When discussing Batman, his arch nemesis, Joker, almost always pops up in the conversation. One simply cannot exist without the other — where Batman is a crime-fighting force of nature, intent on ridding Gotham City of scum, Joker is an agent of chaos who wants nothing more than to corrupt the caped crusader, and ultimately prove that Batman is no different to his enemies.
Over the decades, we’ve seen countless iterations of The Joker, whether in the various Batman movies, TV shows, video games, comic books, or animation. While Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame has voiced the character across numerous animated shows, movies, and even some of the video games, none are perhaps quite as memorable as those seen in live-action.
The Joker hasn’t appeared in every single live-action Batman movie to date, though, but he has had a few good innings, having shown up in Batman (1966), Batman (1989), The Dark Knight (2008), Suicide Squad (2016), and, of course, the Batman movie without Batman himself, Joker (2019). The iconic character has also appeared in the TV series, Gotham (2014– 2019).
Across those Batman movies, spin-offs, and TV shows, are seven portrayals of Batman’s arch nemesis (though there are only six actors behind those seven faces)! However, there’s also a potential Joker-tease in The Batman (2022), with The Eternals (2021) actor Barry Keoghan behind the laugh (though, of course, we won’t be counting in our ranking).
So here are all the live-action Jokers ranked from worst to best.
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7. Cesar Romero (The Joker)
Cesar Romero played the first Joker in the Batman TV series (1966 — 1968) and the movie adaptation, Batman. Both have become cult classics, beloved by fans of even the darkest versions of Batman, largely because they feels more like send-ups of the caped crusader, more comparable to the Bond spoof, Austin Powers (1997) than any modern-era Batman movie or show.
Fans might see some familiarity in Romero’s performance, though, as it’s plain to see that Tim Burton took inspiration for his own version of The Joker with Jack Nicholson in Batman. While Nicholson is pretty dark, Romero isn’t. The latter is great fun to watch, but naturally, as both show and film are family-friendly, it’s only fair that a restrained Joker is at the bottom of our list!
Trivia: Cesar Romero, who worked in film, radio, and television for over sixty years, refused to shave his moustache for the role, which can almost always be seen behind the white make-up!
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6. Jared Leto (Mr J)
Jared Leto’s turn as The Joker in the widely-panned Suicide Squad (2016) is a performance that, to this day, leaves fans scratching their heads, or burying their faces in their hands with second-hand embarrassment. But Jared Leto isn’t a bad actor — in fact, he’s a great actor! Ever seen American Psycho (2000), Panic Room (2002), or Dallas Buyers Club (2013)?!
But somehow, he delivers a painfully pretentious performance as “Mr J”, with an equally-cringe character design. While it was reported that a ton of Joker footage was cut from the film, we refuse to believe it’s anything more than Leto acting like a clown. Even his brief appearance alongside Ben Affleck‘s Bruce Wayne/Batman in Justice League: Snyder Cut (2021) leaves a lot to be desired.
Trivia: Jared Leto reportedly got into character early, sending his co-stars, Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn) and Will Smith (Floyd Lawton/Deadshot), dead rats and other disgusting things.
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5. Cameron Monaghan (Jeremiah Valeska)
Even the biggest Batman fans are yet to discover the TV series, Gotham, which focuses on Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) before his days as police commissioner, and a young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz), long before his career as Batman begins (no pun intended). If you’re such a fan, then you’ve missed out on some of the best Batman villain portrayals. And also the worst.
Cameron Monaghan plays Jeremiah Valeska, who becomes the most “calm” and “collected” Clown Prince of Gotham we’ve seen, which, sadly, comes over as incredibly dull and forced. Fortunately, his tenure is bookended by brief but terrifying appearances– first, a monstrous version (introduction only), and a hideously disfigured version in the Season 5 finale.
Trivia: Cameron Monaghan actually plays two versions of The Joker in Gotham, as he portrays the Valeska twins, Jeremiah and Jerome.
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4. Jack Nicholson (Jack Napier)
There are many fans who still consider Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman to be the best, and up until Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, he was. However, this was probably due to there really being no competition, other than Cesar Romero, who was the source of inspiration behind Nicholson’s version of Batman’s arch nemesis.
