A Definitive Ranking of the Best (and Worst) Actors To Play The Joker

A Definitive Ranking of the Best (and Worst) Actors To Play The Joker

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The following story contains spoilers for The Batman (2022)

Part of what makes Matt Reeves’ initial take on Batman—in 2022’s The Batman—is that his villains are a bit off main street as far as the history of the franchise goes. In Paul Dano’s Zodiac-esque Riddler and John Turturro’s smooth take on Carmine Falcone, he has a pair of main villains who compliment each other, acting as different forms of adversary for our main hero—and not getting in each other’s way. But this is Batman, after all, and Reeves was going to get his version of the guy we were all thinking of in there, one way or another.

Near the end of the movie, after the Riddler has been imprisoned, he makes a friend in his cell. It’s a laughing, cackling, scarred maniac—credited at the end of the movie only as “Unseen Arkham Prisoner”—but we all know exactly who this is: The Joker, played by Irish actor and Eternals star Barry Keoghan. A few weeks after release, Reeves released a deleted scene from the movie where it’s revealed that Batman (Robert Pattinson) and this weird, scarred, extra creepy take on the Clown Prince of Crime have a history, and a sort of Hannibal Lector Silence of the Lambs type of relationship. It’s very strange, but it works—and we can’t wait to see more.

Of course, with just one short scene and a longer scene that was ultimately deleted, it’s hard to rank Keoghan’s take on the character next to many others who have played the role. But it’s interesting to think about the impact the character has had culturally; in 2022, Anita from West Side Story became one of three characters in history to be played by multiple different actors and win each of them Oscars. One of them is Vito Corleone from The Godfather movies. The other is the Joker.

Yes, it was just a couple years ago that Joaquin Phoenix’s take on The Joker netted him an Oscar, and that came just over a decade after Heath Ledger’s legendary performance won him a posthumous statue of his own. It’s hard to imagine a third grabbing the gold in the future, but hey, stranger things have happened.

That being said, it’s important for us to reflect on the various Jokers that we’ve seen through the years. Some, of course, are better than others. Where will Keoghan’s take on the character fall? Ultimately, it’ll probably take a few years—if not the better part of a decade—to get a definitive answer to that question. But it feels safe to say he’s off to a good start.

N/A: Barry Keoghan (The Batman)

To put it bluntly: we just haven’t seen enough. Keoghan’s got some experience playing creepy—just check out his role in The Killing of a Sacred Deer—and based on his two brief appearances as the Joker (one deleted scene and one briefly in The Batman), he’ll provide a whole new (and very gross!) take on the character. But let’s let it all play out before we slot him in anywhere, right?

9. Jared Leto (Suicide Squad)

The only saving grace of Jared Leto’s ridiculous performance as The Joker—or Mr. J, as Margot Robbie’s significantly superior Harley Quinn calls him—is that he’s not in the movie all that much. From dramatically laying and posing on the ground like he’s Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! to the general Hot Topic teen aura capped off by the tattoo across his forehead that says ‘damaged,’ Leto’s Joker is by far the worst version of the character that’s existed. While he showed up briefly in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, he did not appear in The Suicide Squad, and we should all be happy about that.

8. Cameron Monaghan (Gotham)

Fox’s series about a young Bruce Wayne never officially had a character called “The Joker,” but the brothers Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska were supposed to represent “the idea” of the Joker. At the end of the series, it was unclear whether a third brother referred to as “J” became The Joker or if the characters themselves inspired the actual Joker in some other form.

But nonetheless, Gotham used did a nice job of capturing the maniacal energy of what most people imagine the character to be. Plus, there’s a scene where Jerome staples his face on? And that’s wild? The lack of ever properly being called “Joker” keeps him lower on our list, but it’s a fun portrayal nonetheless.

