The Joker is Batman’s most iconic enemy. In fact he is arguably the most famous comic book villain of all time.
He has been portrayed by many actors over the years across many different mediums, but I think its fair to say that 4 portrayals of the character have really embedded themselves in popular culture more than the rest.
Cesar Romero’s performance in the classic campy Adam West series in the 60’s, Jack Nicholson’s show stealing performance in the 1989 Tim Burton Batman film, Hamill’s 20 year long stint as the clown prince of crime in Batman the Animated series and its many sequels and spin offs, as well as some non DCAU works such as the Arkham Asylum video games. And finally Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning performance as the villain in the Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
In this article I am going to look at all 4 of their interpretations of Batman’s archenemy and judge which one I find to be the best. Of course as always remember that this is purely my opinion. I know it says in the title which Joker is the best, but that’s only because adding after that “in my opinion” felt a bit too clumsy a title.
As always let me know what you think in the comments below and who your favourite Joker is.
1/ Cesar Romero
The first live action version of the Joker. This version was naturally more comedic than any of his successors as befitting the tone of the 60’s series.
Over the years many fans and critics have complained that this destroyed a lot of the Joker’s menace in the eyes of the general public and reduced him to well literally a clown.
Still this was nevertheless a valid take on the character, as the Joker at various points has been a silly, camp, comedic villain.
Indeed much as the tone of Batman comics has shifted from dark to comedic; then so has the character of the Joker changed accordingly.
In the very beginning he was a brutal, sadistic, horror movie villain. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s however really up until Dennis O’Neil’s excellent Joker’s Five Way Revenge, the character was a buffoon.
His schemes were always silly, over the top, and he was more likely to throw itching powder on someone than actually kill them. Each issue would usually end with him being utterly humiliated by Batman in a humorous way.
One of the Joker’s more comical appearances. This story The Joker’s Utility Belt was adapted as the characters first appearance in the Adam West series.
Whilst obviously this version of the Joker was not as menacing as his darker predecessor or successors. He was still nevertheless the perfect enemy for Batman who was a much lighter character during this period.
The Joker seemed strangely likable in these stories as he felt like more a lovable rogue with a strange sense of humour as opposed to a vicious psychopath. At times you’d even feel sorry for him the way Batman would go out of his way to rub his humiliating defeats in. Batman would even visit him in prison just to gloat!
Thus Cesar Romero’s version of the villain captured this aspect of the character brilliantly. His Joker similarly seemed like more of a lovable buffoon who was evenly matched with Adam West’s hilariously ridiculous Batman.
Many of West and Romero’s confrontations with one another are pure comedy gold, such as Batman trying to nab the Joker for loitering outside a school and punish him according to the law. “5 years imprisonment and a minimum fine of 500 thousand dollars!” With laws like that is any wonder that the Joker and the Riddler, and the Penguin and Catwoman all turned to crime! Then of course there is Romero’s Joker stopping time itself to rob a few banks or pelting Batman with fishes!
Overall I probably like the Joker as a darker villain more, but in terms of what they were trying to go for with this version of the character then I think they were completely successful. Romero perfectly embodied the wacky, surreal humour of the character and gave us a villain who was utterly ridiculous, yet charismatic, captivating and strangely likable just like the ridiculous character in the comic books.
2/ Jack Nicholson
Jack’s Joker much like Romero’s was a humorous character, but the comedy involved with this version of the clown prince of crime was very dark.
This has always been an aspect of the Joker that I have found fascinating. Indeed its actually what drew me to the character in the first place and made him my favourite villain growing up. The Joker is always able to do the most utterly horrific things, yet you laugh at them. You shouldn’t laugh at things like people getting killed and tortured, but for some reason when the Joker does it you do!
Jack’s Joker I feel portrayed this aspect of the character superbly.
Indeed Jack’s Joker is best remembered for his twisted comedy.
Whether that’s gunning his boss down, and then lamenting that he had a fabulous singing voice, burning his girlfriends face with acid as a work of art and then displaying her mutilated face to Vicki Vale and exclaiming “Well I’m no Picasso but do you like it?” Or his casual murder of Bob his most loyal henchman which is somewhat comparable to Sidney.
There are so many fabulous moments of dark comedy with Jack’s Joker. Its hard to pick a best moment.
You could never have done this with Romero’s Joker.
Romero’s Joker obviously was too light for them to do any form of black humour.
Though he did try and kill Batman it should be mentioned. The methods Romero’s Joker used were always so ridiculous like killing him with fish, or turning him into a skeleton key. There was no real genuine dark comedy there.
With Jack however he did actually do things like burn a woman’s face with acid, electrocute people into nothing but a charred skeleton, kill them en mass with smilex, shoot people whilst dancing a jig, and murder his most loyal henchman for no reason. And he still made us laugh as much as Romero did.
Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that Nicholson was better than Romero as Romero wasn’t meant to be funny in a twisted way.
Still at the very least this shows you how Nicholson was able to differentiate his performance from Romero, and show people that the Joker could be just as funny as he always ways whilst being horrifying at the same time.
3/ Mark Hamill
Hamill has played the Joker across many different mediums.