With that said, we’re not suggesting that Nicholson is bad — after all, he’s in fourth place — but rather that, in hindsight, he’s perhaps not quite as awesome. His version of The Joker (whose pre-clown name is Jack Napier) is the one responsible for killing Bruce Wayne’s parents. And while Nicholson is goofy at times throughout the film, his mobster version of the Clown Price is also pretty terrifying.
Trivia: In the Italian version of Batman, Jack Nicholson’s Joker is dubbed by Giancarlo Giannini, whose son, Adriano Giannini, dubbed Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.
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3. Cameron Monaghan (Jerome Valeska)
Gotham might not be the best TV show in the world, but if you’re a fan of Batman’s extensive Rogues Gallery, the chances are that you’ll have a great time with this prequel-era series. And with the exception of Harvey Dent/Two-Face (who does appear in pre-accident form, played by Nicholas D’Agosto) and Waylon Jones/Killer Croc (though he is hinted at), it’s got them all!
And as you now know, it includes two versions of The Joker, with the first being Jerome Valeska, the twin brother of Jeremiah, both of whom are played by Cameron Monaghan. We first meet Jerome in Arkham Asylum, but once he escapes, he’s an uncaged monster whose violent rampage know no bounds. Despite an element of over-acting, Monaghan’s Joker is the stuff of nightmares.
Trivia: Due to copyright restrictions, neither Jerome or Jeremiah are ever referred to as “The Joker”. Following Mark Hamill, Cameron Monaghan is also the second “Jedi” to portray The Joker, having played Cal Kestis in the hit game, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order (2019).
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2. Heath Ledger (The Joker)
We arrive at second place on our list, where a very difficult decision had to be made! It’s likely that these top two Joker actors occupy the first and second place for countless fans, but deciding which is the best is tricky. Nevertheless, we’ve chosen the late Heath Ledger as our runner-up, whose Joker is a mastermind in improvisation, manipulation, and terror.
Everything about The Dark Knight’s Joker is memorable — his purple jacket, make-up, greasy hair, scars, lip-licking, stories, his laugh, and, of course, every single one of his lines, from “Why so serious?” to “Let’s put a smile on that face!” But the most impressive thing is how Heath Ledger isn’t at all visible on screen, a perfect combination of make-up and terrific acting.
Trivia: It is believed that Heath Ledger took inspiration from the songwriter, Tom Waits, to help develop his version of The Joker (it’s actually pretty uncanny!).
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1. Joaquin Phoenix (Arthur Fleck)
Where Heath Ledger’s Joker is essentially a guest in The Dark Knight, the antagonist to Christian Bale‘s protagonist, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Joaquin Phoenix is both the hero and the villain of Todd Phillips’ Joker. As such, comparing the two is quite difficult, which is why we’ve based our decision solely on performance alone, rather than which Joker we think is the best.
Phoenix delivers a powerhouse performance as Arthur Fleck, a mentally-ill man neglected by the system and treated like trash by almost everyone. Watching Fleck’s irreversible descent into madness is nothing short of riveting, and the scene in which he executes Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) on live television is easily one of the most shocking moments in cinema.
Trivia: Joaquin Phoenix’s take on The Joker draws inspiration from Robert De Niro’s character, Travis Bickle, the disturbed insomniac in Taxi Driver (1976). And like Phoenix, De Niro also plays a hopeful comedian who becomes obsessed with his idol, a talk show host, in The King of Comedy (1982).
Related: All Live-Action Batman Actors Ranked From Worst to Best
The Batman includes a very small Joker cameo, with Barry Keoghan playing an inmate at Arkham Asylum who can be heard laughing maniacally. But whether or not the inevitable sequel to the box office hit will include the Clown Prince remains to be seen.
However, DC is reportedly eyeing Star Wars actor Oscar Isaac as Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Matt Reeves has also expressed an interest in returning for a sequel, although there’s no word on whether Robert Pattinson will be donning the cape and cowl for a second time.
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How would you rank all the live-action Joker actors?