The Joker as a character is nearly as old as his nemesis, Batman, having first appeared in the Spring of 1940 in Batman #1. However, it can be argued the clown did not become a staple in the popular culture pantheon of villainy until Cesar Romero’s 1966 debut on Batman in “The Joker is Wild.” Since then, the Clown Prince of Crime has been difficult to escape. Each decade thereafter, barring the '70s, saw Batman’s greatest foe reinvented in some form or fashion for the amusement of mainstream audiences. These on-screen revitalizations remain integral to the villain’s overall evolution across multiple branches of media.
Changes, whether they be reflected in live action, animation, or in games, are typically driven by an actor’s interpretation of The Joker. In turn, their perception of his characterization, which is also fueled by what specifically a given story requires, is conveyed through their choice of voice -- intonation, pitch, the sound of his laugh. With live action performances, mannerisms and physical behavior are imperative as well. Although, to an extent, the same can be said of animated depictions. The following list will rank 15 on-screen Joker performances; as such, the character’s wardrobe and design, tempting though it may be, do not receive consideration.
The Joker’s nonsensical characterization once again reached its peak during Batman: The Brave and the Bold. What’s intriguing about this version of the villain is the semblance of a serious tone. Sure, there exists cringe-worthy quips that only Joker can pass as good lines of dialogue, and he wouldn’t be himself without grim beats of humor.
Due to the show embracing the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, seriousness is achieved with an air of levity that consistently feels right. This is especially true of Bennett’s performance. Truthfully, his Joker sounds no different than a typical cartoon villain; one would be forgiven for hearing the Ventriloquist when he speaks. But every so often, his voice falters breathlessly and a hint of the clown’s depictions manifests, either in excitement or as he briefly cackles. It’s a relatively forgettable iteration of The Joker, but it shouldn’t be dismissed altogether.
John DiMaggio is no stranger to DC’s animated ventures as the actor has voiced a number of heroes and villains across several animated projects. One of his more notable DC-centric roles is that of The Joker in the adaptation of Under the Hood. While Joker isn’t one of the film’s focal points, his involvement remains as integral to the overarching narrative as his comic counterpart.
For the most part, DiMaggio’s Joker is a joy to watch; he particularly sells the clown’s maniacal behavior. Despite this, the voice itself can be off-putting. Joker’s voice in Under the Red Hood is deep, husky even. Thus, it often sounds as though some of the levity in his tone is forced. This isn’t a bad Joker, if there is such a thing; however, it isn’t a very memorable portrayal.
Injustice Joker is a complicated beast. He exists at the epicenter of the story, behaving as the catalyst for Superman’s destruction, which ultimately leads to the Man of Steel subjecting the world to his domination. In early scenes of Gods Among Us, presented in flashbacks, The Joker’s attitude is shown to match such cruelty. His voice is harsher than usual, mockingly so, and it… works, within a certain context.
Because Injustice is an Elseworlds story, the audience is introduced to another Earth’s Joker who acts in a manner conducive of the clown, yet void of attempts to destroy the Man of Steel’s life. This Clown Prince bears more of the character’s jovial nature, but Epcar’s performance is most profound in the game’s combat modes. The actor’s delivery of witty one-liners before and during versus matches excel in the moment; the performance within an extended narrative arguably stumbles, though.
To an extent, Zach Galifianakis returns Joker to his campiness and it pays off nicely. Interestingly, the actor seems to have steered clear of trying to have his Clown Prince adopt a “Joker” voice. In The LEGO Batman Movie, the villain has a relatively normal speaking voice. Unlike past portrayals, the character doesn’t particularly sound menacing, and it works for the kid-friendly and blatantly self-aware nature of the film, especially when considering the plot.
This Joker is excitable -- an easily discernible attribute that is made apparent with every bit of dialogue he delivers. Additionally, Joker’s interactions with Will Arnett’s Batman offers fun performance opportunities for Galifianakis. However, while the character is certainly fun to watch, Galifianakis’ tenure as the villain isn’t exactly memorable. Perhaps that will change should the film receive a sequel.
