Every Movie Joker Performance Compared

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Every Movie Joker Performance Compared

VOICE OVER: Callum Janes WRITTEN BY: Andrew Tejada
It's time to find out which cinematic version of the Clown Prince of Crime is the best. In this installment of Versus, we're pitting Heath Ledger vs. Jack Nicholson vs. Jared Leto vs Joaquin Phoenix to determine who is the best live-action Joker. We'll look at everything from their laughs to lackeys to decide which version of the Clown reigns supreme.
Transcript

Heath Ledger vs. Jack Nicholson vs. Jared Leto vs Joaquin Phoenix as The Joker


Welcome to WatchMojo and in this installment of Versus, we’re pitting Heath Ledger vs. Jack Nicholson vs. Jared Leto vs Joaquin Phoenix to determine who is the best live-action Joker. We’ll look at everything from their laughs to lackeys to decide which version of the Clown reigns supreme. Since we’ll be diving into the details of their movies, a spoiler warning is in effect.

Round #1: Makeup/Costume Design



The first time we saw Ledger in his full Joker outfit, we honestly didn't recognize him. He disappeared under the combination of his facial scars and messy makeup. Not only did his face look great, but his purple suit and green shirt looked like they were ripped right from the comics. Ledger's Joker also stood out by being one of the few versions of the character who could remove their white face paint. This led to great moments like when his makeup looked thin while he was captured and when he completely removed it to blend into the crowd. Thanks to great makeup and costume design, Ledger was nearly impossible to see underneath the Joker.

It supposedly took around two hours to apply Nicholson’s Joker makeup. If you watch even a second of 1989’s “Batman,” you’ll know that all the time in the chair was incredibly well-spent. The Joker's trademark grin looks absolutely terrifying whether it's covered in white makeup or exposed. They fully take advantage of how good it looks in a brilliant and well-edited scene where Nicholson wipes off flesh-colored makeup to reveal a face painted white underneath. When it's combined with a great purple suit, Nicholson's Joker always arrives on the scene looking his best.

In what's been a running pattern for Leto, the first attempt at an outfit was not received well. Audience members found his grills, obvious tattoos, and constant need to expose his chest more annoying than intimidating. We have the Snyder Cut to thank once again for greatly improving that aspect. Leto’s Joker ditched the ridiculous accessories, grew out his hair, and threw on a nice, fully buttoned shirt. This version of his outfit definitely wasn’t the most comic-accurate or revolutionary. However, it’s a vast improvement from the original design.

Audiences had to wait until the final act of the movie until Phoenix's Joker put on his full outfit. But he definitely made all the build-up worth it. The freshly dyed green hair, the slightly unfinished makeup, and the suit all fit his version of the character. And although the main design is a little bit more colorful than what we usually see on a Joker, it's no less terrifying. Phoenix definitely took a few more risks with his fashion choices. But it paid off by making him into one of the most visually distinct versions of the Clown that we've seen.

We still haven't quite gotten over how rough Leto's first makeup design was. Fortunately, we can definitely applaud Ledger and Phoenix for having great makeup and costume departments. In the end, we could only choose one clown as best dressed. The fact that Nicholson's makeup and costume design still holds up after three decades made it clear that he deserved to win this one.

WINNER: Heath Ledger 0/ Jack Nicholson 1 /Jared Leto 0/ Joaquin Phoenix 0

Round #2: Laugh



One of the Joker’s most iconic features is his laugh. Over the years, everyone who’s taken on the role has tried to make the Clown’s chuckle stand out.

Ledger made his first full laugh memorable by exaggerating it so he could get the attention of a group of criminals. When he really finds something funny, his voice takes on a higher pitch. Ledger's laugh was also as wild and all over the place as the Clown himself. The resulting combination is a deeply unsettling sound that makes you hope that you’re laughing with him.

It's always a pleasure to hear Nicholson chuckle. His genuine and gleeful laughter is absolutely infectious and almost guaranteed to put a smile on your face. So, Nicholson honestly didn’t have to try too hard whenever his version of the Joker was amused. The actor mostly stuck to his natural laughing pattern while playing the role. You know what they say: if your natural laugh ain’t broke there's no reason to fix it to play The Joker.

