Jack Nicholson Is The Best Joker, Here’s Why
Jack Nicholson was the best version of the Joker for being the most complete and nuanced.
With the possible exception of Marvel’s Spider-Man, no comic book character is as defined by their villains as Batman. It has become a central tent of the mythos of the Dark Knight that Batman is spiritually mirrored by the Joker, with the former’s need to impose order and justice on a troubled world contrasted with the latter’s chaotic nature. However, while fans will debate who is the best actor to portray Bruce Wayne till the world ends, there is only one real choice for the best Joker: Jack Nicholson.
There have been many actors to play the Clown Prince of Crime since his debut in 1940, created by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, and Bill Finger (who only recently finally received credit for his invaluable work). But of all of them, none looms larger than Jack Nicholson as the best Joker, whose portrayal of the character essentially made him the co-lead of Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman (which is currently streaming on HBO Max). In fact, in contrast to every other film with the character, Jack Nicholson was billed first over Michael Keaton as Batman.
Undoubtedly, much of the billing was due to the comparative star status of the two actors. At the time of the film’s release, Jack Nicholson had won already won two Academy Awards out of a staggering then-nine nominations (he now has 12 Oscar noms to date), while Michael Keaton was best known to audiences as a guy who can’t figure out how to buy lunchmeat in Mr. Mom. That is no shade at Keaton, who has since developed as a fascinating character actor, but the two were simply not at the same level.
And it shows in Batman, where Jack Nicholson dominates the film at every turn. Though it was unusual for an acclaimed actor to take on a role in a comic book movie at the time (perhaps only paralleled by Gene Hackman’s turn as Lex Luthor in Superman: The Movie), Nicholson gave his best to the performance of the Joker, and not just in the mania he exhibits once he goes full crazy clown.
Jack Nicholson simply has the best and most nuanced turn as the Joker in that we do not see him simply as an avatar of chaos (as in Heather Ledger’s acclaimed take on the character) or a gothic crime boss (like Jared Leto’s less acclaimed performance). We get to see this version of the Joker at multiple stages in his life, from the tightly controlled, cool-headed mobster Jack Napier to the eccentrically murderous terror of Gotham to the gibbering madman of his final moments atop the city’s Cathedral.
It cannot be stressed enough how Jack Nicholson, perhaps alone among the actors who have played the character, has the breadth of range to play different personalities within the Joker. The only other portrayal of the Joker that can compare in terms of power, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, was terrifying and compelling; it was also one-note and purposefully without explanation or depth. In Nicholson’s performance, we see what made the Joker what he is as well as the seed in him that was always waiting to sprout into true madness. Dance with the devil in the pale moonlight, anyone?
While Ledger’s performance was centered around the idea of the Joker as a force of chaos, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the best cinematic version of the Joker is far more chaotic. Think about it: if you see the weird, leering Ledger Joker, there is no doubt that this is someone evil and dark. When Nicholson’s bright, weirdly cheerful version of the Joker appears in public, it is so bewildering to the public at large that no one can even decide what they are looking at until people start dying.
Ultimately, Jack Nicholson is the best Joker not for being the first (Cesar Romero and his mustache had him beat by decades) or the most honored (Ledger’s posthumous Academy Award cannot be denied) or the longest (Mark Hamill’s contribution to the character should never be ignored), but for being the most complete. His version of the Joker could be a weird buffoon making fart noises, a frustrated chemical genius, a bizarre romantic consumed by what he thinks of as love, or an utterly terrifying madman. Shouldn’t the Joker be that hard to pin down?