Warning! Contains SPOILERS for The Batman.With a new Batman coming to the DCU in The Brave and the Bold, there could be a new star joining the ranks of every actor who played The Joker before long. As one of the most iconic Batman villains of all time, there have been multiple actors who portrayed The Joker across numerous live-action movie and TV adaptations. The Clown Prince of Crime remains a DC fan favorite and regularly tops lists of the greatest comic book characters of all time. Naturally, he has been re-interpreted by various actors who played The Joker throughout a long history that started all the way back in 1940.
Every Joker actor has brought something new to the role, and the next actor who steps into the role will join a storied legacy. Some Joker actors embrace the character’s humorous side — others make him a nightmare incarnate. Over various Batman movies some actors have gone for grounded and realistic takes of live-action Joker, while others have gone gloriously over the top. Whether Joker will appear in The Brave and the Bold as one of the new DCU villains remains to be seen, but with all Joker actors either finding acclaim or falling flat with the character, it is no mystery why Joker is such a draw for actors to play.
The Joker’s Cinematic History Explained
Batman‘s Joker is famous for his ever-changing origin story. However, most agree that he was a petty criminal who got knocked into a vat of chemicals by Batman, and his appearance and attitude are the result. Every Joker actor has had their own backstory for the character, though almost all versions of the Joker are incredibly dark. The creative origins of the character are as unclear as Joker’s own past with Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson claiming credit while only acknowledging some contribution from Bill Finger’s writing.
While Joker was set to be killed off in his initial run, editorial intervention kept him alive and allowed him to live on as Batman’s archnemesis. Over time, their relationship has developed to become one of the most complex in the superhero genre — with the continuing sense that Batman needs the Joker in some fundamental way, and vice versa. Over the years, the character has become famous enough to exist without Batman though, as proved by Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker solo movie being a resounding success.
There have been a total of seven live-action Joker actors in movies and TV shows, playing 8 individual Jokers (Cameron Monaghan’s Joker in Gotham is technically two versions – twin brothers). All Jokers are different, and some like Heath Ledger (who played The Joker in The Dark Knight) were better received than others, like Jared Leto (whose Suicide Squad Joker is partly to blame for that movie being almost universally panned). Plus, while he didn’t portray the character in live-action, Mark Hamill deserves an honorable mention for voicing the Joker, complete with the iconic Joker laugh, across a range of media. Time will tell if another actor joins these ranks in The Brave and the Bold.
Cesar Romero Played The Joker In Batman 1966
Cesar Romero’s Joker, the first live-action Joker, is how many Baby Boomers were introduced to the Clown Prince of Crime. While Batman serials were produced throughout the 1940s, he wouldn’t face his arch-nemesis in live-action until the campy cult-classic ’60s TV show in which Cesar Romero debuted as the Joker opposite Adam West’s Batman.
Leaning into the trippy and bizarre spirit of the character and placing heavy emphasis on the clown aspect.
Romero’s Joker favored elaborate pranks and hoaxes over outright murder, though wasn’t opposed to the odd electrocution or two (administered via joy buzzer) when his henchmen needed a kick. Of every live-action Joker, Romero’s version is the only one that doesn’t come with a PG rating. His Joker is certainly intimidating but, in keeping with the tone of the Adam West Batman universe, never spilled blood or carried out violence beyond the occasional BAM or POW off-screen punch.
Romero famously refused to shave his mustache for the role — the dark hairs visible underneath the Joker’s iconic white makeup for most, if not all, of his run. In addition to being an amusing piece of trivia, Romero’s laid-back approach stands in stark contrast to the intense process that would later define the role in the eyes of the media. Romero’s Joker was a product of the tongue-in-cheek confines of the ’60s TV show and the limits of the time on how dark a character could truly be on traditional TV. Romero played the Joker across three seasons and a spin-off film, Batman: The Movie, in 1966.
Jack Nicholson Played The Joker In Batman ’89
As the second live-action Joker, the Jack Nicholson Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) marked a change in public perception surrounding the character. This Joker killed many innocent people in a museum – a far cry from the fairly tame hijinks of Romero in the ’60s. With the release of Batman (1989), the Joker was suddenly “worthy” and “challenging” in the eyes of critics as a result of Nicholson’s casting. He was even nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA in the wake of the film’s success.