You might want to take some time out of your schedule if you make Jared Leto’s Joker cackle. His version of the Clown has an extremely slow and deliberate pattern of laughter. While Leto’s almost robotic cackling is far from realistic, it's definitely disturbing. If his goal was to scare us every time he chuckled then he definitely succeeded. Leto’s cackling is unlike anything you've heard come out of a live-action Joker’s mouth.

Remember when we mentioned feeling sympathetic for Phoenix’s Joker? One of the major reasons why is because of his laughter. His version of the character, originally named Arthur Fleck, has a condition that causes him to chuckle at inappropriate times. He can be nervous, scared, or deeply sad and still keep laughing. There are multiple scenes where you can see Fleck in pain and full of uncontrollable laughter at the same time. And when he does let out a genuine chuckle, that usually means something terrible has happened.

Both Nicholson and Ledger gave us solid and reliable laughs. And while Leto’s cackling is definitely unique, it still divides fans today. Pheonix made his laughter into a tragic part of his character while performing each chuckle expertly. He created a unique blend that makes us smile and weep.

WINNER: Heath Ledger 0/ Jack Nicholson 1 /Jared Leto 0/ Joaquin Phoenix 1

Round #3: Movies



In “The Dark Knight,” Batman tries to maintain order in Gotham as the chaotic Joker tears through town. During their tense battle, some lose their lives and others are left permanently scarred. It’s thrilling to see Ledger’s Joker appear in a number of memorable action scenes in the film. And even when he's sitting in an interrogation room having a conversation, he’s still just as compelling to watch. “The Dark Knight’s” gripping plot and memorable performances ensured it got a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. To this day, many consider it to be one of the best comic book movies of all time.

Director Tim Burton took Batman in a decidedly darker direction when he pitted him against Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 film. Throughout the movie, we see exactly how the Bat and the Clown came to be. The fact that they inadvertently created each other’s alter egos made for an interesting dynamic that’s still fun to watch today. Its 71% on Rotten Tomatoes suggests that most critics enjoyed the movie too. While Nicholson’s Joker isn’t in the highest-rated “Batman” movie ever, he is in one of the most pivotal. The dark and unique version of Gotham in the film has gone on to influence many more Batman properties.

As of 2021, Leto is the only actor who got to play The Joker in two live-action films. Given that “Suicide Squad” has a weak 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, he probably wishes that wasn't the case. Leto’s Joker had to take a back seat to a mixed bag of semi-interesting and totally dull characters in a convoluted plot about stopping the villain, Enchantress. He got much better material in “Zack Snyder's Justice League.” The film earned 71% and Leto got to face off directly with Batman. Their entertaining scene is one of the most memorable parts of the gargantuan film.

With a 68% on Rotten Tomatoes, “Joker” is certainly a divisive film. It follows Arthur Fleck's struggle to earn enough money making people laugh to take care of his mom and his mind. Throughout his tale, we get extensive commentary on economic inequality and mental health. Although it's drawn more than a few comparisons to the satirical drama, “The King of Comedy,” there are lots of unique things about “Joker” that make it feel unique. The movie also resonated with enough people to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and talks of a sequel. It's clear that many want to see Phoenix's Joker again.

Even though Leto appeared in a fun film, he played a relatively minor role. Both Nicholson and Phoenix had opportunities to shine in movies that were mostly well-received. In the end, Ledger got to drive the plot of one of the most well-regarded superhero films of all time.

WINNER: Heath Ledger 1/ Jack Nicholson 1 /Jared Leto 0/ Joaquin Phoenix 1

Round #4: Henchmen/People Working for Them



It’s pretty impressive that Ledger’s Joker has so many employees. While they’re willing to do pretty much anything for him, he sees them as pretty disposable. Although his Joker doesn’t keep a consistent roster of hench people, he has a talent for making people work for him. He steals goons from rival crime bosses and forces regular citizens into doing his dirty work. Most notably, he helped turn Harvey Dent/Two-Face against the city he once defended. Who needs a steady cast of employees when you’re this good at making people do exactly what you want?

