The Joker, Gotham’s Clown Prince of Crime, has always been the yin to Batman’s yang. While the Batman mythos is full to bursting with colorful rogues and villains, it’s the Joker who stands above the rest. As he observes in The Dark Knight, the Joker and Batman complete each other. A number of actors have taken on the role of the Joker over the years, but two performances have received the most attention: Jack Nicholson’s take on the character in 1989’s Batman, and Heath Ledger’s portrayal in 2008’s The Dark Knight.
Nicholson’s depiction of the Joker was a revelation, and for almost 20 years his performance was considered the gold standard for comic-book supervillains. No one believed another actor could fill Nicholson’s shoes in the role. That’s why when it was announced that Heath Ledger would embody the Joker in The Dark Knight fan backlash was swift and angry. When audiences finally got a glimpse of Ledger’s performance, though, all doubt was cast aside. Ledger not only met but exceeded fan expectations. And the debate about whether Nicholson or Ledger was the better Joker was born. Of course, today we’ve glimpsed a third live-action Joker: Jared Leto in Suicide Squad. Of the three portrayals, Leto’s has been ridiculed and dismissed the most. But was it really that bad? Here, we delve into the debate about who played it best: Nicholson or Ledger. And for good measure, we add Leto into the mix to explore some of the reasons his performance may not deserve the hate it’s received.
Nicholson’s performance set the tone for all the other comic-book supervillains that came after him. Up until that point, the most famous onscreen depiction of the Joker was Cesar Romero's campy portrayal in the live-action Batman TV series from the 1960s. While Romero provided a template for Nicholson, including the Joker’s cackling mania, Nicholson took the character to the next level.
Nicholson was a serious, two-time Oscar-winning actor when he agreed to play Batman's nemesis. So, his presence alone gave the movie more credibility. Then he took the role itself seriously, eschewing the more ridiculous aspects of the character while leaning into the Joker's disturbingly joyous darkness.
There’s no doubt that Nicholson’s Joker blazed a trail for Ledger’s, but Ledger’s take on the character was far darker and grittier than anyone could have imagined. In Ledger’s hands, the Joker is a figure of pure chaos. You can practically see the wheels turning as he executes his plans to bring mayhem to Gotham City.
Ledger’s Joker is in control of every room he walks into, and at the same time, he doesn’t seem to mind if his plans go awry as long as they go awry in the craziest way possible. His comfort with instability and commitment to the worst in humanity is chilling and scary.
Handed the thankless task of following Ledger’s critically-lauded and fan-beloved portrayal, Leto did his best to differentiate his Joker from the infamous performances that came before his.
To do so, he established the character as a street-smart creature of the current era. This Joker had tattoos and silver caps on his teeth that gave the villain a more urban spin. Leto refrained from any sort of imitation of Nicholson or Ledger. In fact, he didn’t seem to take inspiration from either actor at all. Instead, he gave the character a hysterical, frantic demeanor that was completely of his own creation.
Nicholson’s performance could have shaded too far into hammy, but the character stops just shy of that by also being frighteningly homicidal. This Joker was exuberantly gleeful, especially when things got deadly.
It seemed like Nicholson genuinely had a blast with the role, reveling in the Joker’s sinister pleasure. He was delightfully over-the-top, whether he was throwing a parade for the terrorized citizens of Gotham or trashing an art museum while dancing to Prince. However, his darkly comedic approach to life is best shown off by his use of well-known gags to bring about his victims’ demise, including an electrocuting joy buzzer and a flower that squirts acid.
Ledger’s Joker was far less laugh out loud funny than Nicholson. If anything his Joker was so committed to anarchy that he kept both his victims and movie audiences off-kilter, unsure what to expect from him next.
The Joker of The Dark Knight truly enjoyed his work, although his motives and beliefs about humanity were so dark it was hard to find the joy with him. At the same time, though, Ledger was fascinating to watch. From his odd speech patterns to his physical ticks to the way he related to the other characters, Ledger’s performance was a high-wire act that entertained even as it terrified.
Leto’s may the coldest of all the live-action movie Jokers. It’s unclear what the character's motives are, he doesn’t seem to have a particular cause, and his main concern seems to be looking out for himself. As a result, his willingness to do whatever it takes to get what he wants makes him truly unnerving.
Yet, the only one who really seems to be in on the joke of it all is him (and perhaps his paramour, Harley Quinn). When he laughs maniacally or plasters his menacing smile on his face it’s never clear if his behavior is psychotic or calculated. His is a Joker without context, which makes him sadistic, although not necessarily interesting.
Of all the big-screen Jokers, it was Nicholson’s who’s always ready with a witty one-liner. Whether introducing himself for the first time post-acid bath — “You can call me Joker. And as you can see, I’m a lot happier,” remarking that “The pen is truly mightier than the sword” after using his pen as a dagger, or lamenting that a man dressed up as a bat gets all his press before declaring, “This town needs an enema,” Nicholson’s running commentary served as amusing punctuation to his battle with Batman.
