There’s a good reason that many refer to the Joker as the perfect villain. Colorful, psychotic, layered, wacky and doggedly persistent, the character has been the arch-nemesis of the Batman for decades, serving as the perfect foil to the brooding Bat and a terrifying presence even among DC’s various villains. He’s a guy you want on your side, but even then, there’s a good chance you’re ending up dead with a razor-sharp playing card between your eyes because you got boring.
And as one of the most enduring villains of all time, the Joker has made the jump to from comics to TV, TV to film, film to game and probably more in future. So before Jared Leto gives us an entirely new version of the Clown Prince of Crime in the upcoming Suicide Squad, let’s try (operative phrase) to rank every single adaptation of the Joker. Or at least all the major ones – comics aren’t included.
14. Young Justice
Young Justice was both a great show, and an ensemble of many different heroes, which meant that individual villains mostly just got their own spotlight episodes. In fact, given the hovering presence of Batman, two Robins and a Batgirl, it’s surprising that there weren’t more villains from the Bat Family included.
The Joker only appeared in a single two-parter as a member of the Injustice League, where he was tasked with… controlling some plants. Okay, sure. Unfortunately, he wasn’t given much else to do in the episode and didn’t even really seem to have much pull in the group, mostly spending his time hovering around a screen and making weird comments about having multiple personalities, something the mainstream version has definitely never struggled with.
Capping it all off was his voice actor, Brent Spiner, who we can respect for trying to give this iconic character a slightly new spin (wink). Sadly, he came after so many had already done just that, toning this version down from maniacal to a downright mellow baritone. Even the Joker’s laughs don’t sound particularly genuine, as if he’s forcing them out…and when it’s clear that the Joker doesn’t even find himself funny, he just becomes yet another gimmick waiting for the Bat to emerge from the shadows and knock his teeth out. Which is pretty much what happens.
13. The Brave and the Bold
As in Young Justice, this version of the Clown Prince of Crime doesn’t get much of a showing, though he does manage to show up in far more than a simple two-parter. Ah, the perils of being part of a highly episodic series.
It’s also not an adaptation that went to many new places, as this is the Joker distilled into the most essential components: the purple suit, the constant laughter and a smile twelve parsecs wide. Seriously, his mouth is, like, half of his head. We measured and everything.
Given The Brave and the Bold’s attempts to emulate the general silliness and fun of the Silver Age, this Joker was also somewhat hamstrung when it came to wanton murder and destruction. Most of his schemes err on the side of ridiculousness, which means most of his death-traps are merely runtime padding, and his threats pretty much moot. There was also that one time he was beaten by Scooby-Doo. Yes, the actual Scooby-Doo.
That’s not to say that the Joker was completely toothless — there’s a reason the character has endured for so long, and it’s not just because he kills a lot of people — but he really didn’t show us much during his time on The Brave and the Bold that we hadn’t seen before.
12. Martha Wayne
Yep, you read that right. You might even be confused. Angry. Furiously growling “Why did you say that naaaame?!”
Okay but seriously, Martha Wayne’s version of the Joker originates in the ultra-gritty, uber-dark Flashpoint universe, thus proving that the Joker is apparently a universal constant. No matter who takes the identity, if there’s a Batman, a Joker will arise to oppose him. It’s just kind of unfortunate that this time, Batman is Thomas Wayne, and the Joker is his wife.
Super awkward anniversaries aside, this all came about when it was Bruce, not his parents, who was killed in that alleyway. Utterly overcome by grief, Martha’s psyche shattered and she became a supervillain, because that’s just how grief works in comic-land. While her collection of crimes are pretty heinous and it’s an interesting enough concept, Martha’s Joker ranks pretty low simply due to her not being half the villain of the original. We don’t end up seeing too much of her, and the moment she realizes that her son is Batman in an alternate universe, she flings herself off a cliff and dies. The Joker is typically unstable, but not quite to that extent, hence why the mainstream version returns time and time again to cause havoc.
11. The Batman
To be fair, this version isn’t all that bad. In fact, he got a lot better once his monkey traits were removed and he started acting more like the Joker we all know and love. Still, it’s just another example of someone trying to change a formula that clearly already works, and it not coming across particularly well.
Doing away with realism, this Joker has blood red eyes, long green hair and a mouth that this time takes up more than half of his face, as if he could swallow a person whole without unhinging his jaw. It might not be what we’re used to, but it’s still a pretty terrifying visage nonetheless, and not something you want coming at you in a dark alley. Or a light alley. Or at any time at all. He’s also incorporated a strait jacket into his ensemble, which again sort of works for his character, even if it’s not what we’re used to.