Nicholson's Joker was constantly surrounded by a steady crew that was just as eccentric as he was. And when it came time to get the business, he showed that he employed people tough enough to go toe-to-toe with Batman. The standout henchman in Nicholson's film is by far Bob the Goon. This loyal employee was willing to take on any threat that came at his boss at a moment’s notice. Sadly, their relationship ended abruptly when Joker decided to shoot him. Although you never know what to expect when working for Nicholson's Joker, you'd never be bored.

Despite appearing quite chaotic on the outside, Leto's Joker has a pretty good hierarchy of hench people. He naturally has his standard goons that are willing to do whatever he wants at a moment's notice. This Joker also employs a loyal right-hand man named Jonny Frost who goes with the flow and goes on missions with his boss. Without question, the most high-ranking and significant person he has under his employ is Harley Quinn. She brings a ton of skills and toughness to the table and has assisted in the Joker's most vicious crimes. Harley’s so popular that she even got a spin off while she and Mr. J were on the outs.

After Phoenix's Joker shoots a few wealthy businessmen who were tormenting him while wearing clown makeup, he became an icon. People liked the idea of someone striking out at the rich in the struggling Gotham so much that they began wearing clown masks around the city. Although Phoenix’s Joker didn't ask his followers to do anything specific, his followers were always there when he needed them. One of his admirers even shot Thomas and Martha Wayne in an alley. Phoenix’s Joker may not know anybody’s names, but his followers get a lot done.

While Ledger and Phoenix have a large number of henchmen, they lack any quality villains and their rosters. And Nicholson's clown shot his number one guy. Honestly, the most notable, effective, and beloved rogue is definitely Harley Quinn. And a win for Harley is a win for Leto.

WINNER: Heath Ledger 1/ Jack Nicholson 1 /Jared Leto 1/ Joaquin Phoenix 1

Round #5: Cultural Impact



If you asked someone to name a good comic book movie villain, Heath Ledger's Joker would probably be at the top of their list. The actor’s version of the Clown could go from legitimately terrifying to wickedly funny in mere seconds. And the unique way Ledger delivered his lines made us sit up and pay attention every time he was on screen. After he tragically passed away, he became the first actor to be honored with a supporting acting Oscar for a superhero movie role. While fans still imitate and quote Ledger’s award-winning performance today, it could never be duplicated.

There are a few good reasons why people still remember Jack Nicholson's turn as the Joker in 1989’s “Batman.” The villain begins the movie as an intimidating gangster who stays cool under pressure. After he makes his transformation into the Clown, he becomes a completely unhinged psychopath who takes joy in seeing people in pain. Jack Nicholson used his tremendous acting talent to make the transition into the Joker seamless. In the process, he set the bar extremely high for future portrayals of the villain. Over three decades after his debut, he’s still considered to be one of the most memorable comic book movie villains of all time.

Admittedly, Jared Leto didn't get off to a great start when he first took on the role of the Clown. His violent and unpredictable version of the Joker was lost in the shuffle in the hilariously overstuffed “Suicide Squad.” While many people weren’t eager to see Leto return for “Zack Snyder's Justice League,” the impressive performance he turned in earned him new fans. The actor has shown he can bring a lot to the table as the Joker. Time will tell if a third chance for Leto to prove himself to fans is in the cards or not.

When Joaquin Phoenix played the Joker in 2019, he got to be the main focus of a film that was just over 2 hours. He made the best of his screentime with a nuanced performance that depicted a man’s slow descent into madness. Phoenix was also so good at making the Clown three-dimensional that we sometimes felt sympathetic for him. After fans and critics praised his dynamic performance, he broke new ground by winning the Best Actor Oscar for a supervillain film. The accolades and fan praise Phoenix received for his excellent performance as the Joker have secured him a spot in comic book movie history.

While Leto is improving and Jack Nicholson set the bar, neither of them have Academy recognition for their turns as the Joker. And time will tell if Phoenix’s acclaimed version of the Clown will remain beloved. But we know one actor who gave us an Academy Award-winning version of the Joker and is still a major part of the pop culture conversation decades later.

WINNER: Heath Ledger 2/ Jack Nicholson 1 /Jared Leto 1/ Joaquin Phoenix 1

Since Heath Ledger's Joker scored the most points in this battle royale, he wins this versus match. We think we know exactly what this version of the Clown would say to his opponents.
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