A hero is only as good as the villain he’s up against. Batman is famous for his gallery of rogues, but the Joker will always be at the top of the top. He’s been portrayed by a variety of actors over the years. Here’s how they line up, from worst to best:
5. Jared Leto, “Suicide Squad”
If you’re the bad guy in a movie full of bad guys, you’re going to need to bring your demonic “A game,” and that’s just what Leto does — at least, in the early scenes of “Suicide Squad.” He’s the first hip-hop Joker, with dead eyes and a mouth full of silver-capped teeth that turn his menacingly-switched-on-and-off smile into a gangsta grimace. He’s the most coldly homicidal of all Jokers, and also, ironically, the first one to have a girlfriend (Margot Robbie’s psychotic baby doll Harley Quinn). All in all, he’s got a lot on his villainous plate, but the joke is on him: Leto’s steely yet revved performance is just getting started when he’s relegated to the sidelines, where no good Joker should ever be left to laugh alone.
4. Mark Hamill, “Batman, The Animated Series”
In the far-off days of 1992, it seemed an utterly wack idea: Let’s cast the earnest and slightly mopey Luke Skywalker as … the most gleefully high-on-himself villain in the history of villainy. But Hamill, to a degree no one could have predicted, got in touch with his inner deranged demon-clown. Where a lot of famous actors recede in animated roles, he tapped deep into a hidden side of himself. He has said that his key influences in creating the character were Hannibal Lecter and Jerry Lewis, but at times he sounds like a demented aristocrat out of Noel Coward, and his laugh is like a mood ring — it’s got a hundred shades of crazy.
No wonder Hamill has been voicing the Joker ever since — on Batman and Justice League cartoon series, for videogames, and in the recently released version of “The Killing Joke.” Some say he’s the greatest Joker ever, though really, that’s an overreaction to the fanboy novelty of seeing the hero of “Star Wars” flip his lid. But an inspired flip of the lid it is.
3. Jack Nicholson, “Batman” (1989)
It’s not unusual to see a villain steal the show, but Nicholson didn’t just steal Tim Burton’s “Batman.” He stole it, danced on it, ate it for lunch, and came out the other side the way that only the Joker could: smiling! It’s the one “Batman” movie that could have been called, instead, “The Joker,” and Nicholson, pushing the sarcastic lunacy he first perfected in “The Shining” to the extreme breaking point, gave a performance that was pure, exuberant palm-buzzer vaudeville. In Burton’s vision, Batman and the Joker have more in common than they once did — they’re both creatures of the night, driven by the darkness of their obsessions. But it’s Nicholson’s Joker who’s got the bats in his belfry.
2. Cesar Romero, “Batman” (1966)
Outside of the original comic books, Romero really invented the template — the maniacal cackle, the blissed-out revenge — because, of course, he got there first. And when you consider that it was all part of a high-camp ABC TV series that debuted 50 years ago, it’s easy to feel a touch of awe for how radical and unhinged and gleefully out there Romero’s Joker really was. The actor was nearly 60 when he took on the role, but with eyes just about popping out of his head, he gave the Joker an operatic pizzazz, rolling his “R’s” like the Hollywood Latin lover he once was, speaking in a voice as high-pitched — or maybe just high — on hysteria as his deranged laughter. He set the standard for every Joker to come.
1. Heath Ledger, “The Dark Knight” (2008)
Maniac. Torture victim. Terrorist. Party host. “The Dark Knight” came out six months after Ledger’s death, but it left no doubt that he was the most audacious actor of his generation. His Joker starts from the place all other Jokers leave off: the sheer fun of sadism. What makes his performance hilarious, and scary, and visionary is the way it shows us the damage behind the fun, and the giggle behind the damage, and the insanity behind that. He’s the first Method supervillain, sucking on his mouth scars, and Ledger plays him like Brando as a psychotic pain freak. He made evil into something mesmerizingly derelict, and timeless.