What can you say about the Joker? Well, almost everything! As far as villains go, of any kind - movies, television, video games, and, yes, comic books, as well as a few “regular” books - he is one of the most enduring and well-known. As dexterous as he is demented, the Clown Prince of Crime has been portrayed in multiple ways over the years, some of which are outright outlandish, while others are despicably delicious, and many others are in-between. Considering the recent release of Comic-Con’s Suicide Squad trailer (Jared Leto will play the Ace of Knaves in the film), and the announcement that arguably the Greatest Joker Story Ever Told, "The Killing Joke," is being adapted as we speak to an animated film, it seems the time is right to take a good look at ten favorite portrayals of this psychopathic trickster that have appeared in the media, from movies, to T.V., to video games. Let’s not waste anymore time: these are my Top Ten Jokers!
10. Richard Epcar
From Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe AND Injustice: Gods Among Us
Epcar may be one of the funniest Jokers on this list, which isn’t to say he’s not a threat, mind you, he just makes me laugh a LOT. In both of these games, the character of the Clown Prince of Crime is, obviously, much stronger and faster than most incarnations, for different reasons in each game. While his Mortal Kombat-style attacks in both games are vicious and violent (they were both made by the same basic team that does the MK games, and let’s not forget one of these IS a direct crossover), using his vast arsenal of gadgets and mixing in crowbars, knives and good ol’ fashioned gunplay into the mix, the dialogue he’s given, the situations he’s put in, the animations and voice-work by Epcar are all combined to make pure black comedy gold.
9. John Kassir
From Imaginext’s DC Superfriends: The Joker’s Playhouse
Released in limited quantities with the toy play-set of the same name (which has NOTHING to do with this cartoon, I should add), this was a one-shot animated short sponsored by Imaginext that basically worked as a sort of prequel (the keywords being “sort of”) to the classic Superfriends series by Hanna-Barbera, to help promote their toys. The cartoon is... okay, I guess. Some things in it work, others don’t, and it is PAINFULLY obvious that this is a marketing tool... which is made rather funny due to the fact that the designs of the characters look NOTHING, and I mean NOTHING like the toys at the time, nor the recent redesigns of the toys, for that matter. One thing is undeniable though: this probably has to be the most underrated Joker of all time. For those who don’t know, John Kassir was the voice of the Crypt Keeper from Tales from the Crypt... and, if you’ve seen Tales and/or the Crypt Keeper, you will automatically know why Kassir is such a good Joker. For such a kid-friendly, campy, and... well…“toy like” piece, Kassir was actually a little bit creepy as the Crazy Crime Clown. His lanky, rubbery, sharp-edged design and animation only added to the character’s manic energy and gave him an edge of menace, no matter how utterly silly the story and jokes got. Got to give him points for that.
8. Cesar Romero
From the '60s series
PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MOUSTACHE BEHIND THE MAKEUP! THE GREAT OZ-CLOWN HAS SPOKEN!!!
Ahem... so, anyway: as the first Joker to pop up out of the comics and onto the screen, Cesar Romero is pretty much the father of all Jokers. Yes, he was silly and out of control, more hyperactive than truly insane (look up Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, THAT guy was completely psychotic), but many of the trademarks associated with the character today first began with Romero’s smartly tailored, if hammy, performance. Some of these existed in the comics - the cackling laugh, the tendency towards puns and low humor, and an INTENSE amount of energy, like a small boy at Christmas - but Romero brought them to life. He’s far from the most threatening Joker of all time - in fact, compared to all the Jokers higher up, and even Epcar further down, he’s about as tame as a kitten - but for pioneering Clown Criminality for the future, he deserves recognition, and I could watch him again and again...and, in fact, I often do. Just don’t challenge him to a bloody surfing contest; you’ll jump the proverbial shark practically into outer space…
7. Kevin Michael Richardson
From The Batman
The Batman was an...interesting take on the universe of the Dark Knight. When it was first announced, and promo images started popping up, a LOT of people were sure they would hate it. Made by the same team that did Samurai Jack, this show had a very anime-ish style (not quite Gotham Knight, but halfway there), in its design and animation structure, but the stories stayed close to the Caped Crusader’s cowled heart, albeit with more of a focus on action than detective work compared to previous incarnations, and some incarnations afterward. Originally garbed in a ragged, purple-and-yellow striped straitjacket, Richardson’s Joker later reverted to the more “classic” design pictured here, but even that strayed a bit off the kooky path. More monkey than man, Richardson’s Joker was campier and crazier than most, a nimble, agile, near-contortionist of a lunatic who simply couldn’t run out of energy, and who practically spouted a joke with every single word. However, he did have his more menacing moments, too; perhaps most notably, he kidnapped Bruce Wayne’s friend, police officer Ethan Bennett, and mentally tortured him, hypnotizing him and basically TALKING him into going insane. THAT is INCREDIBLE power, and this, plus an accident involving some rather...distressing chemicals that followed shortly after led to Bennett becoming this series’ version of Clayface.