This Joker is originally served up to us as ape-like in his movements, often going barefoot, swinging from ceilings and fighting with an agile, monkey-like style. It was certainly a wilder interpretation, but after it proved to be fairly unpopular, these traits were toned down. He later donned his trademark purple jacket and dropped a lot of the monkey act, morphing into a perfectly acceptable adaptation of the Crown Prince of Crime, if not one of the most memorable. Props to his voice actor also; Kevin Michael Richardson actually gives a criminally underrated performance.
10. Lego Joker
As with literally everything ever (okay, almost), the Joker has been rendered in Lego. With a few variations (including one with Wolverine hair, for some reason), this Lego version is your garden variety Joker, with purple suit, permanent grin, acid-green hair and a flower on his lapel that almost certainly isn’t just for show. He’s made his appearance in a couple of films, but perhaps most prominently, the Lego Batman series of games. Here, he’s able to use his joy buzzer to activate generators and is immune to all toxins, in keeping with being immune to his own Joker venom in the comics.
It’s hard to nail down where this Joker ranks in terms of the rest, since he has such a large number of designs and alternate skins, many of which are based on other versions themselves. In a way, he’s every version of the Joker mashed into a single package, though he does lose points for being part of the Lego series of games. Completely sanitized and aimed mostly at kids, it’s not exactly the ideal environment for a vicious psychopath who murders his victims with acid, razor playing cards and deadly toxins. In fact, ‘killing’ someone in the Lego universe just means them falling apart and reassembling, making you wonder why the Joker even bothers in the first place. He keeps trying, though, so props for his perseverance in a universe that just doesn’t suit him.
9. Arkham: Origins
Arkham: Origins featured a number of changes to the series, bringing things right back to basics with a less experienced Batman, a story set a few years before the original, and some altered gameplay. The plot brings us back to a Batman still treated as a myth by police and the public, burgeoning in his career and being ruthlessly hunted by a gang of professional criminals.
The Joker makes his mark on the game as always, now voiced by veteran voice actor Troy Baker, who replaced Mark Hamill. Plenty of people will have a problem with that in itself, seeing Hamill as THE definitive Joker (more on him later). Still, Baker gets some props for doing his utmost to replicate the formula, to the point where there are times when you can’t even tell the difference.
Still, it’s mostly just an impression. A really good impression, and exactly what Troy Baker was going for, but an impression nonetheless… and just replicating the work of someone else doesn’t make a good character. In terms of his actions in the game, it’s more or less the Joker we all know and love with a few touches of diabolical philosophy traps thrown in, which are pretty reminiscent of the Riddler.
8. Injustice: Gods Among Us
There’s nothing much to say about the parallel universe version from Injustice: Gods Among Us, since he appears in all of one scene before getting his heart ripped out (or just impaled… it’s unclear) by the alternate universe Superman. In a way, though, this version is one of the most wildly successful adaptations of the Joker ever to exist. He manages to destroy Metropolis with a nuclear weapon, kill millions of people (including Lois Lane) and eventually goad Superman into abandoning all of his principles and going for straight-up murder.
Dying as he lived with a smile and a maniacal laugh, his crimes don’t even stop there. The chain of events ends up giving that world a more impactful villain than he could ever be: Regime Superman, who goes full Justice Lord on the entire world with no one powerful enough to stop him. And when even Lex Luthor becomes a good guy in that world, you know things are totally screwed.
Meanwhile, the mainstream universe version is still more or less the regular edition, able to kill on a smaller scale but not able to disrupt the status quo in quite such an explosive manner. It’s interesting enough to see the Joker in a straight-up fight unleashing loads of gadgets, but he’s otherwise pretty much just a controllable version of the Arkham Joker, with an almost identical design.
7. Batman: Under the Red Hood
The Joker has appeared in various animated movies, though the version in Under the Red Hood deserves a special mention due to how it portrays one of his most significant moments: beating Jason Todd and leaving him to die in a fiery explosion.
The main story takes place many years after the event, with the Red Hood arriving in Gotham and proving himself a far more brutal vigilante than Batman. It’s really not a spoiler at this point that the Red Hood is Jason Todd (and if that was news to you…welcome to your first day of pop culture! Stay away from Ghostbusters for now, it’s a bit of a jungle), and the film follows the comic storyline by having him return to wreak havoc on the Joker’s operations in an attempt at revenge.
John DiMaggio voices the Joker himself in an understated performance that nonetheless provides a slightly different spin on the character. It’s less ‘cackling goon’ and more ‘subtly nuts’, but it’s not simply an imitation and works pretty well in the gritty context of the story.
