The new JOKER film has had a variety of thoughts attached to it. Some are excited about it, others are indifferent, and others still think it’s a good idea that won’t be done right. The film’s eventual fate will likely hinge on how star, Joaquin Phoenix approaches the role. Phoenix is an accomplished actor, but Joker is a complex character. Batman’s greatest villain is funny, terrifying, tragic, maniacal, homicidal, and insane all at once.

It’s a huge challenge for any actor, but there is one thing that may help Phoenix — he’s not the first to take on the role. Many actors have played Joker over the years. Each one took their own special approach to the Clown Prince of Crime. These roles have left vital clues as to how an actor might approach such a complex role. So let’s take a look at the actors that have taken on the same challenge as Phoenix and succeeded.

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Cesar Romero

Cesar Romero portrayed Joker on the 1960s BATMAN television show. He also played the role in the theatrical BATMAN film based on the show, so he counts here. Romero’s performance certainly fits in with the camp aspect of the show, with such zany plots as becoming king of the surfers or developing his own utility belt. However, that largely fit with the era’s BATMAN comics, which were under the Comics Code.

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Even though he was playing up the clownish aspects, Romero and the show still added elements to Joker’s legacy. The show’s tone had him use bright colors, including the garish purple most associated with the character. Romero himself played the role with incredible gusto and joy. His Joker was always gleefully laughing about how ‘evil’ his silly plans were. It didn’t evoke the fear later versions did, but it created a character that took great joy in being evil. The performance embodied the glee he inherently had.

It also arguably helped shaped Joker’s later thoughts on crime as an art form, while capturing the idea of an evil clown. That level of glee and subversion is something Phoenix should take advantage of. His Joker appears to be darker and more modern, but he should still take joy in his work. Imagine a Joker that found murder and death funny, and came up with plans based around that. It was easy to do, and Romero’s performance would be a strong jumping off point for Phoenix to take. The teaser has already shown a use of strong colors, so hopefully, Romero’s influence will have a touch on Phoenix’s take.

Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson’s Joker built on Romero’s performance and added darker elements. Thanks to Nicholson and the BATMAN director Tim Burton, Jack kept the glee and joy from Romero but was free of the camp confines of the 60’s. This was a Joker that was free to kill and use humor to do it. And boy, did he.

One of the more subtle aspects of the performance is how Joker’s transformation is freeing for the character. Nicholson plays the pre-Joker Jack Napier as someone with violent urges just below the surface. The film even mentions how he has a history of violence before even before everything happens. The transformation and its resulting insanity become freeing, as Jack fully becomes the person he wants to be. The problem is that person is bat-shit crazy and homicidal.

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This could be gold for Phoenix. His Joker is slated to be a failed comedian. That opens the doorway for a character with bubbling rage and anger below the surface. Phoenix could show anger in small ways, or even small mannerisms, before letting the transformation fully awaken them. It could be either sympathetic or terrifying or both. Regardless, it would be gripping to watch. Phoenix might not bring the level of humor Nicholson brought to the role, but he should study the transformative aspect closely.

Heath Ledger

Arguably the most acclaimed portrayal of  Joker, Ledger’s version had touches of Nicholson and Romero but ultimately became its entity. Ledger fully embodies the chaos and insanity the character has always represented. The glee was toned down somewhat, but he took his work to a new level. He spoke at length about human nature and chaos, while literally burning a pile money instead of taking it. More importantly, Ledger amped the terror of his character. He was a mad dog, snapping and biting at everything, just because he could. It echoed the Joker found in ARKHAM ASYLUM and THE KILLING JOKE, but kept it within the realm of reality.

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That approach could be crucial for Phoenix. His Joker appears to be more based in reality, so hand buzzers are probably out. Ledger would have the right elements of the real world fear Phoenix would need. More importantly, Ledger’s approach to dialogue could be useful. Instead of talking about human nature to Harvey Dent, Phoenix could wax in the same vein about ‘one bad day.’ It’s a vital skill for this character, and since Ledger wasn’t considered to be a great choice at first, Phoenix would do well to examine what he did.

New Joker: Joaquin Phoenix

So now that we’ve gone over all the other actors, what can Phoenix himself bring to the role? While Joker is unique, Phoenix’s films do have elements he can draw on. A film like I’M STILL HERE shows that he can stick with weird choices that make other people feel uncomfortable. HER shows that he can play a social misfit well. And of course, his star turn in WALK THE LINE has elements to draw on. Phoenix understood the desperation and longing that drove Johnny Cash to his success, and the price he played for it. These are crucial for the character hinted at in this film.

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These are the roles that make Phoenix a choice for this role. They have the kind of darkness, desperation, and weirdness needed for Joker’s story. Phoenix still needs to study the work of those before him. However, those influences should be blended with his own talents, and hopefully, create a Joker story for the ages.


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