Oh, yeah, and he became a vampire in The Batman vs. Dracula.
Yes. Vampire Joker.
Be very afraid.
6. Michael Emerson
From The Dark Knight Returns: The Movie
If I may get a bit personal here: one thing I unconditionally love about Frank Miller's "masterpiece," the original graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns," is the Joker. Not just because of my obvious bias for the character (there ARE Jokers I don’t like within the comics, rare as they are), but also because of the way he was handled; the idea of Joker as Batman’s arch-nemesis was, of course, well-established by the time the story was written, but this was, to my knowledge, the first story to monopolize on the near-symbiotic relationship between the two, and heavily inspired just about every other story to come after it featuring the character.
Well, when DC Animation decided to create a direct-to-DVD animated film based on the graphic novel, fans had...mixed feelings. Emerson’s portrayal of Miller’s Joker seems to be either loved or hated by most fans. Personally, for me, I can think of very few people who would have done a better job. Emerson’s Joker is far from the funniest; in fact, he plays it pretty straight and very snide and sarcastic: the most he’ll get out of you is the occasional chuckle, if you’re even lucky. (Well...with ONE line’s exception, but that’s another story.) But GOOD LORD, he’s SCARY. In fact, he might easily be the single scariest Joker ever done, in my humble opinion. I’ve loved the Joker since I was a little kid, and I’m not scared of clowns, and I actually wasn’t terrified when reading Miller’s novel...but Emerson’s Joker literally gave me NIGHTMARES. I am not kidding nor exaggerating, and I do MEAN literally; I had nightmares watching this Joker.
The only downside is his Batman; given how symbiotic, again, the characters are, especially in this particular story, the performances depend on one another as much as the characters themselves do. And, while Emerson (again, in my opinion) is pretty bloody good...Peter Weller’s Batman may be the WORST portrayal of the Dark Knight to swirl his cape across the screen. So, without a proper bouncing-off point, I must sadly relegate him to number six, though he could have EASILY been in the top five.
5. Jack Nicholson
From Tim Burton’s Batman
For a while, this guy DEFINED the Joker (perhaps unfairly, but that’s a story for another time), and there was good reason for it. Nicholson’s Joker, a.k.a. Jack Napier, STILL influences portrayals of the character today; somewhere between a fun-loving, foppish dandy and a psychotic film noir-esque gangster, Nicholson’s portrayal of “velvet death” (wow, what an analogy he picked for his work) is extremely iconic. He’s also the only Joker to have a truly permanent grin, and the makeup is fantastic. The relationship with Batman is also emphasized in a new way; Batman basically creates the Joker, accidentally knocking him into a vat of chemicals that bleaches his skin and drives his already unstable mind completely into a meltdown. But, in much the same way, Joker created Batman - it was a young Jack Napier who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents. It should also be noted that, in the three films that followed this, the Dark Knight was menaced by multiple villains in each movie. In this film, while the Joker isn’t the ONLY antagonist, he’s the only one who is a full-out and recognizable threat, the main villain of the picture, and, in fact, he has more onscreen time than Wayne/Batman does! Nicholson gives fans a remarkable, show-stealing, tantalizing portrayal of deranged villainy. But hey, what did you expect from the “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” guy from The Shining?
4. Jeff Bennett
From Batman: The Brave & the Bold
Brave & the Bold was a series that was basically an homage to the old '60s and '70s comics, though with a SLIGHTLY edgier side to it, and an additional twist: Batman sided with a hero in just about every episode, and most of the characters in the show besides Batman were much less well-known heroes and villains, such as The Atom and Gentleman Ghost. However, in its first season, people weren’t too enthused about it. You have to remember that Nolan’s series and the Arkham games were (and still are) really big at the time, so this bright, colorful, brassy show that featured little to no immediately identifiable characters...yep, it had some starting troubles. So, the two-part season finale had Batman team-up with his arch-rival, Joker, to stop Owlman - an evil Bruce Wayne from a parallel universe - from taking over Gotham City, after Batman teamed up with a heroic Red Hood to save HIS Gotham from the Injustice Syndicate, Owlman’s gang of ghoulies. Jeff Bennett played a very Cesar-Romero-esque Joker (again, with a SLIGHTLY edgier side to his persona in comparison), with a design straight out of a Dick Sprang comic, and it was GLORIOUS.
Unfortunately, with the Joker’s introduction, fans began to want more and more of the popular characters, and they began to dominate the show. At the exact same time, those same fans began to look back and say, “Wow, these guys made these more obscure characters awesome, and camp is pretty fun with the right treatment!” So, by the time the show became popular, it became unpopular again, and for two more seasons that never ending cycle went on...until, sadly and finally, the steam just ran out.