A standout performance even on lists of every Joker actor, Nicholson is phenomenal in the role, able to portray anarchic madmen better than just about anybody, and he works opposite Michael Keaton’s stoic Batman with devilish glee. For years, this was the version all Joker actors had to compete with, and many fans online still want a DCU Jack Nicholson Joker return, though it doesn’t seem likely he’ll pop up in The Brave and the Bold.
Despite meeting a grisly end in Batman, Nicholson’s Joker was set to return in Batman Unchained, a proposed fifth film in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher series wherein Nicholson would reprise the role as a hallucination caused by the Scarecrow. Sadly, after Batman & Robin (1997) bombed, the studio decided to go in a different direction, canceling Batman Unchained and, with it, any real possibility that Nicholson would ever return to the role he helped define.
Heath Ledger Played The Joker In The Dark Knight
The Heath Ledger Joker is perhaps the most well-known of every live-action Joker. It was Ledger who played The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), from which the notorious “Why so serious?” line originates. Nicholson received acclaim and nominations for his take, but Heath Ledger made history with his performance, winning a slew of posthumous awards for his portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s record-breaking The Dark Knight. This was another important development as far as the Joker’s on-screen legacy is concerned, and Heath Ledger significantly raised the bar for all subsequent portrayals.
Nolan’s take on the Batman mythos involved grounding the characters in a more violent, contemporary setting than audiences had grown accustomed to in superhero movies, with Heath Ledger’s Joker representing one of America’s biggest fears — terrorism. As a result, he was absolutely terrifying, though still conveyed the character’s twisted sense of humor, and remains the high-water mark against which all other Jokers are compared. Sadly, Heath Ledger passed away from an accidental prescription drug overdose before The Dark Knight’s release, unable to enjoy the film’s overwhelming success or, indeed, collect his Oscar.
After Ledger’s death, reports began to circulate that his experience playing the Joker was partly to blame. The media painted his method acting, which helped Heath Ledger improvise his Joker scenes, as responsible, citing his self-imposed isolation period and in-character journals as “evidence” of some kind of breakdown. Though others involved in The Dark Knight’s production have said that Ledger was very proud of his work on the film and enjoyed the experience immensely (suffering from issues unrelated to his performance), the weight of his death and subsequent media frenzy has continued to loom large in the public consciousness, creating the worrying misconception that every Joker actor must go to extreme length for the intense role.
Jared Leto Played The Joker In Suicide Squad & Zack Snyder’s Justice League
Jared Leto was an exciting choice for the DC cinematic universe’s first Joker, debuting in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. However, of every Joker actor the Jared Leto Joker is the most controversial. Suicide Squad was nowhere near as well received as the studio hoped, which led to Leto’s Joker having much less presence in the DCEU than initially planned. What’s more, given his reputation as an intense method actor, often said to remain in character throughout each shoot, Leto’s casting exacerbated the idea that playing the Joker could cause psychological harm.
With the announcement of the new DCU, hopes of restoring the Snyderverse have ended which means chances of Leto being the DCU live-action Joker in The Brave and the Bold. Leto’s version is something of a departure from previous portrayals, more like an offensive pimp stereotype than a clown, complete with tattoos, grills, and a cane. There’s also a sexualized element to the way Leto interpreted the Joker which confused many fans since Joker has never been an overtly sensuous character.
While some critics applauded Leto’s performance that highlighted the toxicity of his relationship with Harley Quinn, DC’s fanbase was more critical. Jared Leto did not return for James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad but did reprise his role in Zack Snyder’s Justice League (often dubbed the “Snyder Cut”). While his appearance in The Snyder Cut was a marked improvement, by 2021 the DCEU and Snyderverse both were in no position to offer a Jared Leto Joker resurgence in future projects.