Though Red Hood is the true focus of the movie, the Joker does get a pretty impressive showing, even when being beaten senseless by a crowbar. It’s just another one of those situations that prove that the Clown Prince of Crime doesn’t give a monkey’s about being in immense pain, so long as the situation amuses him. And a former Boy Wonder returning from the grave as a twisted version of his former self, hell-bent on revenge? That’s funny.
6. Batman (1960s)
The Batman TV series from the 1960s was a major landmark for all things Batman, including the first live-action appearances of most of his colorful rogues gallery. Color wouldn’t be a problem here, since the series was so camp it seemed like everything had been given a dusting of rainbow glitter, and parading right through the middle of it all was Caesar Romero’s Joker.
As the live-action pioneer of the character, Romero didn’t have anything to go on besides the comics. The result was a performance that still echoes in portrayals of the Joker decades later, directly inspiring Jack Nicholson’s version and probably a few comic book writers along the way. Remember, this was smack-bang in the middle of the comic book Silver Age, when heavy censoring warped a lot of darker titles into campy fun-fests with minimal violence, lest it cause an epidemic of impressionable children running around and punching each other. Romero’s Joker was therefore more of a prankster, his schemes reduced to gimmicks such as sneezing powder, giant slot machines (of death) and that famous surfing competition. It’s still a massively influential Joker, however, cackling like a madman, acting as the Dark Knight’s perfect foil, and giving us an idea of what a real-life Joker would look like for the very first time.
5. The Dark Knight Returns
This is still technically a comic book version, but it’s set in such a radically different universe (plus a dramatic time skip) that it counts as different enough (plus there’s a movie…).
The world of The Dark Knight Returns is set decades into the future of mainstream DC; that is, if time was actually allowed to pass in a normal fashion. Most superheroes are dead or retired, Superman is a government stooge, and the art style just got really weird at some point. Meanwhile, the Joker is catatonic, and Batman is among the retirees.
It’s the news of Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement and taking up the mantle of the Dark Knight once again that causes the Joker to revert to his previous self — if he ever changed at all — though no one’s aware of this when they stick him in front of a studio audience for an evening talk show, supposedly ‘cured’. If you guessed what happened next was ‘a whole room full of dead bodies’, then congratulations!
The feud between the Dark Knight and the Clown Prince of Crime begins anew, with the Joker wantonly murdering people at a county fair while being chased down by Batman. He then does something that definitely counts as new: the Joker breaks his own neck, thus ruining Batman’s reputation by making everyone think that he’s a murderer. And of course, he dies with a smile on his face. As Joker deaths go, it’s one of the most brutal, and helps to solidify this version of the character as genuinely malevolent and insane.
4. Batman (1989)
He’s one of the most famous Jokers ever, and for good reason. Though the camp ’60s series wasn’t forgotten, by the end of the ’80s, people had moved on. Batman comics had made strides, but he and his rogues gallery were still obscure figures. Enter Tim Burton, who made some of the earliest big-budget comic book movies that people actually still remember and set in motion a pretty significant cinema trend.
The Joker was the obvious choice of villain as the arch-nemesis, and who better to portray him than Jack Nicholson? They guy’s made a living by portraying characters who are clinically insane. With his naturally Kafkaesque smile and trademark crazy eyes, all it took was a bit of white and red makeup paired with a purple suit to nail the role.
The result was a perfectly cast visage of terror who’ll gleefully gun people down to a jaunty soundtrack and still make it sinister. Sometimes Prince will be involved, for reasons probably known only to Tim Burton.
He was also a pretty successful villain, managing to take control of a criminal empire, poison the city with his Joker gas (‘smilex’) and shoot down the Batwing with his oversized novelty pistol. Somehow. The jury’s still out on whether the change to the Batman mythos was necessary — making Jack Napier the mugger who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne — but in the end, it doesn’t make much difference. Just seeing Batman and the Joker together in big-budget made it clear that they were perfect enemies and helped to bring the characters to a far wider audience. Also, Jack Nicholson pulls off green hair surprisingly well.
3. Arkham Series
Just as the Arkham series of games (sans Origins) give us a distilled version of everything awesome about the Dark Knight, they do the same with the Joker.
The first game has him attempting to destroy Gotham with the aid of practically every other major Bat-villain, trapping his arch-nemesis inside Arkham and causing some wholesale Joker mayhem with explosions, toxins and everything else you’ve come to expect. He returns in Arkham City, playing everyone in the game like a fiddle and even manipulating the Batman into helping him.
Despite succumbing to illness and dying at the end, this doesn’t stop the Joker from returning one last time in Arkham Knight, completely stealing Scarecrow’s thunder and usurping him as the main villain…because no one gets to kill the Bat except him. Significantly, the game explores the relationship between the two, with the Joker as a mental infection that Batman must continually fight, lest he be taken over completely. It’s a marked difference from the trigger-happy Joker in the past, and serves to fulfill his role as Batman’s arch-enemy; the final time he has to be defeated is inside the Dark Knight’s own mind. Considering the Joker’s expertise in mind games during his lifetime, it’s appropriate.