Jared Leto’s depiction of the Joker in Suicide Squad is about as controversial as the argument that perennially surrounds the Dark Knight’s refusal to kill the clown. Leto’s casting was instantly met with criticism; concerns were elevated two-fold when the first images of him in character emerged online. However, the bulk of contention centers squarely on his portrayal of the rogue.
Leto’s Joker lacks the elegance that even the darkest of depictions often maintains. Essentially an over-the-top crime boss, this version takes some getting used to. His eccentricities seem diminished, yet are paid forward by the deranged clown mentality that sees him using a tattoo on his hand to create the character’s familiar smile. Perhaps this is where the disdain lies -- Leto’s Joker isn’t particularly terrifying, he’s an eccentric crime lord. Frankly, this brand of relative ordinariness doesn’t quite fit the Clown Prince.
The Batman is a grossly underrated television series. Its under-appreciation may be due to the animation and stylistic choices, which were presumably employed in such a manner to differentiate the series from the DC Animated Universe shows and features. However, there was one other outlier that still doesn’t sit well with some -- The Joker.
This version of the villain behaves in a fashion that could be described as nearly animalistic. He walks hunched over, crouched in a posture reminiscent of an ape’s movement. Richardson’s performance conveys as much, too. On some occasions, The Batman’s Joker speaks in a growl; in other instances, Richardson’s portrayal is marginally similar to Mark Hamill’s. The back and forth works flawlessly, and Richardson especially shines in an episode (“The Laughing Bat”) wherein the clown impersonates Batman.
The complexities nestled within Batman and Joker’s dynamic connection receives fascinating exploration in the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Person of Interest’s Michael Emerson is put to task, bringing this older version of the rogue to the screen in a captivating, yet eerily subdued performance.
Emerson’s Joker is calmly chaotic; thanks to the detail in the film’s animation, it often appears as though Joker’s thoughts can be discerned from his expression. Of course, this isn’t anything new, but it notably stands out because of Emerson’s voice work. The clown speaks in a hauntingly pleasant manner, his voice so even in tone that it’s almost unnerving. When intonations do feature in his speech, they are predominantly utilized for emotional impact; the same can be said of Joker’s laugh.
No, Gotham’s Jerome character is not The Joker; according to executive producer Bryan Wynbrandt, he will never become the Joker, either. As far as the Fox series is concerned, Jerome is little more than an homage to Batman's classic nemesis. He may even act as a catalyst that incites the rise of the actual Joker, a story beat that is unlikely to be explored during the show’s run on television. Regardless, Jerome is still worthy of examination.
Cameron Riley Monaghan consistently delivers stellar performances. Jerome is intricately characterized, sometimes appearing calm and reasonably well put together, before devolving into a bout of manic lunacy. As for the voice, Monaghan seems to take inspiration from Heath Ledger; this notion apparently extends to his behavior as well. His movements appear calculated, yet spontaneous when he’s flying off the proverbial handle. Monaghan's performances on Gotham never fails to enthrall viewers.
Few performances in television history are as iconic as Cesar Romero’s Joker in the Batman series. This iteration of the character is arguably where Joker’s adoption of his clown-inspired identity is most profound. Produced within the zeitgeist of the '60s and the Silver Age of comics, Batman embraced a zaniness that has infrequently been replicated in the decades since. Of course, The Joker exists at the very heart of it all.
Compared to performances in a post-Nicholson/Joker world, Romero’s Clown Prince is comparatively tame. His speaking voice is fairly normal, yet the laugh often evolves into an unsettling cackle. Also of note are his mannerisms, many of which Romero exaggerates, allowing the Joker to have a quirkiness that makes him all the more exciting to watch in action.
When news of an Arkham Asylum prequel emerged, reception was mixed. A new studio would take the reigns, meaning different actors were charged with bringing younger versions of Batman and Joker to life. Assassin’s Creed’s Roger Craig Smith provided the voice for the Bat, while The Last of Us’ Troy Baker, who’d voiced the Joker in LEGO Batman 2, voiced Joker. If Baker was hired with the pretext being he had to sound like a younger iteration of Hamill, he succeeded.
