The Joker is a prime example of a villain whose popularity is right up there with the most iconic characters in fiction. As a result, he’s been played by no less than five actors in live-action movies.
The actors in question are Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and Joaquin Phoenix – and the movies in question are 1966’s Batman (Romero), 1989’s Batman (Nicholson), 2008’s The Dark Knight (Ledger), 2016’s Suicide Squad and 2021’s Zack Synder’s Justice League (Leto), and 2019’s Joker (Phoenix).
In this piece, we’ll be ranking those Joker actors by how good they were – and linking you to the places online where you can watch the movies they were in.
While you’re here, you should definitely also look at our ranking of the best live action Batman actors!
5. Jared Leto
Always at the bottom of the ranks when it comes to Joker Actors, Jared Leto gets a great deal of stick for his sting as the bane of Batman’s existence. Leto endured a lot of criticism for his portrayal of the character, perhaps fairly, perhaps not. Those who’ve seen Leto in other films (Lord of War sticks out as a great example) will know this is not a man lacking the acting chops to take on a major role. He certainly gave it his all, and was reportedly very upset to hear his portrayal hadn’t been well received.
Appearing in Suicide Squad before reprising his role (while looking very different) in the final scenes of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Leto’s Joker was criticized for pretty much everything. Many fans felt he did not bring the intimidation and fear factor needed to the role. He’s certainly – in a physical sense – less substantial than pretty much all the other actors to take on the role. Scrawny, is the word that springs to mind. Add to this the costume and makeup job done on the character – which was ridiculously overdone – and many viewers felt Leto was all hat and no cigar.
In addition to terrible character design, some blamed the actor’s failure in the roe on poor writing and the fact the character was underutilized in the film. At the same time, many felt Leto was trying a little too hard and lacked the natural maniacal menace that Joker is so well-known for.
In fairness to the actor, the majority of his scenes Suicide Squad were cut and he lacked both a true plot line and any real development as a result. Due to the format of Suicide Squad, his role became little more than backstory for Harley Quinn. And while Harley being given a more central role was certainly well deserved and well received (for many, it was the only positive of the film), it left Joker out in the cold and Leto along with him.
All defenses aside, Leto definitely came across as far too over-the-top throughout the scenes we did get, while his lines were entirely too drawn out; as if he were trying to milk what little he’d been given for all it was worth.
While you can argue back and forth on whether it was the actor or the script and production that were at fault, Leto is undoubtedly the least effective live-action Joker actor to grace our screens. It’s said that he didn’t break character at all while on set – and he did some very bizarre things, such as sending a dead pig to the cast. Unfortunately, that insane level of method acting failed to pay off.
4. Cesar Romero
Movie: Batman (1966) (Amazon Prime – Rent/Purchase)
Actor and activist Cesar Romero played the Joker in the 1960s Batman television series – and he reprised the role in the 1966 movie of the same name. For many, Romero is the classic Joker actor. He’s certainly the most nostalgic for those who grew up watching the TV show. Many in the younger generations have never seen either the 60s show or the 1966 movie, however, and consequently Romero’s popularity has waned.
Romero’s Joker was unashamedly camp and far different from any other version in the history of the character – but it worked! Opposite Adam West – who was almost as camp in his titular role as the Dark Knight – Romero was the perfect foil.
He had a peculiar quirk in that he refused to shave his mustache off for the role, so it was still clearly visible under his white makeup. Oddly, it only added to the character’s infamous wackiness. Make no mistake, Romero’s low ranking on this list isn’t a poor reflection on the iconic portrayal – he just happens to be up against some quality (and more current) opposition.
3. Joaquin Phoenix
Joaquin Phoenix appeared in the only movie in which the Joker was the main, titular character – 2019’s Joker – and he was absolutely fantastic. Phoenix played the role as a man with genuine and serious mental health problems who is inexorably driven to villainy. With the film’s release so close on the heels of Suicide Squad, Jared Leto was apparently quite put out that he wasn’t given the role. Yet given the way his Joker had been drawn it would have been tough – if not impossible – to transition him into this version of he character, even if fans had been on his side.
Even die-hard Leto fans would be hard-pressed to say he should have had the role after seeing Phoenix’s performance. It was so spectacular he won the Academy Award for Best Actor – beating off the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio for his role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Adam Driver for his performance in Marriage Story.
Despite the exceptional poise and depth Phoenix brought to the character, and the fact his performance as Arthur Fleck was wonderful, he wasn’t the best Joker. This was, however, no fault of the actor. This was an entirely new character with the classic villain’s name – and there have definitely been two better versions of that classic villain in live-action movies.
2. Heath Ledger
Movie: The Dark Knight (2008) (Amazon Prime – Rent/Purchase)
One of two men to win an Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker, Heath Ledger was the first to do so, winning a posthumous Best Supporting Actor gong for his excellent performance in the brilliant The Dark Knight.
Ledger was utterly superb, portraying a much darker version of the character than anyone had seen up to that point. The character had clearly been through some trauma – perhaps through experiencing war, as some of the movie’s hints suggested – and he conveyed that brilliantly, all while perfectly maintaining the character’s mystery.
The only thing keeping him from the top spot where Joker actors are concerned is, much like Phoenix’s version, this incarnation of the Joker deviated from the classic character. So, while his acting was exceptional, in the running for the best Joker actor, he’s pipped by someone with a version closer to the character and concept of the original.
1. Jack Nicholson
Movie: Batman (1989) (Amazon Prime – Rent/Purchase)
The best version of the Joker remains the version played by the legendary Jack Nicholson back in 1989’s Batman. This incarnation of the Joker had the added advantage of playing Michael Keaton, who is arguably the best actor to play Batman to date. The pair’s on-screen chemistry was exceptional, while Nicholson was absolutely fantastic as the Joker.
While other versions of the Joker have leant towards either genuinely hilarious, or truly terrifying, this version of the Joker somehow blended both to perfection. He made us laugh while simultaneously proving himself to be conniving and deadly – something Jack Nicholson thrives in doing.
His version of the Joker was also working with the benefit of an incredibly strong script. By intrinsically linking Joker to Batman in a very visceral way, this film strengthened the connection between hero and villain in a profound way that elevated their interactions far beyond the standard ‘hero must stop villainy of the week’ escapades. The film dragged us all the way back to Bruce Wayne’s childhood and revealed that it was none other than Joker who killed the young boy’s parents. At the time, he was a petty criminal named Jack Napier, yet the gravitas of that event shaped and defined him, contributing to the Joker he became as much as the double homicide forged the Batman. All that history definitely helps when it comes to this version of the character being so damn good.
Now that you’re done here, why not check out our list of great comic book podcasts and our piece about why Shang-Chi is the most important MCU movie?