Love that Joker: Every performance of the Joker, ranked

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Aug 5, 2016, 12:03 PM EDT

What makes a great Joker? 

Is it that smile? The laugh? The demented things he does? 

Ever since the Joker first appeared in comics 76 years ago, he has been tormenting Batman and fascinating fans. He's seen as the best villain in the comic book world due to his unpredictability and the fact that he is the polar opposite of Batman, among other things.

As the story goes, the Joker was partially based on the 1928 silent movie The Man Who Laughs, starring Conrad Veidt. It's been the subject of much discussion for decades as to whether Jerry Robinson or Batman co-creators Bob Kane or Bill Finger first came up with the character, or if it was a combination of all three.

Nevertheless, the Joker has been captivating mass audiences for a half century since first appearing on the 1966 "Batman" TV series. Below, we rank the major Jokers seen onscreen.


Honorable mention: Cameron Monaghan, Gotham

He's not technically the Joker, and he met with an early demise, but Monaghan is the closest we've come to a Clown Prince of Crime thus far on this Batman prequel series.

- Most insane moment: The first time Jerome is revealed to have a bit of Joker in him, discussing how he killed his mother with a smile on his face.

- Style: From calm to sadistic, the fact that Jerome could flip a switch like that was truly disturbing. As the series went on, Jerome embraced the madness.

- Laugh: His may be the most evil laugh of all (with apologies to Firefly's Wash.


Michael Emerson, The Dark Knight Returns (animated movie)

It says a lot when the lowest ranking Joker on this list is still pretty great. Emmy winner Emerson is one of the most captivating TV actors out there and brings that to his performance as one of the most horrifying versions of the Joker in the animated universe.

- Most insane moment: That final brutal, bloody, deadly battle with Batman, in which the Joker fights on with a Batarang in his eye.

- Style: This Joker is well-dressed and bloodthirsty, mowing down innocent people as he tries to finally defeat Batman. Though we'll admit, the voice reminds us a bit of Paul Lynde, which takes you out of it a bit.

- Laugh: Nothing too noteworthy here, compared to other Jokers.


Jared Leto, Suicide Squad

Leto has a handful of scenes in the new movie, and doesn't measure up to previous Jokers in the time he has. Plus, that costume and makeup design, while certainly distinct, has been a hit-and-miss proposition with the fans.

- Most insane moment: One of the best scenes of the film (Spoiler alert!) involves the Joker making Harley Quinn swear an oath of undying love and loyalty before she dives head-first into the same vat of acid he did. The Joker joins her in a bizarre ritual of consummating their mutual insanity.

- Style: This one is more the punk Joker, but in this movie, he's driven entirely by his desire to reunite with his lady love (a.k.a. his "property"), Harley. Leto's smile may be the most insane of all.

- Laugh: This one is more drawn out than most, a definite contrast from what we've heard before.


Jack Nicholson, Batman (1989)

This capering madman is, in many ways just as campy as Romero's Joker, but with more of a murderous streak. Nicholson brought the character back in a big way, offering up a host of memorable quotes and moments.

- Most insane moment: Again, this is a tough choice, but we'll go with the Joker's skin-tone makeup appearance in an art museum, where he shows off his artistic side to the tune of Prince's "Party Man." This Joker isn't just some run-of-the-mill criminal; there's a method to the madness. And more than anything, he wants Batman's head (and Vicki Vale).

- Style: Some Jokers seem to be making it up as they go along, but this one with his idea to use Smilex to murder his way through Gotham, has a master plan. He's a perfect contrast to Michael Keaton's grim Bats.

- Laugh: Nicholson bursts out laughing in the most insane way, like he just heard the funniest joke ever told.


Cesar Romero, Batman (1966)

The first Joker onscreen is, for many, still the one they remember the most fondly. Romero poured himself into this role, unshaven mustache and all.

- Most insane moment: The early Batman episodes allowed the villains to actually be menacing at times, and there's something really creepy about the Joker masquerading as an opera singer in "Pagliacci" wearing that mask in Romero's very first Joker episode, "The Joker is Wild." The mask was recycled in the first Joker bank robbery scene in The Dark Knight.

- Style: This Joker was only occasionally scary or threatening. More than anything he just seemed to be having a great time, fascinated and excited by his own brilliance.

- Laugh: When most people think of the Joker, they think of Romero's melodic laugh (contrasted with Frank Gorshin's Riddler giggle).


Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Ledger's Oscar-winning performance is the most captivating one in live-action, playing the mobster who "just wants to see the world burn." When the actor was cast, a lot of fans questioned whether he'd be able to truly capture the anarchic and potentially terrifying spirit of what many considered to be the best depictions of the Joker in the comics. From his first moment on screen, Ledger left no doubt what the answer to those questions was.

- Most insane moment: Again, nearly every scene is a classic with Ledger. But we'd have to go with his surprise appearance in a hospital in a nurse's outfit, of all things, in order to torment the newly transformed Harvey "Two-Face" Dent and ultimately blow up the building.

- Style: That mobster-like voice, those tics, the unsettling scars on the mouth. So much about this Joker makes your skin crawl. Ledger gave us a portrayal of pure unadulterated madness that disturbs to this day.

- Laugh: Ledger's cackle comes across like he can't help himself, the insanity is just flowing out of him.


Mark Hamill, Batman: The Animated Series and more

The recent release of the animated Batman: The Killing Joke made it official: Hamill is the definitive Joker (just as his counterpart, Kevin Conroy is the definitive Batman to many fans). He's also played the Joker for the longest time by far, for 24 years now since the debut of the animated series - and he played off Harley Quinn for the first time, which is no small feat.

- Most insane moment: Really, there are so many to choose from and The Killing Joke is in a class all its own. In "Joker's Favor," the first Joker episode aired on televisision, some poor sap named Charlie makes the mistake of cussing out the Joker in traffic. Instead of letting it go, the Clown Prince of Crime torments him and stalks him, making Charlie do a favor for him. Now, that's demented.

- Style: This Joker has a hint of an upper-class British accent, playing off his madness perfectly. It also makes him seem very cool and calculating.

- Laugh: Hamill really lets it go here with the laugh, and it's the definitive one for many fans.