Ranking Jared Leto's Joker against everyone else

Before the release of Suicide Squad, promises were made, mostly by Jared Leto and his outrageous and destructive method acting, that this we were going to get the most terrifying and effective Joker of all time. (Of course, much of that talk came from Jared Leto.) Now that we've seen what Leto brought to the big screen, many critics have been left scratching their heads. Here's Leto's Joker compared to a few other well-known Clown Princes of Crime.

Jared Leto

DC Comics made a pretty big deal of using The Joker as the selling point of Suicide Squad, especially since none of the other characters are quite as A-list. Leto later said the scenes that made the final cut are just a fraction of what was filmed and there's enough for a solo Joker flick. It's hard to make a thorough judgment based on seven minutes of screen time, but The Atlantic said Leto's method acting "didn't exactly translate to a good performance," while Huffington Post called him "an uninteresting joke."

On the other hand, there were plenty of tweets celebrating Leto's good looks, which is likely a first for the character. (All of you amateur Harley Quinns out there, please see a therapist.) Leto reportedly let his true feelings slip during Camp Mars, a 30 Seconds to Mars-themed rock camp, saying he felt "tricked" and thought the movie would be more artistic than it was. Those comments were quickly deleted, but the joke is likely on him: Leto is contractually obligated to play the role in future movies set in the DCEU.

Grade: C (with room for improvement)

Cesar Romero

In order to really understand the living, breathing Joker, we have to go back to the character's screen debut. Cesar Romero played the first flesh-and-blood Joker in the campy, psychedelic '60s Batman TV series starring Adam West. Part common gangster, and part pseudo-Shakespearean, soliloquizing cartoon villain, Romero was a perfect fit for that specific era of Batman, and a pitch-perfect embodiment of his wacky Silver Age counterpart. It's not often that we see comic-accurate costumes on screen, but Romero embraced his insane purple duds, and no one ever questioned how the villain could invent things that defied all known science. The only thing Romero wouldn't do for the Joker? Shave his mustache. Maybe someone forgot to tell him that those things grow back.

Still, it takes a very distinct appreciation of a very specific era of comics and TV to endure anything in the 1960s Batman for too long. More about pretty colors than plot, Romero's Joker hasn't aged as well as some of the others.

Grade: B-

Jack Nicholson

More than two decades after Romero vacated the role, we got our next legit Joker. By then, comics had changed—and Batman's world in particular reflected the medium's dark turn. Jack Nicholson's interpretation of the character is, for many fans, the Joker that represents the most nostalgic era of Batman (and a whole raft of childhood nightmares), so it's hard to judge his work in Tim Burton's 1989 Batman objectively today, but he earned no shortage of critical praise. While Roger Ebert only gave the movie two stars, he lauded Nicholson's Joker as the film's most important character; The Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, called Nicholson "over the edge" (in a good way), decades before anyone could possibly anticipate even more insane Jokers.

Burton brought more realism to Gotham, and Nicholson showed that super-villains don't just sprout into deranged existence—they often evolve from flawed human characters, and that's just one reason why his Joker remains a standard-bearer. Maybe it's the film's visual design, or the Joker viciously frying a man alive using nothing but a joy buzzer, but Nicholson's anger and menace, paired with unpredictable moments of silliness and joy, still feel timeless.

Grade: A-

Mark Hamill

We had other animated Jokers before Mark Hamill came along, but the once-and-future Luke Skywalker completely knocked his performance out of the park, even though he's only appeared as a cartoon. He gave the character a voice unlike anything kids had heard before; even though Hamill himself says that he treated the role like a 1930s radio drama, his approach remained thoroughly current. The voice is so effective that Hamill was asked to return on multiple occasions, including DC Universe Online, Rocksteady's Batman video game trilogy, and the incredibly dark Batman: The Killing Joke. Looking back, it's hard to believe Hamill only landed the role once Tim Curry dropped out after recording a few episodes.

Hamill announced his retirement from the role in 2011, but it didn't stick. While other voice actors occasionally fill in, including voice virtuosos Kevin Michael Richardson (Samurai Jack, Teen Titans) to John Dimaggio (Futurama, Adventure Time), it's Hamill that's asked back time and again.

Grade: A+

Heath Ledger

It's easy to dismiss early critical praise of Heath Ledger's Joker as being purely sympathetic, since Ledger died shortly after finishing filming the role, but even looking back many years later, his version of the character is both a terror and a delight. As Geek Tyrant later pointed out, his performance (which won a posthumous Oscar) served as a satisfying rejoinder to the early, angry reactions from a segment of the fanbase after his casting was announced. Ledger was truly the first Joker that was absolutely fun to watch; he understood the unpredictability of the character, as well as his total nihilism. And that improvised moment when the hospital almost fails to blow up? Pure genius.

This time around, Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, calling Ledger a "key performance," and even The Wall Street Journal, which gave the film a lukewarm review, said that the best part was "Ledger's eerie fervor that plumbs the depths of the Joker's derangement." You wouldn't want to meet him, but it's sure great to watch him in action.

Grade: A