Through the years, as the Batman legend has kept evolving, so has his arch-villain nemesis: the Clown Prince of Crime. Every era gets the Joker it deserves, and under the greasepaint, this most iconic of bad guys is a complex character: He needs to be funny to become truly terrifying. Joaquin Phoenix is primed to take on the role in Todd Phillips’ heavily anticipated new Joker, but the intense star is just the latest wild card in a stacked deck of you-know-whats. Here’s a breakdown of the actors who have defined Gotham City’s giggling madman over the years, rated 1 to 10.
The Originator. Romero invented the Joker as we know him today, on TV’s flamboyantly playful Sixties Batman TV show. He battled the dynamic duo of Adam West and Burt Ward, with his crazed cackle, maniacal grin and untamed, emerald green hair. Romero was Old Hollywood all the way — he was known as “the Latin from Manhattan,” a Cuban-American leading man who played dashing cads in films like Orchestra Wives (1942). The actor was so dedicated to his super-suave image, he refused to shave his mustache for the part. (Romero just painted over it.) Nearly 60 when he took the role, Romero remains the most influential Clown Prince of Crime — even Bob Dylan adopted the TV villain’s look in the early 2000s. Goths take note: Romero is the only Joker to date who’s also played Dracula, on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.
Tell them, Jack: “Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?” Nicholson totally stole Tim Burton’s heavily hyped 1989 Batman, which admittedly wasn’t a difficult franchise to steal. Despite some questionable casting decisions — remember when people were aghast that Michael Keaton had been picked to play the Caped Crusader? — it was a wise move to nab Jack Nicholson play the Joker. An even wiser move: to just let him play the supervillain as a slightly exaggerated caricature of “Jack Nicholson.” He’s the only sign of life in the movie, flashing his demented Five Easy Pieces grin under the white greasepaint and purple bolero hat. Who else could proclaim, “I am the world’s first fully-functioning homicidal artist!” and make you genuinely believe it?
Believe it or not, it looked like a risky move to cast the man best known for playing Luke Skywalker as a voice actor in the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series. But Hamill gave this villain a whole new life, tapping into a virtuosic psycho-killer mania that Star Wars didn’t even begin to suggest. Who knew the farm boy from Tatooine could bring so much evil to that laugh? Other voice actors have done the role, from Larry Storch (in the Scooby-Doo version) to Kevin Michael Richardson, the first black Joker. But Hamill carried the torch through the Nineties animated films (which are much better than the era’s Hollywood live-action ones) and video games like Arkham Asylum. It’s his second most iconic performance.
By the time The Dark Knight came out, Heath Ledger had already been gone for six months. His tragic and shocking death could have overshadowed the film. But his “Why so serious?” performance became the most legendary of all Jokers — he earned a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, the only villain from any superhero movie to win the Oscar. (Both Nicholson and Leto have also won Oscars, but for other roles.) He’s got the sadistic, loose-cannon menace, but also an element of lonely-boy pathos in his eyes. Heath Ledger stepped into a role that was already famous, yet somehow made it his own. That’s why he’s the ultimate Joker.
Leto deserves respect for stepping into the role so soon after the late Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for it. And you can’t accuse him of imitating any of the early versions: His Joker has more Wu-Tang Clan than Justice League in him, with his silver gangsta grill and ink, especially that “Damaged” tattoo on his forehead. (Like Jordan Catalano, Leto’s Joker is just a sad-eyed dude who’s misunderstood.) He took the character in a new direction in Suicide Squad, but it turned out to be a minor role; he ended up getting outvillained by his girlfriend: Margot Robbie’s punk princess Harley Quinn.