Baker’s voice for the Clown is similar enough to Hamill’s to be a believable extension, but different enough that he's able to give the voice his own spin. Alongside Conroy’s Batman, Baker’s Joker shines once more in Assault on Arkham, the animated feature film set in the Arkhamverse. With Hamill seemingly have retired from the role, Baker would be a worthy replacement in future projects.
Technically, Anthony Ingruber’s Joker in Telltale’s Batman series isn’t quite The Joker yet. In the episodic title's first season, the character only appears a handful of times and is referred to solely as John Doe. Season two, though, sees John bear a closer resemblance to The Joker as he nearly dresses the part and begins to behave in a manner conducive of a future maniacal murderer.
What Ingruber brings to the role, then, is a grounded nature that’s so incredibly unfamiliar, it’s uncomfortable at times. And perhaps this is the goal of Telltale’s take on the Clown -- discomfort…an eerie calm before the storm. His speech is relatively normal, but he often breaks into a laugh unprompted or responds to an innocuous question with morbid intensity. If nothing else, Ingruber’s Joker is shaping up to be one of the more unsettling interpretations in recent memory.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but Jack Nicholson had a tough act to follow, coming into the role of Joker after Cesar Romero’s beloved outing in the Batman television series. Undeniably, Nicholson filled the role honorably in Tim Burton’s Batman film, setting the bar and cementing the Clown Prince of Crime as a pop culture icon.
Similar to Romero’s iteration, Nicholson embraces the clown-like aspects of the character in nearly every facet of the character’s macabre demeanor. To compliment the campiness, Nicholson introduces the character’s live action existence to a level of malevolence that had previously been conveyed solely through the pages of comics. Joker’s cruelty isn’t just evidenced in the backstory he’s given or his sinister behavior. Nicholson’s performance effectively exudes terror that one can’t help but gravitate toward, thanks to the quirk of a lip or the uncomfortable lingering of a smile.
Before its release in 2009, no one knew Arkham Asylum was going to be such a hallmark for media in general. The series changed the action genre, renewed faith in licensed titles, and is undoubtedly responsible for Marvel’s recent interest in committing to the development of quality games. However, one of the more fascinating aspects of the Arkham franchise is Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill’s return to their beloved roles.
Rocksteady Studios essentially explores BTAS in a grittier reality; thus, Hamill’s Joker reflected as much. His performance is more animated, his voice apparently drops a register, and the dark humor lingers in a realm of discomfort that cartoons aimed at children, even for the '90s, were unable to cross. Again, the highlight can be found in Joker’s relationship to Batman -- no where is it more exquisitely crafted than in the Arkhamverse.
If Mark Hamill is the definitive Joker, then Heath Ledger’s sole performance as the Clown Prince is on the animated Clown’s heels at a close second. As with Jared Leto, many were skeptical of Ledger’s casting; of course, all concern was thrown aside once the second film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy opened in theaters. Akin to Nicholson before him, Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker marked another transition from the camp of Romero. This time, however, the evolution wasn’t so incremental.
The Dark Knight’s Joker bears a ferocity like none other. Thanks to his inherent intelligence, this iteration is compelling beyond clown-esque attributes. What Ledger contributes to the villain’s extensive history is a philosophical complexity evidenced in his speech and behavior. Intrigue additionally extends to his mannerisms. Put simply, Ledger’s performance amplifies Joker’s more delicately crafted faculties; no wonder it’s a tough act to follow.
Mark Hamill has the distinct honor of being what many consider the definitive Joker. Introduced in 1992 as a recurring character in Batman: The Animated Series, Hamill’s Clown Prince sits comfortably between Romero and Nicholson in terms of characterization. With Hamill, the levity and clown-like silliness on display from Romero collides with the dark humor and inherent immorality seen in Nicholson’s tenure as the character.
In correlation with the effective voice and the hauntingly contagious laugh is Hamill’s Joker having seamless rapport with Kevin Conroy’s Batman. It’s easy to believe the two foes represent two sides of the same coin. That said, Hamill’s voice work deserves continuous praise. He brings a liveliness to the role that few others have mastered, evident in The Joker’s choice of intonation as he speaks and the pure joy that can be heard from each laugh.
Which version of The Joker is your favorite? Sound off in the comments!