He first played the character in Batman the Animated Series and went on to reprise the role in, The New Batman Adventures, 3 crossover episodes of Superman the animated series, Justice League, one episode of Static Shock and the films Batman Mask of the Phantasm and Batman Beyond Return of the Joker. All of these productions shared the same continuity as one another which has been called the DC Animated Universe, DCAU for short.
He has also gone on to play the character in other non DCAU productions such as the two Arkham video games, and the short lived live action series Birds of Prey where his voice was dubbed over another actor.
Hamill’s performance though only in niche cartoons has never the less reached a huge audience over the years, due to the enduring popularity of Batman TAS and the DCAU.
I’d say that his vocal performance as the character is as recognised as any live action version.
Hamill’s Joker stood out from Romero and Nicholson’s in that he was far more unpredictable.
With Hamill you never knew what you were going to get. One minute his Joker could be every bit as vicious as Nicholson’s. Despite the DCAU series being Saturday morning cartoons, they were still able to depict the Joker as vicious psychopath. He beat Harley Quinn his lover, he tortured Batman with electricity, he killed gangsters with smilex, he tried to drown the mayor, he tortured Commisioner Gordon, Summer Glau, killed thousands of innocent people in Metropolis and tried to carve Batman up with a razor!
Though probably his most gruesome crime is when he captures Tim Drake the second Robin, who is just a teenager and tortures him for weeks, eventually driving him insane. He also video tapes Robin’s agonizing torture and shows it to Batman, taunting him.
Hearing the Joker describe, as we see Robin screaming in agony “How I peeled back the layers of the boy’s mind” never fails to send shivers up my spine.
Yet at the same time Hamill’s Joker could also be a complete clown like Romero’s. He would do things like in the middle of an intense shoot out produce flowers. Not flowers with a gun in them. Actual flowers!
Then there is Make Em Laugh that is just total Adam West type tomfoolery.
The Joker’s scheme in this episode is absurd. He wants to prove he is the greatest comic in Gotham, his methods of attacking Batman and Robin are to brainwash comedians and turn them into the most silly villains you have ever seen. One of them is called Mighty Mom and spanks Robin!
Then there is his defeat which again reminds me of the classic stories like the Jokers Utility belt where the character is so utterly humiliated by Batman that you almost feel bad for the guy.
Watching him get laughed at by everyone with his trousers at his ankles, and then the final touch where he puts his trophy over his head because even he is just so embarrassed; turns the villain into a total comedy character. Even his threats make you laugh as he stands there in his underpants shouting “I’ll get you for this Batman no one upstages me and lives!”
Its hard to believe that this comical fool is the same brutal monster who later tortures a teenage boy to lunacy.
Now such an attempt to merge the two very different portrayals of the Joker could have completely ruined the character. It could have seemed to jarring to see the silly character do such heinous things, yet at the same time the more comical aspects could have undermined his menace.
However the DCAU and Hamill got round it well as I think they were always able to keep you on edge with the Joker. Even during his sillier moments there was a feeling that underneath this clownish persona there was a really vicious side to this character, whilst in the darker moments there would often be a lighter edge to the character.
Examples of this include in Make Em Laugh his most comical appearance there are still some very dark moments. When he faces Batman on top of the balloon its a much more vicious fight than any you could imagine between Romero and West. The Joker bludgeons Batman with his trophy and keeps smashing at his fingers when he is trying to hold on whilst laughing hysterically. Here the Joker seems like a complete bloodthirsty maniac!
Also his scheme though seemingly light on the surface is actually one of his most deplorable. The comedians he turns into criminals entire lives are ruined by his actions. Their careers and reputations are ruined, many of them are greivously injured and its implied in some cases their minds permanently damaged. Batman himself even says “You’ve hit a new low Joker only you would ruin 3 lives for a silly piece of tin!”
When the Joker attempts to audition for the comedy awards as an ordinary man and the comedians pull him away. It seems funny until he screams in rage “I’ll ruin you all!” and you realise “fuck he wasn’t kidding” that is exactly what he does to all 3 of them. Hamill manages to switch between court jester and vicious, bitter, hateful, petty maniac superbly.
Similarly in his most terrifying performance in Return of the Joker there are funny moments. Such as when he, after having received a savage beating from an enraged Batman offers to show him slides of Robin being tortured. Even when he dies at Robin who shoots him’s hands, he manages to make the audience chuckle when he gasps “that’s not funny, that’s not fu“.
Hamill’s Joker it is established is so insane that you can believe that he might do things that don’t make any sense, are even silly, but at the same time never underestimate him as he is a brutal killer underneath it.
Obviously you could never have done this with Romero or Nicholson. Their Jokers always had to be either dark or light, where as Hamill was the only one who could flip between the two extremes effortlessly.
This was actually quite a revolutionary concept as even in the comic books prior to Hamill no one had ever really quite blended the extremes of the character together.
4/ Heath Ledger
By far and away the most popular version of the character, Ledgers Joker is also without doubt the most horrific and menacing.
Romero’s Joker was the most likable, Jack’s the funniest in a dark, twisted way, Hamill’s the most unpredictable, but Ledger’s is by far and away the most badass.
