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Is there any comic book villain more iconic than the Joker? Short answer, no. No other villain has reached the height of popularity on par with the hero they’re in constant battle with than the Joker. Look at the rest of the DC universe, only Lex Luthor comes close, but not close enough. Same goes for Marvel; DC has always had the best villains and they’ve always been led by the clown Prince of Crime. It’s not just comics though: like Batman, the Joker has become a massive cultural force, and a villain who shares the same esteemed cinematic company as Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter. So let’s countdown the best depictions of the Joker outside of the comics.
Jared Leto in Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad was a divisive movie to say the least. A lot of that was due to he treatment of Jared Leto’s Joker, who was a huge part of the film's marketing campaign, but is hardly in the finished film. Leto’s, albeit incomplete, version of The Joker has been slammed by many critics as being nothing but affectations and weird verbal ticks. What Leto proves though is that even the worst performances of the Joker can still be interesting. No one who went to see the film wished that he wasn’t in it at all, rather that he was the main villain. Hopefully Leto can get a bigger chunk of screen time, possibly in Ben Affleck’s Batman movie where the character can take center stage.
Richard Epcar in Injustice: Gods Among Us
Richard Epcar’s portrayal of the Joker doesn’t usually come up in conversations about who is the best Joker, which is a shame since the Joker’s actions in the video game beat-em-up Injustice tee up the insane story mode. While not revolutionary, Injustice is a treat for fans of DC’s best heroes and villains, who just need an excuse to kick the crap out of each other, with each character getting their own special moves. The Joker here is the spark that lit the fire in the game's story mode. At the beginning of the game the Joker kills Lois Lane, sending Superman on a grief filled revenge mission in which he murders the Joker and becomes a ruthless dictator with Batman becoming the person charged with taking him down. It’s telling that when you want to plunge the world of DC Comics into chaos you just have to point the Joker the right way.
Troy Baker in Batman: Arkham Origins
Mark Hamill has most of the acclaim for the Joker in the Arkham game series, but Troy Baker’s work in the series prequel, Arkham Origins, is not to be underestimated. The game is exactly what it says on the tin: an origin story, not of how Bruce Wayne became Batman but about the relationships both friendly and villainous that completes the Batman universe. Throughout the game we are shown Batman’s first meetings with Commissioner Gordon, his daughter and future Batgirl/Oracle, Barbra, and the relationship that defines him: the Joker. While the gameplay doesn’t take the franchise to new heights, the story is a compelling one, and at one immensely unnerving point you get to play the Joker as you enter his mind to see how his feelings and obsession with the Dark Knight were formed. As origins go, and the Joker has a lot of them, this is a highlight.
Michael Emerson from Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
The Dark Knight Returns is probably the most popular and highly regarded Batman comics of all time. So it’s a wonder that an animated adaptation took so long to make. As in the comic, this two part animated film follows an older, more grizzled Bruce Wayne as he comes out of retirement in order to rid his beloved Gotham of crime once again, that and he’s an adrenaline junkie. Like every great Batman story, there’s always room for the Joker, here voiced by Michael Emerson of Lost and Person of Interest fame. It turns out that the Joker has been catatonic in Arkam since Batman disappeared years before. So when he hears that his old playmate is back jumping off rooftops he revives himself in order to do battle once again. Safe to say the battle is epic, it’s no wonder that the Joker from The Dark Knight Returns is one of the main influences of Jared Leto’s version.
John DiMaggio in Batman: Under the Red Hood
John DiMaggio, most famous for voicing Futurama’s Bender, lends his voice to this excellent adaptation of the comic of the same name. This comment deals with the consequences of DC’s controversial Death in the Family storyline, in which fans could vote if the second incarnation of Robin, Jason Todd, would live or die. The blood thirsty fans chose death, and typically this came at the hands of the Joker. Mr J serves as a wild card in this adaptation, both as the instigator of events and double crossing Black Mask because he feels like it. What Under the Red Hood shows above all is that the Joker is under Batman’s skin, a walking reminder of his greatest failure, as well as his supreme level of control of his own murderous tendencies.
Cesar Romero in Batman: The TV Show
Cesar Romero’s Joker is still rightly regarded as one of the most popular depictions of the character. Yes he’s as camp as the day is long, and the show which spawned him is seen as the nadir of the Batman brand (because it was actually fun, and completely opposed to the darker leanings of the Batman mythos), but without Romero the Joker wouldn’t be the cultural legend he is today. The Joker of the Batman TV show is a one of a kind of onscreen depiction as he’s the least mass murdery. Instead he’s more of the merry prankster of the Silver Age comics that lightened up many dark corners of the DC universe. Most importantly, Romero introduced the Joker to a mass audience of people who had never picked up a comic book in their life.
Jack Nicholson in Batman
Which brings us to Jack Nicholson’s take on the character for Tim Burton’s Batman movie. What Romero started Nicholson built on with a Mr. J that was nearly as campy, but just happened to be a murdering psychopathic mobster BEFORE he was dropped into a vat of acid. Nicholson’s Joker was the first to raise the character to the heights of premier cinematic villain, and walked the line between being a faithful rendering of the character mixed with stuff that Burton threw in. For example: the Joker has much of the iconography of his comic book counterpart like acid squirting flowers, hand buzzers that burn you to death, and a huge gun that that magically fit into his pants. But the film also put him in the role of the man who murdered Bruce Wayne’s parents, thus creating his greatest foe.
Mark Hamill in Batman: The Animated Series, Arkham Games, The Killing Joke
If anyone has a claim on the Joker it’s got to be Mark Hamill. The occasional Skywalker has defined his career outside of the galaxy far far away as the definitive portrayal of the Joker on the small screen and video games. First introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, the best cartoon of the 90s apart from The Simpsons, no one could predict that Hamill would still be voicing the character two decades later. He’s had a glittering career in clown related crime as the breakout character in the animated series, as well as the Arkham Asylum game series, evening saving last year’s adaptation of The Killing Joke from being a complete failure. His greatest performance though comes in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Like Under the Red Hood, if Batman looks hard enough into a disaster he will always find the Joker.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight
There’s just something unique about Heath Ledger’s embodiment of the Joker. Nothing but an ordinary man with a taste for the theatrical and a great relationship with chaos, Ledger and director Christopher Nolan stripped the character down to the fundamentals and built him back up as the terrorist he always has been. Nolan’s choice to ground his Batman universe in the real world informed the Joker by taking away the more out there parts of his character. He doesn’t have any of the iconography of the other onscreen Jokers, apart from the purple suit, and his physical deformity is nothing more than face paint and a Chelsea smile. Like Batman, he uses his appearance and tactics to be the symbol of chaos to Batman’s winged symbol of order and justice. It’s the best depiction of the character because of Ledger’s muscular performance, and the fact that both actor and director dared to e different. After all isn’t that what the Joker is all about?