There are very few comic book villains, let alone characters, that have transcended as many mediums as the Joker. This Clown Prince of Crime, who has terrorized the streets of Gotham since his debut in 1940's Batman #1, has made appearances in hundreds of issues of comics, a multitude of animated series, video game projects, and of course a few tenures on the big screen.
For a character that embodies a single archetype, there seems to be an endless amount of takes that actors have attempted when portraying him. For some actors, the Joker is an unhinged psychopath, reveling in his own madness. For others, the Joker is plain evil, taking advantage of the madness of Gotham for his own criminal goals. No matter the take, each performance has something to offer to the overall Joker canon.
7 Jared Leto
Jared Leto, who famously went full method for his performance as the Joker, had a shockingly small amount of screen time. This performance, as seen in 2016's Suicide Squad, is sadly the worst version of the Clown Prince of Crime ever to grace the silver screen. In many ways, this version of the Joker could have worked tremendously. Seeing Joker as a pseudo-cartel figure who is having the time of his life spreading his mad empire across the city had the potential to be fascinating.
Sadly, due to the lack of importance the character had in the film, Joker felt more like a distraction than a centerpiece. Not to mention the marketing and rumor behind this performance created so much unneeded hype around Leto's performance, when in reality, his actions felt more like a diva and less like a compelling method performer. His grunting and grumbly performance felt so disconnected from the rest of the cast and left nothing but a poor taste in the mouths of all who watched.
6 Zach Galifianakis
One of the less acknowledged cinematic portrayals of the joker, Zach Galifianakis' role in Lego Batman was one of an attention-seeking villain, searching for the approval of his arch-nemesis. Although Galifianakis' performance, like the film, was rather silly, the characterization offered a different look into the psyche of this iconic villain. All of his rampaging actions translated into a lonely individual who is seeking validation.
The only reason he is lower on the list is the fact that Galifianakis' performance didn't relay this as much as the writing did. Galifianakis did a fine job, accomplishing what was asked of him, but in terms of his own stamp on the character, it went unfelt and unnoticed.
5 Cesar Romero
Cesar Romero is renowned as the first cinematic portrayal of the Joker, appearing in the original 1966 Batman: The Movie. Romero's portrayal of the Joker pairs nicely with the equally campy series, embracing a wholeheartedly theatrical performance.
In a way, Romero's Joker stands sharply alone against the more popular darker takes of modern-day Jokers. His version of the character, covered in theatrical grease paint, is a dramatic and witty clown who loves his mischief. Sadly, he also started DC's trouble with mustaches. Like Henry Cavill's Superman, Romero refused to shave his mustache, but unlike Cavill, Romero hadn't grown it for a role. The man just loved his mustache.
4 Jack Nicholson
Jack Nicholson's Joker, who appeared in Tim Burton's Batman, stands in a strong middle ground in terms of characterization. Unlike Romeor, this Joker is truly frightening and intimidating. Even before his fall, Jack Napier's role as a crime boss was daunting enough. But Nicholson brought his essential brand of crazy for this character,
This Joker still has oodles of fun terrorizing Gotham. He's not vindictive against the system or damaged by external forces. This Joker is just a bad guy, and he loves it. If there are any downsides to Nicholson's performance, it's that he falls to a lot of his Nicholson-isms that appear in many of his zanier performances. Luckily, it fits the character just fine.
3 Joaquin Phoenix
Joker was the first film to address the clown and the clown alone. There is no Batman in sight, only a frightened boy who is directly affected by this broken man. Joaquin Phoenix's take on this character really is unlike anything that has ever been done before. Embracing a true fall into insanity, Phoenix committed to bringing a realistic portrayal of mental illness to the character. His transformation into the Joker by the end reveals a madman who has lost all empathy with the world around him, a true psychotic narcissist.
The only problem is the film around him isn't sure of what it's trying to say with the character. The performance is undoubtedly committed, and an outstanding example of an actor committed to their role. But an outstanding performance doesn't make a film. Not to mention, the future of the character is left uncertain. Can this madman actually pull off the crimes that his comic book iteration is famous for? He is so unhinged and broken that he feels almost separated from the original character.
2 Mark Hamill
Mark Hamill has appeared in one theatrical Joker performance for Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, but his repertoire as the character has continued up to today. Through animated series, one-off straight-to-video releases, video games, and more, Hamill has been playing the Joker longer than anyone. Because of this, he is regarded by many to be one of the best iterations of the character.
No one has a better joker laugh than Hamill, combining both glee and horror to it. The only reason he isn't number one on this list is his filmography. Hamill has only appeared in a theatrical version once, and although he is great in the film, he is nowhere near the focus that he is in other mediums. But being such a legendary part of this franchise, he had to earn the number two spot at the very least.
1 Heath Ledger
It is beginning to feel like no other performance will ever top this one. Heath Ledger's take on the Joker not only changed the perception of the character and the franchise, but what Ledger accomplished in The Dark Knight transcended the genre itself. His unhinged performance as the Joker brought gravitas and realism never seen before. Yet, for all the darkness he brings to the role, it is the gleeful fun that he is having on screen that makes this performance so worth it.
Where Phoenix embodies all the same darkness that Ledger also embodies, Ledger's version is able to take it and turn it into jokes. That's who the Joker is through and through. He isn't defeated by the evil in Gotham. Like Batman, he is borne of it. He is a force of chaos who takes advantage of broken systems and people and uses them for his own sick means. Not a single performance has captured that better than this.