So, thank you, Jeff Bennett, for a truly amazing Joker - who went on to have an episode entirely from his point of view, “Joker: The Vile and the Villainous,” by the way - but curse you, for contributing to the end of this series. Unintentionally, of course.
...But mostly, thank You.
This ramble is concluded.
3. John DiMaggio
From Batman: Under the Red Hood
Based on the long-running comic story arc of the same name (and condensing it EXTREMELY well, I should add), DiMaggio’s Joker was actually one of the LEAST marketed things about the film. The whole plot of the bloody movie was basically given away, as well as several major characters, including Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing (who ended up with only about 15 minutes of screen-time), yet the bloody JOKER got the short end of the stick. This, in fact, may have been a wise decision on DC’s part in releasing the film; fans didn’t quite know what to expect. In my opinion, what we got was one of the funniest AND one of the most disturbing Jokers of all time at the same time. Mixing the buffoonish clown and the cunning murderer together in a nice bundle, DiMaggio’s rather bipolar Joker had all the flair of a baggy-pants comic, but the joy he took in harming others, rather brutally in fact, was downright haunting. The reenactment of his murder of Jason Todd, the second Robin, opens up the entire picture, and if that moment doesn’t cement his status as one of the greatest Harlequins of Hate ever portrayed, the rest of the movie will. What’s funny is that DiMaggio’s Joker, as opposed to most others on this list, isn’t even in the movie for that long, but what he says and does and causes in the moments he is onscreen captures all our attention, and makes for some of the film’s best highlights. Watch it for yourself, if you haven’t already.
2. Heath Ledger
From The Dark Knight
Keeping a detailed journal and making masterful improvisations throughout the film, intensively studying other incarnations of the character and other somewhat similar characters throughout history, Ledger surprised us all. Much like with Kevin Michael Richardson, we all expected him to bomb...but then, up popped the trailers, and we all began to say, “Hey, maybe this won’t be so bad after all.” And, of course, there was the terrible elephant in the room, and...yeah, I don’t want to address it, but I suppose I’ll have to: Heath Ledger died of a drug overdose; while the official statement was an accidental overdose, some have suspected it was a suicide. Any death is tragic, and this was no exception, of course. Ironically, though, that death seemed to tide people over; the thought of a man DYING while bearing this character’s name...that got people disgustingly interested. If you didn’t want to see him before, now you felt you HAD to see him, or you’d be dishonoring him. As a result, The Dark Knight was a big hit, and Ledger was posthumously awarded for his performance; the ONLY person to receive a major award for playing a comic book character, in fact. And no matter what people have said since, it was an award well-deserved; Ledger is a very different Joker. Again, not so much a big laugh-a-minute but more of a true psychopath, twitchy and slimy and utterly unpredictable. You could never really figure him out, or guess what he would do next. He was grittier and more thuggish than most clown princes, looking like a down-and-out rodeo clown who decided to go on a rampage about town. Plus, when he DID want to be funny, he was still quite hysterical. A multi-layered and expertly crafted performance nobody saw coming...what a note to end on.
R.I.P. Heath Ledger. You left us a character for the ages.
But even you, with all your cleverness, could not hope to match up to the number one pick…
1. Mark Hamill
This man has played the Clown Prince of Crime for nearly 30 years now. While he has announced retirement from the role a couple of times, he constantly finds himself called back to drive the fantastic Joker-mobile once again. From the classic DCAU incarnation, to the Arkham video games...heck, The Trickster in the new Flash series is pretty much just a cross between Joker and Hannibal Lecter! Hamill even uses the same VOICE, and if you ever saw Teamo Supremo (the show’s not QUITE as stupid as it sounds), you’ll know about the Birthday Bandit: an evil clown voiced by, you guessed it, Mark Hamill.
God dang it, even when he ISN’T playing the Joker he’s...well...playing the Joker!
For many fans, Hamill IS the Joker. While Heath Ledger reinterpreted the character for a new age, and is undeniably the best version to appear so far in live-action, Hamill simply IS the character, the comedy is ALWAYS spot on, no matter who or what is involved, he strikes terror that can rival Emerson, Ledger, and DiMaggio easily, if not overtaking them completely, and his energy is infamous. No matter where you know him from best, no matter which performance(s) you prefer more, Mark Hamill is and always WILL be the Joker. Yet when that day, if any, comes - the day he truly DOES retire and sends the sad Jokermobile to the Gotham City Junkyard - one can only hope his legacy will live on into eternity, and that fans will henceforth say, “Truly, this man was the Clown Prince of Crime.” With the recent announcement of a film based on “The Killing Joke,” and Hamill's fabled casting in the part, perhaps that hope will yet come to true fruition.
"...Well, that was fun! Who's for Chinese?"