The Joker is widely considered the top villain in cinema history. Because of that the casting of this character is a task of the utmost importance. One of the most riveting discussions in film communities today is the question of who is the better Joker between Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight from Christopher Nolan, and Joaquin Phoenix in Joker 2019 from Todd Philips.
Upon release of The Dark Knight it had been nineteen years since audiences were treated to The Joker in a live action film. Prior to 2008 the Joker had been seen by many as an occasionally corny flamboyant clown with criminal tendencies. Joker was essentially a crazy person with make-up on who served as a perfect foil to the strong stoic Batman. It was The Dark Knight that changed the way many moviegoers saw the Joker. He was no longer just a criminal clown, but a sociopathic anarchist who played greatly off of the characters around him. We’ll delve further into the character of Ledger’s Joker compared to Phoenix’s, but for now it’s important to understand that Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker forever changed the way he was seen, while paving the way for new & more in depth interpretations of the character to come.
It’s important to recognize without any disrespect, Joaquin had the overall advantage to Heath due to the fact that Heath’s version of the Joker came out years before Joaquin’s. Joaquin is the main character of Joker and was able to create his own embodiment of the Joker. We got to see him depict his side of the crazed madman, which in the end was still different from Heath’s. Joaquin created another uniquely great rendition of an already near perfect character. Heath raised the bar to the sky and Joaquin still created a different flavorful route. Instead of being at the top of criminal activity in Gotham, Joaquin shows the origins to Joker in a sense. Explaining and conveying the story of the sick individual that will forever terrorize Gotham, Batman, and most importantly, the audience.
There will always be some difficulty when comparing two portrayals of the same character because every actor is different, every writer is different, but this is what creates diversity. Ledger’s Joker was meant to show him as an anarchist with this intense drive to cause chaos. Chaos is what defined Ledger’s Joker. This anarchist form rips apart all life in The Dark Knight giving the main character choices which change the entire franchise. His bloodlust for chaos makes him the epitome of unpredictability & intrigues the audience even more. The story creates a unique connection between character & audience. Everything Joker does causes the audience question the morality of the characters, while also forcing the characters to question their own morality. Beyond just being entertaining it poses intriguing questions about right versus wrong and human nature at its most pure.
Phoenix’s Joker decides to dive into the mentally ill aspects of the Joker. All Jokers are considered mentally ill, however Joaquin Phoenix’s version incorporates it more completely. We get to see how he thinks, communicates, and behaves. We see his mental health truly break him as a person. The Jokers haunting laugh is perfectly explained as a mental disorder in the film. He even imagines an entire romantic relationship with his neighbor. The audience sees the final breaking point of his sick character which leads to straight murdering. He decides to display his actions to the whole world on public television. Even though Phoenix goes very in depth into this mental illness, it’s really his only trait and represents a more static version of the Joker.
Ledger in short keeps the audience guessing. His mental illness is clearly a driving force in his character, but we see the spontaneous chaos he provides and his mental problems become less of his only intrigue to the audience. “I just do things.” This is the line that truly encapsulates the Joker’s character. His goal is to expose humans in their purest form & he knows the best way to do that is by simply taking away control. We don’t know who this character is, where he’s from, or what he will do next. Throughout the film Ledger tells multiple differing stories regarding his past, all seem to be made up on the spot in his twisted head. In doing so, it allows the audience to keep wondering about who this Joker is and keeps us invested in the character.
Phoenix’s Joker does an amazing job physically portraying him as a sick clown. We get to see a physically broken human being. From bruises to malnutrition we see a truly disturbed character which was incorporated in Ledger’s version but ultimately taken over by Phoenix. His physical appearance heavily symbolizes his mental health. Throughout the whole film Phoenix is injured mentally and physically. However Ledger also expresses physical and mental torment through his scars and his explanation, or lack thereof, as to why he has them. According to his many stories his scars could be the result of his father, gangsters, or even himself.
Ultimately the reason for Ledger’s superiority as Joker compared to Joaquin is in large part due to the story. What makes the Joker so unique & not just another psycho in makeup, is his relationship with Batman. Joker needs Batman, it’s a major part of his character. At the end of The Dark Knight Joker says to Batman “You and I are destined to do this forever.” At a certain point the Joker and Batman engage in a sort of sick symbiosis. A cat forever chasing it’s own tail. Phoenix’s Joker film is about the Joker and the Joker only. While the story allows for an interesting new take on the Joker that hasn’t been done before, you can only go so far into the character without having Batman before it becomes a story about just another psychopath. Having a foe like Batman is what makes the Joker the Joker.
Make no mistake there are countless interesting options when making a story entirely centered around the Joker, and Joker does a relatively good job of this. The story of this character getting, for lack of a better word, bullied by the world for his entire life is in many ways a truly heartbreaking story. On top of that as if the story alone wasn’t enough Phoenix’s performance is incredible. It’s important to keep in mind while Phoenix’s interpretation of the Joker wasn’t the best comparatively Phoenix is an extremely talented actor and his performance as the Joker was one of the best in recent memory. The issue is what this story does is it takes an incredibly charismatic character and forces them into a limited storytelling structure. The story of a man beaten on and broken down by society is certainly interesting as a means of seeing new interpretations of a character, but it is by no means a novel story.
Both Ledger & Phoenix’s Jokers have an immense impact on their respective worlds, but where Phoenix is a reactive character, Ledger is proactive. We watch as throughout the course of the entire film Phoenix’s Joker is shaped by his story & by the end he is the ultimate product of his environment. When we see Ledger’s Joker he is already fully formed, his whole purpose in the story is to actively drag down the rest of his world to his level. He spends the whole movie not being shaped by his environment, but by forcing his environment to be shaped by him. By the end of Phoenix’s story his arc is complete, when he stands atop the cop car & embraces his new people, he is the Joker. But by the end of Ledger’s story he actually wins. He destroys Batman mentally and forges a great divide in the world. The story isn’t over, the Joker has won and we see not just the effect of the world on one man, but the effect of one man on the world.