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Few roles in Hollywood are as sought after as the Joker. Ever since Cesar Romero took the job of the Clown Prince of Crime in the '60s small-screen series, Batman, the maniacal antihero has attracted the cream of the acting crop and yielded some iconic performances.
More recently, Joaquin Phoenix brought Batman's arch-nemesis to the big screen in the original origin story, Joker. "It was complex in a way that other movies I flirted with weren't," Phoenix told ET of why he was drawn to the role. "I thought that it was gonna be challenging for me as an actor. I thought it was gonna be challenging for the audience. And that's exciting to me."
In honor of The Dark Knight Rises' 11th anniversary on July 20, 2023, here's a look back at Heath Ledger's iconic role and all the Jokers who came before and after him.
9. Various Voice Actors in Various Animated Batman Projects
Michael Emerson (The Dark Knight Returns), John DiMaggio (Batman: Under the Red Hood), Kevin Michael Richardson (The Batman) and Brent Spiner (Young Justice) all brought their wild and weird best to the gig. However, the unhinged look and unique physicality required of this role are just too important to ignore here -- with a few exceptions to come.
8. Cameron Monaghan on Gotham (2014-2019)
OK, OK, yes, the Joker never technically appeared on Fox's Gotham. However, Monaghan did portray twin criminals, Jerome and Jeremiah Valeska, who share more than a few similarities with Batman's ultimate foe. (Licensing issues seemingly kept the Valeskas from officially being referred to as Joker.) Still, Monaghan's transformation into the scourge of Batman's city is exceedingly watchable, what with his scarred mug and eerie laugh.
7. Zach Galifianakis in The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
Galifianakis lent his voice to the creepy clown for this Lego Movie spinoff and delivers a handful of outstanding lines. ("Hold on a sec. Are you trying to tell me that Bruce Wayne is Batman...'s roommate?!") But while most iterations of the Joker capitalized on his most horrifying qualities, Galifianakis crafted a family-friendly foil to Batman that is clever, but largely forgettable.
6. Cesar Romero in Batman (1966)
Romero delivered pure camp in the role, with white facepaint slathered over his mustache and a penchant for creating chaos in Gotham City, often while singing! Though his take informed so many of the Jokers that followed, it's now so far removed from the darker and grittier foe we know today that they might as well be completely different characters.
5. Jared Leto in Suicide Squad (2016)
In a film about bad guys -- a hitman, a psychopathic psychiatrist, a crocodile humanoid -- Leto's Joker remains a deadly wild card and the most dangerous criminal in the mix. This incarnation is hip yet animalistic, grounded yet nightmarish. Leto and director David Ayer took elements from the comics and amped up the octane. Still, you'll likely end up wondering why he was in the movie at all.
4. Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989)
When bringing the Dark Knight to the big screen for the first time, director Tim Burton tapped Nicholson, a seasoned Oscar winner, to dance with the devil in the pale moonlight. His Jester of Genocide chews up the scenery with a twisted sense of pleasure and just a touch of Jack Torrance in The Shining. As it were, his gleefully demented crimes were just a taste of things to come.
3. Mark Hamill in Batman: The Animated Series (1992)
Hamill rises above the medium, having provided the Ace of Knaves his distinctive cackle for so many years -- starting with The Animated Series in the early '90s before Arkham Asylum and, most recently, Batman: The Killing Joke in 2016 -- that he has become synonymous with the role, without having ever appeared onscreen. Here's how beloved Hamill's Joker is: During an appearance at 2016's Star Wars Celebration, it wasn't a Luke Skywalker reference that had fans losing their minds -- it was witnessing Hamill laughing as the Joker, live in person.
2. Joaquin Phoenix in Joker (2019)
From his unforgettable laugh to his sinewy, unrecognizable frame, Phoenix crafted a '70s-tinged Joker with a quiet menace and heartbreaking vulnerability. There's dimensions here, both light and dark, that have never been a part of the character's story onscreen until now. With a glint in his eye and some grandiose dance moves, Phoenix delivered a wholly unnerving take on the endearing madman -- one that won't soon be forgotten.
1. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)
This may seem like an easy choice to top the list -- the role posthumously won Ledger the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor -- but that's only because it is an easy choice. It's more than the Oscar, though. Ledger, the crooked-grinned movie star of films like 10 Things I Hate About You, was nowhere to be seen in the film. He'd transformed, giving moviegoers a mesmerizing villain the likes of which had not been seen before.
Ledger and director Christopher Nolan offered a character as anarchistic as he was brilliant, as utterly captivating as he was terrifying. As much as it chills us to say, he put a smile on our faces.
This story was originally published on August 14, 2017.