He even manages to get in one final zinger foreshadowing his imminent demise, “Sometimes I just kill myself.” This Joker's unhinged commitment to merriment left the audience in stitches.
Ledger’s Joker had some stand-out lines — including the much-quoted “Why so serious?” — but they were not so much jokes than they were devilish warnings and observations. Instead, Ledger’s portrayal gave the Joker some interesting layers and an uncanny intelligence that made him intriguing and scary at the same time.
Throughout The Dark Knight, the Joker tells sob stories about his past that explain his trauma and his damaged soul. Yet, the Joker’s an unreliable narrator and his tall tales are likely just another product of his commitment to chaos. His erratic behavior and lack of backstory make the character seem like he came out of nowhere to wreak havoc, but his intelligent take on his ideology makes it seem like there’s much more going on beneath the surface.
Suicide Squad was by no means a great film. Many comic-book films rise and fall on the success of their villains, so a movie made up entirely of compelling villains seemed like a great idea. Unfortunately, something was lost in the execution and many of Suicide Squad’s villains turned out to be less than memorable.
Leto’s Joker can’t be accused of falling into that category. Despite having less screen time than many of the other characters in the movie, the Joker left an impression on audiences with his crazy antics. In fact, Leto often outshined many of the actors he shared scenes with, even though he wasn't a real member of the Squad.
Nicholson has always been a pleasure to watch on screen. It’s no accident that he has one of the most impressive trophy cases in Hollywood. However, he’s never exactly transformed for a role. Instead, he brings a lot of himself to each of the characters he’s played and the Joker was no different.
In Batman, Nicholson expanded on the characters he’d embodied in movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining, bringing a deranged exuberance to the Joker that brought a little light to the dark movie and, in the process, stole the show. No matter what the character did, Nicholson’s inherent charisma enabled him to make his Joker a maniacal charmer.
When Ledger took on the role of the Joker he was mostly known as a pretty boy teen heartthrob who starred in teen movies like 10 Things I Hate About You. While he had made bids for credibility in indies like Monster’s Ball and even earned an Oscar nod for his role in Brokeback Mountain, he still seemed far too polished and attractive to pull off the Joker.
So, Ledger took the opportunity offered by the character to completely disappear. Between the hitched walk, higher voice, hunched physique, dirty hair, and fright makeup, the Ledger audiences were used to seeing was nowhere to be found in the Joker of The Dark Knight.
Regardless of what you think of his performance, it’s hard to argue that Leto did anything less than fully commit to the Joker. Leto completely immersed himself in the role, developing every aspect of the character with meticulous detail.
In fact, he went so deep that his co-stars claim they never saw him out of character. Furthermore, Leto made sure the members of the Suicide Squad were ready for his Joker by sending them bizarre and disturbing gifts, including a love letter with a live rat for Margot Robbie, who played Harley Quinn, and a note with bullets to Will Smith, who played Deadshot.
Despite the fact that it’s been almost 30 years since Nicholson sashayed his way through Batman, his portrayal of the Joker is still remembered fondly by many a movie-goer. In fact, in an April 2018 survey in which 2,000 people from Britain voted for their favorite comic-book movie villain, Nicholson narrowly beat Ledger for the top spot.
So, while the movie he’s in doesn’t quite hold up after all this time, Nicholson’s performance certainly does. Nicholson’s turn as the Joker surprised and delighted fans, and decades later many still view his depiction as the definitive version of the character.
In the 10 years since the release of The Dark Knight, Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker has become the stuff of legend. In addition to proving that he had serious acting chops, he also showed that other onscreen interpretations of the Joker could be just as (or perhaps even more) compelling than Nicholson’s.
Ledger didn’t just earn the love of fans for his performance, he also has the distinction of being the only actor ever to win an Oscar for a role in a comic-book movie. Some attribute this to the fact that it was a posthumous performance, but far more fans agree that Ledger was mesmerizing. When his Joker is onscreen you can’t take your eyes off him.
While Leto is rarely a part of the conversation when it comes to the best movie Jokers, it’s important to remember that he’s at a distinct disadvantage. Unlike Nicholson or Ledger, a majority of Leto’s performance in Suicide Squad ended up on the cutting room floor. Even the actor himself seemed disappointed by how much of his performance never saw the light of day.
Given the heavy focus on the character in the movie’s marketing materials, it seems producers felt the need to include a big-name villain, and then realized that he didn’t really fit into the story they were telling. As a result, the Joker feels crammed into the movie and is quickly sidelined. Who knows what fan reaction would have been had we seen Leto’s full performance.