Originally conceived for the debut issue of the first Batman comic, The Joker was based on the character Gwynplaine in the 1928 film “The Man Who Laughs.” Although he was meant to die at the end of that initial appearance, the decision was made to let him live to fight another day — and now, just over 75 years later, fans eagerly await Jared Leto’s new take in “Suicide Squad.”
It’s hard to tell which is more amazing: That after three quarters of a century, The Joker remains so ripe with thematic potential, or that he has become the most popular super villain in the comics universe. That is, of course, despite him having no super powers and “nothing in his pockets but knives and lint.”
Below, Zap2it provides a ranking of the various interpretations of The Joker. For brevity sake, we’ve focused on the best animated version — and of course, all the live action incarnations of the clown prince of Gotham.
As seen on: “Batman,” the 1966-1968 Adam West TV show and the 1966 “Batman” movie.
Makeup: Points for being the first — but seriously, would it have killed Cesar to shave his mustache?
Madness: More jolly like Santa Claus than mad like a hatter, Romero’s Joker always seemed to have a firm grasp on the waters around him — even if they did consisted of rubber sharks he was siccing on Batman.
Was he funny? Quite possibly the funniest of all the men on this list. Can you imagine any of these other jokers playing baseball or surfing?
Was he scary? Maybe to children? Either way, this is definitely the category where he ranks lowest.
The Last Laugh: Cesar Romero’s Joker is a classic. And in the eyes of some, he remains the best. Like Burgess Meredith’s Penguin and Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, however, much of what we love is less about fidelity to the character and more the thrill of watching a veteran character actor chew the scenery like it’s made of chocolate.
Overall Grade: 6 maniacal laughs out of 10
As seen in: “Batman,” the 1989 Tim Burton film.
Makeup: At the time, the idea seemed crazy: Take one of the biggest stars in the world and cover his face behind clown paint. But the look terrified fans accustomed to Romero’s look — and freed Nicholson up to lose himself in the performance. Bonus points for being the first to properly depict the ripped corners of Joker’s mouth that create his horrifying visage.
Madness: Slightly above average. Nicholson’s Joker was demented, to be sure. But he retained such tunnel vision when it came to his master plan that he seemed more meticulous than mad.
Was he funny? He was a catchphrase machine, as was everyone in that first Batman film: “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” “This town needs an enema!” “Wait till they get a load of me!” Nicholson’s delivery of these lines was funny, terrifying and oh so quotable.
Was he scary? If you were an ’80s kid, there’s a good chance that you lost a few nights of sleep after viewing the Smylex commercial.
The Last Laugh: You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight? For a few decades, it was thought that Nicholson had given such an iconic performance that he had ruined the character for anyone else who would dare attempt it. Amazingly, in 2016 his performance actually seems underappreciated — but it is no less brilliant.
Overall Grade: 7 maniacal laughs out of 10
As seen on: “Batman: The Animated Series.”
Makeup: Thanks to a protruding jaw, this beloved 1992-1995 series delightfully drew the clown prince with a mouth more than half the size of his face, framed by yellow eyes and a pointy nose that could have been used as a weapon. For a series meant to embrace children, it was impressively edgy.
Madness: Again, for an animated show, this Joker was pretty out there. It was also a delight to hear the voice of Mark Hamill (did you really think he was just Luke Skywalker?) embracing a whole new side of himself — and his fandom.
Was he funny? Not as goofy as Cesar Romero, but darker than “Brave and the Bold,” this Joker hit the right notes and would often leave you LOL’ing.
Was he scary? “Cheerfully deranged,” is the way Hamill described his work on the series — and judging by the fact that he has returned multiple times to voice the character in everything from “The Killing Joke” to “Robot Chicken” to video games, it’s the perfect note.
The Last Laugh: In a weird way, it’s almost a shame that a younger Hamill never got to play a live-action Joker, since he seems to have such a firm grasp on the character.
Overall Grade: 8 maniacal laughs out of 10
As seen in: “The Dark Knight,” Christopher Nolan’s 2008 movie.
Makeup: Brilliantly minimal, there are entire scenes of “The Dark Knight” where The Joker’s makeup is so smudged and faded that it’s practically non-existent. But what remains are the horrific scars and slices around his perpetual smile — it’s the makeup behind the makeup that made this look so iconic.
Madness: Jared Leto might want to argue the point, but Ledger was the maddest of all the live-action Jokers. In interviews, he gave a perfect take on the character that was as obvious as it was refreshing: This was Johnny Rotten, this was punk rock — The Joker wants anarchy, pure and simple.
Was he funny? In the darkest, most beautiful way. Admit it: When he shoved that pencil through Gambol’s eye, you laughed just a little bit.
Was he scary? “Madness is like gravity,” Ledger’s joker explained. “All it needs is a little push.” This Joker was like a supervillain zombie, infecting all those around him and making them terrifying, cackling anarchists as well. Watching the film, you never knew what he’d do next — and that unease over the eventual punchline was what made Ledger’s performance so perfect.
The Last Laugh: Heath Ledger posthumously won an Oscar for playing a comic book character dressed like a clown. ‘Nuff said.
Overall Grade: 10 maniacal laughs out of 10
As seen in: “Suicide Squad,” opening Friday (August 5).
Makeup: Let’s be honest: Neon is as unpleasant as it is eye-catching. The decision to make the “Suicide Squad” villain’s hair such an unsettling color — not to mention the grill and the malnourished physique — might just make this the most visually distinctive Joker yet.
Madness: Cranked way up to 11, Leto’s Joker is the Spinal Tap of comic book villains.
Was he funny? At times, but the movie is so loud and filled with villains looking for screen time — including, most notably, longtime Joker ally Harley Quinn — that The Joker’s typical solo act gets lost in the shuffle.
Was he scary? With barely seven minutes in the film, not so much.
The Last Laugh: Leto’s Method attempts to get inside The Joker’s demented mind have been well-documented; unfortunately, so has early reaction to screenings saying that his Joker is more style than substance. It’s a shame, because Leto has the chops and his unique look had fans hungering for another iconic reinvention.
With any luck, the character of The Joker has another 75 years in him — and we have decades more of madness ahead.
Overall Grade: 5 maniacal laughs out of 10