Ledgers Joker is also the most faithful to the original Joker. Its somewhat ironic that that is the case as Ledger’s Joker ditches some of the long established staples of the character like having perma white skin, his trademark weapon, Smilex etc.
Still when you look at the very early issues you can see this Joker is very faithful to them. The original Joker was like something out of a horror movie. He looked more grotesque and he was far more formidable. He was someone who was two steps ahead of Batman and the police and everyone else and he could easily hold his own against the Batman. Even perhaps best him in combat.
The Ledger Joker follows this in every way. His Joker is gruesome even just to look at. With his mutilated face and dishevelled hair, he looks like he is literally rotting away to nothing. At the same time Ledgers Joker seems more powerful than either Hamill or Nicholson’s. Hamill and Nicholson’s Jokers obviously were legitimate menaces but I don’t think either of them ever felt quite like they were actually more intelligent than Batman. They rivalled his intelligence sure, but with Ledger it feels like Batman is two steps behind him every step of the way.
Also Ledgers Joker unlike any previous version is actually a physical threat to Batman. Romero, Nicholson and Hamill were always shown to be physically quite frail. Romero couldn’t land a punch on Batman or Robin, a teenage boy even with a whole room full of goons. Nicholson’s Joker broke his hand trying to punch Batman, and Hamill’s Joker would often be knocked out with just one or two punches.
Also all of these Jokers were somewhat cowardly too. Nicholson’s Joker is shown to become visibly terrified in his final fight with Batman, even trying to rationalise to Batman that he was just a kid when he killed his parents. Hamill’s Joker meanwhile as seen in Joker’s Favour is an absolute cringing coward when threatened by Charlie Collins. He ends up in his ultimate humiliation begging Batman for help and cowering behind him.
Ledgers Joker however is actually able to take Batman in a fight. He beats him to the ground with two crowbars, he laughs when Batman slams down on his hand and smashes his face into glass. When Batman tosses him off the edge of a building he laughs. Compare that to Mark’s Joker screaming when he nearly falls to his doom in both Make Em Laugh and Be A Clown, or Jack’s Joker screaming when he does fall to his death. Heath just rolls back and laughs like its nothing!
Ledger’s Joker portrayed the chaotic nature of the villain better than any other. His Joker did truly seem like someone who would watch the world burn.
Just like the Joker from his very first issue, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight is like a force of nature that emerges and drags the city down into his lunacy, that even Batman genuinely struggles against.
The Joker’s first appearance was an influence on Nolan when making the Dark Knight. He chose not to show the characters origins for this reason as we didn’t find out the characters origins in the comic books until the 1950’s. The Ledger Joker much like the Joker in his first appearance has a real sense of mystery about him. We don’t know where he came from, what could possibly have created such an unrelenting, unfeeling monster?
There are also some similar plot details in the Joker’s first appearance to the Dark Knight too. In his first appearance the Joker announces that he is going to kill his victims in advance just as Ledger does. There is even a scene where he disguises himself as a police officer in order to get to him that again we see in the Dark Knight.
Which One Do I Like The Best?
Well as you can see I enjoy all 4 performances. Objectively all men managed to perfectly capture an aspect of the Clown Prince of Crime’s complex personality so objectively I wouldn’t say there is a best per se, but my favourite is and always will be Mark Hamill.
Hamill to me IS the Joker. Even looking at that picture above of the Joker I imagine him speaking like Mark Hamill.
I think its because Hamill’s Joker was the most unpredictable that he seems the most like the character to me. With Jack and Heath I could only imagine them in the darker moments. With Romero meanwhile I can only imagine in the lighter moments. Trying to imagine Ledger’s Joker that cuts chunks out of people’s faces in Romero’s world, or Romero in Ledgers world and you’d get well this
A full movie like this would be hilarious but again that’s the point it wouldn’t be the Dark Knight.
With Hamill’s Joker as we have seen we could easily imagine him in much darker stories and the much lighter stories. Obviously there would be some differences to the Dark Knight and Batman or the Adam West series if Hamill had been the Joker, but it wouldn’t be quite so jarring as the difference between Romero and Ledger.
Hamill’s Joker I also found to be the most terrifying as I never knew what way he was going to go. With Romero I obviously knew I was in for a comedy, whilst with Jack and Ledger I knew to brace myself for a darker film. With Mark though I remember as a child always hoping he would show up because he was my fave, but then being scared when he would because I’d be on edge that something horrible might happen even in a comedy moment.
There was a scene in an episode Harlequinade I remember when I was young where the Joker shows up with a bomb and drives everyone away and there is one man left and the Joker tosses a bomb at him. Its a build up to something horrible as the bomb goes off, but then you see its seemingly a fake bomb and I remember laughing. But then it sprayed the Joker’s lethal laughing gas and the man proceeds to laugh himself to death. Its a horrific scene as we see him laugh hysterically to the point where his veins are practically popping. As a 4 year old I was horrified, but then I found myself giggling when Hamill’s Joker says “oh that’s so much more pleasant” as the man dies horribly.
That scene sums up why Hamill will always be my favourite and why for me he will always be the Joker. Thank you for reading.