2. The Dark Knight (2008)
As live-action Jokers go, this is definitely the one you should be most afraid of. Heath Ledger poured everything into the role, as did whoever did his makeup. The result was an ultra-grungy creep — terrifyingly brilliant, utterly insane, and totally unpredictable.
This isn’t simply a Joker content to shoot a few people while laughing his head off. No, this version shows us with every sick mannerism and phrase that he’s purely in the game for the sake of anarchy, immolating a massive pile of money to make a point and not even having any end goal besides causing Gotham to be torn apart from the inside. He’s a brazen character, but still layered, almost a perfect example of how to write a villain who doesn’t have the clearest motivations. He also blew up Maggie Gyllenhaal, which some people seemed pretty okay with.
The Joker might not last too long with Batman in a fist-fight, but once you’ve sat through two hours of him effortlessly manipulating everyone to his whims, blowing up hospitals and laughing off savage beatings, it doesn’t matter. As Alfred succinctly puts it, this is someone who just wants to watch the world burn. And while his plan to corrupt Gotham’s soul fails, he does manage to demonize the Batman in the eyes of the public. The Joker won either way.
1. DCAU Joker
When most people think of the Joker, this is probably the one that springs to mind. That razor-sharp voice with madness tinged in every syllable, the cackling laughter that could cut through a bank vault. Everything about this Joker has become iconic, from the slasher grin to his childish, playful mannerisms that disguise the fact that he will murder you and think nothing more of it than standing on an ant.
Originating in Batman: the Animated Series, this Joker would be the first many remember, hence why he had such a strong influence on pop culture. His schemes ranged from conventional (blow stuff up, laugh a lot) to wacky (rocket-powered Christmas trees), but there was never any question of the Joker’s efficiency. No one could accuse him of being camp or ineffective. We even got a bit more nuance in how he treated his sidekick, Harley Quinn, with a relationship so dysfunctional you wonder how they got through a day without snapping and killing each other. But then, love does make you a little bit crazy.
This Joker went on to appear in other media, perhaps most notably the animated take on the Justice League, where he elbowed his way onto the Injustice League and quickly made all his teammates uncomfortable through virtue of sheer unpredictability. It’s a role that’s caused many to declare Mark Hamill as the definitive Joker…and with so many since then imitating his performance, it’s a pretty safe call to make.
Alright, Suicide Squad isn’t out yet. Still, we’ve seen enough of Jared Leto’s Joker to include him as an honorable mention, since it looks like he’s thrown himself into the role, creating a crazy-eyed loon with a penchant for tattoos and grills on his teeth.
While his role has been swamped with controversy — the tattoos weren’t well-received, and Leto himself has been kind of a disgusting jerk to all of his co-stars — there’s no denying that what we’ve seen so far has been pretty dang close to what we want to see out of the DCEU Joker. Not quite as overtly disgusting as Heath Ledger’s Joker, yet clearly more maniacal than Jack Nicholson’s, this looks to be an adaptation of the Clown Prince of Crime who…well, probably won’t call himself that. It’s a grittier Joker for a grittier universe, still outwardly colorful but also cheerfully sadistic, delighting in causing pain and wreaking havoc. It can already be inferred that he’s killed one Robin and just thought it was the funniest thing ever, defacing his victim’s uniform with his signature brand of humor. Whether he’s villain, anti-hero, or just a force for chaos in the upcoming movie, Jared Leto’s Joker certainly looks at this point to be an all new spin on some old material.
Other Honorable Mentions
– The Killing Joke movie version of the Joker, also voiced by Mark Hamill. The recently-released film wasn’t quite what fans were expecting, but Hamill gives his trademark chilling performance, which definitely helps. Similarly to the original comic version, this Joker is shown as unusually cruel, casually maiming Batgirl and torturing her father, Jim Gordon.
– The New 52 version of the Joker. While he’s a direct comic book mainstream version, it’s also of note that there are seemingly three Jokers, one of which might be an immortal made that way by the same meteor that gave Vandal Savage the same powers. Maybe. Oh, and he voluntarily had his face cut off.
– Gotham, which has toyed with introducing the Joker but hasn’t made that brazen step just yet. We did get a ‘proto-Joker’ in the form of Jerome Valeska, a psychotic murderer. He was later murdered, but it’s been heavily implied that this legacy will be continued by members of his gang.
Any Jokers that need to be shifted around in the rankings? Let us know in the comments!
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