7. Cesar Romero (Batman [1966-1968])

Makeup and outfit aside, this version of The Joker is almost unrecognizable from the character we’ve come to expect today. With goofy plots and as a frequent object of slapstick humor, Cesar Romero’s Joker is essentially a sitcom side character. Plus, Romero actually never shaved his mustache beneath his makeup, and you can see it clearly in just about every clip or still image. It is golden.

6. Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

By default, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Arthur Fleck/Joker in Joker is the most in-depth, multi-dimensional portrayal of the character ever. Where other films have simply shown him as the dark foil to Batman’s hero, Joker shows us how he got to be the way he is—he’s the main show here.

And as always, Phoenix brought his A-game. The movie itself has been mired in controversy due to what some critics deem excessive violence, but Phoenix’s performance in particular has been singled out as one of his best, which is really saying something. He won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role, but in our Joker rankings it comes up a bit short, if only because this Joker never really feels like the criminal mastermind Joker that we all know—instead, it just feels like a sick person who is spiraling out of control.

5. Zach Galifianakis (The Lego Batman Movie)

This brilliant spin-off of The Lego Movie features Zach Galifianakis as the perfect foil to Will Arnett’s Batman (who, we should add, we also love). Not too heavy, this Joker just wants to be worthy of Batman’s attention—he almost seems jealous of Batman’s rivalry with Superman (“Not a bad guy!,” Joker says). With so many other portrayals focusing on the character’s darkness, Galifianakis shows it’s still possible to poke a little fun at The Joker.

5. Alan Tudyk (Harley Quinn)

The Harley Quinn Joker—voiced wonderfully by the ridiculously underrated Alan Tudyk—does two things that we really needed this particular take on the Joker to do. First and foremost, of course: be a good Joker. And he certainly does that. But the aspect of this Joker that feels new is the idea, in a series centered on Harley Quinn, that the Joker is not only a bad guy, but also a pretty fucking bad boyfriend. And this Joker is a complete asshole. Come for the Joker, stick around for the brief run where the Joker is “cured.”

4. Mark Hamill (Batman: The Animated Series and more)

Mark Hamill is best known as Luke Skywalker, and that probably won’t ever change. But in the time between Star Wars appearances, he earned a second career-defining role, voicing The Joker in a number of different Dark Knight properties. Starting with Batman: The Animated Series and continuing through other cartoons and video games, Hamill’s sinister tone might actually be the one you imagine in your head when thinking about Batman’s arch-nemesis. He’s the most unhinged and maniacal of The Jokers, but most importantly? He nails the laugh. Nails it.

2. Jack Nicholson (Batman (1989))

For nearly 20 years, Jack Nicholson’s Joker was the cinematic standard-bearer. This version of the character began as a mobster named Jack Napier, who transformed into The Joker after a fight with Batman led to chemical burns and facial scarring. Phoenix and Leto tried to totally transform The Joker into someone new, but Nicholson’s portrayal is simpler: it’s basically “evil Jack.” Nicholson’s legendary coolness and director Tim Burton’s dark imagination helped make this Joker one of the most iconic villains of the ’80s and ’90s.

1. Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)

There are some people who like to say that The Dark Knight has “aged poorly” in the 11 years since its initial release, but those people, quite frankly, have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s going to take a long time for anyone to top Christian Bale as Batman (though Robert Pattinson is sure going to try), but more importantly, it seems like a fool’s errand to try topping Heath Ledger’s turn playing the Crown Prince of Crime.

Introduced without a backstory or motive of any kind, Ledger’s Joker isn’t chill like Nicholson’s or a try-hard like Leto’s—he thrives on pure, unadulterated intensity. Credit for that has to go, in some part, to director Christopher Nolan. The Dark Knight is filled with moments where your eyes are 100% glued to The Joker, and the devil’s in the details: the frantic licking of his lips; the flicking his greasy, not-quite-green hair out of his face; sticking his head out of a moving car like a dog.

Ledger’s posthumous Oscar-winning performance (and his career-defining role) is one that may never be bested.

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