Poll: Who Is The Best Mass Media Joker?
Ever since he made his debut in 1940's Batman #1, the Joker has been the arch-criminal among arch-criminals, the one villain who can truly lay claim to being Batman's nemesis. As a result, he's made quite a few appearances across other media, serving as the antagonist in movies, television, and even a handful of video games.
Now, with Jared Leto set to take the role with a new interpretation rooted in questionable tattoos and on-set method-acting antics, it's time for us to finally sit down and figure out where we stand. For that, we turn to you, dear reader, as we ask that you cast your vote to tell us which mass media Joker performance is the undisputed best!
Option 1: Cesar Romero (Batman '66)
Cesar Romero portrayed the Clown Prince of Crime for three seasons of the 1966 Batman television show and movie, racking up a total 10 adventures to his credit. And of all the actors to take on the green hair and chalk-white face, he's the only one who had the resolve to do it without shaving his mustache.
In his tenure, Romero embodied the gleeful murderousness of that era's Joker, rolling with the strange twists that the show added to his character — like someone with a signature look also being a master of disguise — and even filled in at the last minute when a script had to be rewritten to feature the Joker instead of a new villain built around slot machines, and he always did it well.
On the downside, though, while Romero made for a great arch-criminal, it's easy to argue that he wasn't a great Joker. Without the sinister intensity and mood swings that Frank Gorshin brought to the Riddler or the smirking greed of Burgess Meredith's Penguin, it's easy to see this version as just another crook.
Option 2: Jack Nicholson (Batman '89)
Jack Nicholson's Joker is, for my money at least, the single most entertaining piece of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman film. The idea of the Joker starting out as a remorseless hitman for the mob and then transforming into an equally remorseless art terrorist who destroys Gotham City's news media by poisoning the anchors' makeup — the single most RoboCop idea to not happen in RoboCop — and then tries to murder the entire city with a parade? That's pretty great.
And Nicholson's up to the task, too. With the sinister air and exaggerated grin that he brings to pretty much every performance, he seems like the easiest casting choice in the world. Plus, that impression he does of Jack Palance, where he tells Bob that he's, ahhhhh, his numbah onnnnne... aahhhhguyyyyyyy? Still my favorite thing about the movie, hands down.
As for what works against him, well, as good as Nicholson's performance is, his Joker has a whole lot of weird, including the infamously famous decision to tie the hero and villain together by having the Joker be the guy who murdered Batman's parents. Why exactly one needs a personal motivation to stop a murder clown from throwing a death parade, I will never know.
Option 3: Mark Hamill (Batman: The Animated Series)
Batman: The Animated Series has often been praised for stripping the Caped Crusader back to the basics for moody, episodic adventures, and there are few characters who embody that as well as the Joker.
Rather than spending any time on an origin story, the Joker of BTAS steps onto the screen fully formed, with crimes that were set right on the razor-thin line between silly and terrifying. Under virtually any voice actor, it would've been a good interpretation of the character, but with Hamill giving the Joker his signature gravelly, sing-song tones, it was darn near perfect. It's hard to describe in words, but then, I don't need to describe it. Odds are pretty good that you can hear him in your head right now, thanks to the past 20 years of of his work on the character alongside Kevin Conroy's Batman.
As for the negatives of his performance, well... I'll let you know if I think of any.
Option 4: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
As definitive as Hamill's Joker had been over the previous two decades, it was hard to imagine in 2008 that anyone else could play the character in a way that would be quite as engaging. But then we got The Dark Knight.
Again, I'm not really sure this is something that I need to explain. That movie made a billion dollars, and Ledger's performance earned a posthumous Academy Award. It's a standout in every way, quite possibly the single best take on a darker, grittier version of a superhero comics character — and it had to be a phenomenally difficult task. The Joker of The Dark Knight is a character who lies constantly, and Ledger did it so well that even the audience bought it, despite the fact that he'd contradict himself onscreen.
Again, it's a performance where there aren't a lot of flaws to serve as downsides — it really just comes down to whether or not you enjoyed The Dark Knight, and statistically speaking, you probably did.