Joker into a character that can stand on his own without having to need Batman. Ledger turns Joker not into a thief or a murderer, but one of the most disturbed and deranged individuals to ever grace the big screen.
He is terrifying. And he is majestic.
It is because of this performance that we have the cult of Joker today, not to mention a stand alone Joker movie. Ledger’s contribution to the role is perhaps its greatest: He turned the Joker into a complex character, a man who became a beast, and from that he created the need for more. More story, more information, just more Joker. And for that, we are grateful.