Cameron Monaghan Played The Joker In Gotham
The Cameron Monaghan Joker from Gotham is technically two characters, twin brothers Jerome and Jeremiah, and the only live-action Joker in a modern TV series. Initially set to tell the story of Jim Gordon’s early days in the Gotham City Police Department before being expanded to incorporate the misadventures of a young Bruce Wayne, Gotham ran for five seasons on the Fox network and introduced two new versions of the Joker, both played by Monaghan.
While the writers of Gotham were keen to incorporate the Joker wholesale, they realized that his origin is dependent on Batman and, therefore, wouldn’t work within the prequel’s timeline. Instead, they decided to utilize various elements of the Joker’s personality, with twin brothers Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska acting as proto-Jokers to inspire whoever would eventually take the mantle.
Monaghan was largely well-received in both roles, becoming a fan-favorite addition to the series — even if his status as an “official” Joker actor is dubious given how Gotham ends, leaving the audience to question whether Monaghan’s remaining twin would become the Joker or inspire another character to take up the mantle. Curiously, the idea of the Joker as some kind of social influencer has been gaining traction in recent years, which is a worrying sign of the times, no doubt, with political dissatisfaction and unrest being felt across much of America.
Joaquin Phoenix Played The Joker In Joker
The Joaquin Phoenix Joker, Arthur Fleck, is the only live-action Joker to star in his own movies (Joker, and the upcoming sequel, Joker: Folie à Deux). After a few shared universe failures, DC put less emphasis on the DC Extended Universe for a time, deciding instead to produce an R-rated, standalone Joker movie in direct contrast to Marvel’s MCU and their family-friendly approach to the superhero genre. Director Todd Phillips recast the Joker, attracting actor Joaquin Phoenix to the Martin-Scorsese-inspired project.
More closely resembling a psychological thriller than a traditional superhero movie, Joker was a critical and financial success, becoming the first R-rated film to gross over a billion dollars and landing Phoenix an Academy Award for the role like the late Heath Ledger before him. While many enjoyed Phillips’ bleak reimagining of the Joker’s origin story, others found it to be overwhelmingly mean-spirited — though Phoenix’s portrayal was generally praised across the board, with most of the film’s issues stemming from its intensely nihilistic tone and underdeveloped supporting characters.
While intended to be a standalone film, its success has led to the confirmation of a Joker sequel. Officially titled Joker: Folie à Deux, the follow-up will supposedly be a musical, and Lady Gaga is said to be involved. It looks likely that Joker has already inspired a wave of R-rated comic book movies in its wake that are miles away from the campy days of Cesar Romero. Phoenix’s take is also confirmed to stand on its own as part of the Elseworld storylines of the DCU, disconnected from The Brave and the Bold and whatever Joker might appear there.
Barry Keoghan Played The Joker In The Batman
The Barry Keoghan Joker in The Batman is the least known of all live-action Jokers, but he’s already intriguing. While Matt Reeves’ The Batman introduced the world to new takes on The Riddler (Paul Dano) and The Penguin (Colin Farrell), as well as a new Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), there was also space for a brand new Joker. Barry Keoghan appeared in a brief cameo behind an Arkham State Hospital cell door, seducing the Riddler into a partnership, and later in a deleted scene on YouTube. Keoghan’s role was kept secret up to release, and while his new Joker in The Batman was unnamed, the distinctive Joker laugh and hints of a heavily scarred face offered major hints of who he really was.
Matt Reeves confirmed The Batman‘s Joker cameo was indeed the Clown Prince but hasn’t said if Keoghan will return in the direct sequel: “I don’t know that the Joker would be in the next movie, but I can tell you that here’s what you’re seeing, is an early days version of this character, and trouble, as always, is brewing in Gotham.” The Batman‘s Joker is hidden in shadow, but Barry Keoghan’s version looks incredibly scarred, and not just around his mouth. Initially, this was thought to mean his Joker will draw from the New 52 version of the character, specifically the Death Of The Family Joker who removed his whole face and wore it like a mask just to prove a point to Batman.
Given the Riddler’s arc and the symbolism of masks, it would make sense that this Joker would align himself with Dano’s Gotham terrorist. However, it has since been confirmed by Reeves that The Batman’s Joker has a gnarled face because of a congenital disease, which contorts his face into a permanently disfigured grin. Like Phoenix’s Joker, this version of the villain will remain separate from the DCU which means there could be three cinematic Jokers at once with Keoghan, Phoenix, and potentially The Brave and the Bold‘s version.
