Today’s article continues this week’s theme of the Joker, with a look at the actors who have brought the Clown Prince of Crime to life. Below, I am ranking the on-screen portrayals of Batman’s greatest nemesis. The criteria here are live-action, not voice over performances. Theoretically, an actor who has had “Joker” listed on their resume.
Honorable Mention: Andrew Koenig
The late, Andrew Koenig played the Joker in the now classic fan-film, Batman: Dead End by Sandy Collora. Since Dead End was not a sanctioned Batman project, I am not counting Koenig in the official count. Koenig’s Joker however, was memorable and a true-to-the-comic performance. Plus, I believe he is the only one to appear on-screen wearing a straight jacket. Koenig created a noteworthy character, even if his Joker couldn’t overcome a Xenomorph.
If you’ve never seen this, what the hell is your deal? Check it out:
6. Roger Stoneburner/Mark Hamill
On the short-lived tv series, Birds of Prey, the Joker appeared on the pilot and one additional episode. Which episode, I’m not sure. I am not digging out that dvd set to research this. I barely watched this show when it was on, and I’m not about to now.
Roger Stoneburner was in the pilot’s Oracle origin sequence. He was blurred out ala Superman in CBS’ recent Supergirl series. Part of that may have been to help with the lip sync. Stoneburner was dubbed in the scene by everyone’s favorite Joker, Mark Hamill. It was a unique, and maybe too ambitious choice. Hearing Hamill’s Joker in live action was novel, but you instinctively know that it’s not coming from Stoneburner.
Weird note: everywhere online lists the pilot to this show as unaired. That’s totally wrong. I remember watching this when it aired. Back then, there is no other way I could’ve seen it. Not sure what lead to the confusion.
5. Curtis Armstrong
Around the turn of the century, Onstar created a series of ads featuring Batman using their service in the Batmobile. In one commercial, he is chasing after the Joker, with footage added in from the 90s Batman films. Here, the Joker is brought to life by Revenge of the Nerds’ Booger, Curtis Armstrong. Armstrong, gives a quick, but colorful portrayal of the Joker. Since he was heavily covered in makeup for this role, it would have been interesting to see more of Armstrong’s face coming through.
4. Jack Nicholson
This may be a controversial decision to some, to feature Nicholson this low on the list. Especially since he is the Joker a generation, myself included, grew up with thanks to his outing in the 89 Batman movie. At the time, for me at least, he was the greatest Joker ever. As the years have gone by though, and other actors have taken on the role and made it their own, Nicholson’s take doesn’t hold up as well as it once did. Looking through more sophisticated eyes now, a lot of Nicholson shown up in the acting. Too much “Jack Nicholson as the Joker”, not enough “Joker.”
While that may be splitting hairs to some, rest assured, that if Nicholson had been the last film actor to play the Joker, he would be remembered as the greatest.
3. Cesar Romero
Cesar Romero played the Joker over the course of 3 seasons of the 60s Batman show and the tie-in movie. Now 50 years later, Romero’s accurate to the comics of the time, portrayal stands up today. Easily the most colorful version of the character on this list, Romero also had arguably the most range in his signature laugh. With this show still in syndication and finally on home release, Romero’s Joker may end up outlasting them all.
2. Jared Leto
The newest portrayal on the list, is of course Jared Leto from Suicide Squad. While also having less screen time than most of the others. Leto’s version leaves me excited to see him show up later, hopefully in one of Ben Affleck’s forthcoming Batman films. Hopefully, this will be the first in a series of Leto’s appearances and possibly the first actor to have a second chance to play the Joker on the big screen.
For more of my thoughts on Jared Leto’s take see my Suicide Squad review from a couple of days ago. https://detective651.wordpress.com/2016/08/15/suicide-squad/
While not only appearing in the recent Suicide Squad, Leto also has the distinction of being the first Joker to appear in a video with Rick Ross and Skrillex, but hopefully won’t be the last.
1. Heath Ledger
Be honest, this is what you were waiting for. Ledger’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the Joker in 2008’s The Dark Knight has become the gold standard. Like Nicholson before him, anyone who plays the Joker after him will be judged against his performance. While Leto may eventually supplant Ledger as the best, his limited time in Suicide Squad is not enough to do it yet.
Ledger’s take combined various incarnations from the comics and created something new altogether. Despite the initial vitriol his casting caused among fans, he was embraced almost immediately after the film premiered. To this day, his influence is felt and his untimely passing has led fans to wonder what might have been.
Bonus Wish Casting: Tilda Swinton
Before Jared Leto was cast for Suicide Squad, my personal choice for a new Joker was Tilda Swinton. Her unique look could lead to an androgynous, alien take on the Joker. Seeing how she throws herself into her characters surely would have led to a new version of the Joker and avoided comparisons to other actors. To clarify, the character would be male, just played by Swinton.
Unfortunately, it seems that Marvel saw similar potential in Swinton, hence her upcoming part as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange. So it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see her take on the Joker.