Who Played the Best Joker Before Joaquin Phoenix?

The Joker is undoubtedly the most iconic villain in comic book history. As with any major character in the Batman franchise, he’s undergone countless iterations. Here are the absolute best depictions of the Joker before Joaquin Phoenix played the role.

Heath Ledger as the Joker | Paul Kane/Getty Images

4. Jared Leto, ‘Suicide Squad’ (2016)

Suicide Squad is one of the least beloved films in the entire Batman franchise. It’s hard not to see why. It has a nonsensical plot and an ugly color palette. The film also took the acclaimed character of Harley Quinn and made her far less interesting than she was in Batman: The Animated Series.

Despite all of this, Jared Leto turned in a good performance as the Joker. He seemed far more committed to his craft than any other actor in the film, with the possible exception of Margot Robbie. In this film, the Clown Prince of Crime is a gangster a la Tony Montana in Scarface. That’s an interesting idea, and the film would have been a lot better if it managed to naturally incorporate the Joker into the main plot.

3. Cesar Romero, ‘Batman’ (1966)

Batman (1966) lobbycard | LMPC via Getty Images

Of all the cinematic portrayals of the Joker, Cesar Romero’s performance in the 1966 film Batman is often overlooked. This is understandable, as the actor had to share the screen with Lee Meriwether’s Catwoman, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler. Although Romero didn’t get as much screen time as he could have, he’s still leaves an impression with his colorful and cartoon portrayal of the character.

More than any other actor to play the Clown Prince of Crime, Romero seemed to be having a lot of fun. In fact, every actor on screen in this film seemed to be enjoying themselves. Thanks to their energy, this film is still entertaining even if it’s comparatively slight.

2. Jack Nicholson, ‘Batman’ (1989)

Jack Nicholson as the Joker | Murray Close/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images

For millions, the Joker was a light-hearted, campy character until the release of Tim Burton’s Batman. Jack Nicholson’s take on the character was much darker. While previous Jokers were simply clowns, Nicholson’s Joker was a disturbed, deformed man with a penchant for the bizarre.

Nicholson’s performance in the film is reminiscent of his portrayal of Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and anything that is reminiscent of The Shining deserves praise – with the notable exception of Doctor Sleep. Nicholson remains one of the few actors to capture both the horror and the humor of the character.

1. Heath Ledger, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2008)

What is there to say about Heath Ledger’s Joker that hasn’t already been said? His performance is at times heartbreaking, disturbing, and darkly comedic. Ledger’s portrayal of a truly broken man is so strange yet convincing that this version of the character almost feels like he’s from another planet. Other versions of the Joker were motivated by money or revenge, this Joker only cares about creating chaos and destruction. His simple allegiance to making the world a worse place makes him one of the great elemental villains, similar to Iago in William Shakespeare’s Othello.