Other Notable Joker Actors
While there are plenty of actors who played the Joker across live-action media, even more have picked up the role of the Clown Prince of Crime as voice actors for animated movies, TV series, and video games and they also deserve a mention. The most iconic voice of the Joker is undoubtedly Mark Hamill who brought a new idea to the role that would define the approach of those who came after him. Hamill voiced the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, The Arkham video games, Justice League, and Batman: The Killing Joke among countless other appearances, mixing menace and fun in perfect balance for the character.
Hamill is not alone in having an impact on the role of the Joker, however, and many other big names have voiced him. Alan Tudyk plays the character in the acclaimed Harley Quinn animated solo series, a hilarious pathetic take on the villain. Troy Baker, who also voiced Joel in The Last of Us video game, voiced the Joker in Batman Unlimited: Monster Mayhem, Zach Galifianakis took the role for The LEGO Batman Movie, John DiMaggio voiced The Joker in Batman: Under The Red Hood, and Kevin Michael Richardson took on the strange character in the even stranger adaptation The Batman Vs. Dracula. This extensive list of voice actors behind The Joker only scratches the surface, and with DC extending to podcasts via Batman: Unburied and Batman: The Audio Adventures, the list is only set to grow.
Who Is The Best Live-Action Joker Actor?
There are seven Joker actors. When it comes down to who is the best of all Jokers, the question is likely to spark fierce debate amongst Batman fans,. However, there is an arguable case that it’s really only a contest between Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix, two actors who won Oscars for their performances. Monaghan in Gotham was loved by fans, but neither Jeremiah nor Jerome is named as the final Joker Gotham’s Batman would face, so he’s disqualified on a technicality. Romero and Nicholson are both highly regarded, but their respective Joker versions are very much products of both their time of release and the unique tones of their respective Batman universes.
Barry Keoghan’s Joker looks good, but he’s only been seen in a brief cameo and deleted scene on YouTube. The Batman’s Joker simply doesn’t have enough screen time to be a contender (yet). That then leaves the Heath Ledger Joker in The Dark Knight and Joaquin Phoenix’s Arthur Fleck in Joker. As much as Joaquin Phoenix rightly received accolades and awards for his performance, Heath Ledger ultimately takes the crown as the best performer out of every Joker actor. This might seem like an obvious choice, but there’s a reason Ledger posthumously won the 2009 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work on The Dark Knight. It’s an iconic performance, even outside of superhero movies, and he’s almost definitely the reason Nolan’s second Batman movie finds its way into so many “Top Movies Of All Time” type lists.
There’s also the very clear observation that Phoenix’s Joker wouldn’t exist if Ledger’s hadn’t preceded it: The Heath Ledger Joker redefined the character, both on-screen and in comics. Ledger’s place as the best live-action Joker isn’t guaranteed though, especially since Keoghan could return in a future The Batman sequel and Phoenix will reprise the role of Arthur Fleck in Joker: Folie à Deux. Now, there is a looming possibility of another Joker actor taking the acting challenge in The Brave and the Bold. Until then though it’s hard to argue against the view that Heath Ledger is the best live-action Joker.
Will The Joker Be In Batman: The Brave and The Bold Movie?
The announcement of The Brave and the Bold confirms a new Batman for the DCU is coming in the future, and whenever Batman is on the big screen, there is a safe bet Joker will also be there. The movie is still a long way off and there is no confirmation at all of any villains that may or may not be involved. One aspect that is known is that the movie will be a father-son story between Bruce Wayne and Damian Wayne, the first Robin who’s a bonafide biological descendant of The Dark Knight. The Joker and Damian have had some memorable moments in the comics and James Gunn seems like he wouldn’t pass up the chance to bring a new live-action Joker to the DCU. Perhaps Joker won’t appear in The Brave and the Bold just yet, but it’s a near-guaranteed certainty the DCU will have its own live-action Joker before long.
NEXT: Casting Batman For DCU’s The Brave & The Bold
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