After watching the new film “Joker,” which hit theaters this month starring Joaquin Phoenix as the latest villain, all anybody after the movie could talk about was who played a better Joker— Phoenix, or our beloved Heath Ledger who starred in “The Dark Knight,” the most recent adaptation of the Batman series.
Ledger’s performance was a very hard act to follow, as he became the face, the laugh and the personality of the Joker who we have all come to love (and hate). However, Phoenix’s shocking performance left many of us (myself included) in awe, revealing a gut-wrenching back story and new side of Joker that we were unable to experience with Ledger’s portrayal. (Spoiler Alert: parts of the new movie will be discussed in this article!!)
In all honesty, and after personally trying, it is very hard to compare the two characters to one another, and to decide who really takes the cake for being the best Joker. Not only were both extraordinarily talented, they both (as previously mentioned) played significantly different versions of the role. Phoenix had you feeling remorse for him throughout the film, whereas with Ledger, we hated him so much that we loved him. When a character is shown in such different lights, it’s hard to decipher who was entirely better. Rather than basing this article on who was a better Joker, lets focus on some of the key aspects which distinguish Phoenix’s adaptation from Ledger’s.
The first thing we all think of when we think about the Joker is his iconic, spine-rattling laugh. The raw, crisp shriek that we associate with this character, however, has two completely different contexts in each film, which overall shape the entirety of who is playing the role. Beginning with Ledger, his laugh is chaotic, it comes from a place of destruction and insanity. This in turn is what his Joker is known for — he is the villain in the story and is portrayed as such. He laughs with intent to fear and to mock those who would oppose him. Comparatively, the laugh which Phoenix gives his Joker comes from a place of pain. We find in the movie he suffers from a condition he incurred as a child that causes him to laugh, even during the most inappropriate times. His laughter is hard to hear, as it’s unwanted by him and those around him – it makes you feel sorry for the man behind the laughter, an ongoing theme in the movie.
Gotham City, the home of both Jokers, is in significantly different states in Ledger and Phoenix’s films, which impacts each of their motives differently. In Ledger’s, Gotham is thriving under its new mayor, which only makes Joker want to bring more chaos and ruin to the city. He seeks to destroy and corrupt, for no other reason than to be a villain. Whereas in “Joker,” Gotham City is in a time of depression — countless are jobless and citizens have grown cold and cruel, including Phoenix’s character. Throughout the movie he is beaten down, he is lied to by the person who he loves the most and he is made invisible by all those around him. This causes him to eventually try to stand up for himself, and ultimately leads to his homicidal tendencies, which in turn lead to the massive campaign that quickly spins out of control and unites much of the broken city in a very chaotic way.
When we think Joker, many of us usually think villain. A villain not only to Batman, but to Gotham City as a whole, and in Ledger’s case, this is the truth. He is a sick-minded murderer, who thinks only of himself and what more he can do to wreak havoc on the city. And yet, the case isn’t the same for Phoenix— in fact it’s almost the opposite. After being beaten, lied to and laughed at, he reaches a point of insanity— one that many of us can understand. While Ledger played a true villain, we think of Phoenix as more of an antihero.
The final point of comparison I wanted to include, is something they actually have in common, but for different reasons: their indifference to death. In Phoenix’s case, it is a result of his poor life and the events that led him to become the symbol of mayhem. By the end of the movie, he was so corrupted that he admitted to his murders on live television, and committed another while still filming. Whereas with Ledger, he had nothing to lose. In fact, his ultimate goal to destroy Batman would be fulfilled if he were killed by him. Along with destroying the city, we know his hate for Batman is motive enough to die, because he would be destroying the masked hero’s entire platform of not killing anyone.
Ultimately, there is no superior Joker— the two are extremely uncomparable and choosing one based on anything other than preference to one of the characters is illogical.
Each of these men did phenomenal jobs at representing the dark character in their own personalized ways, which makes choosing a favorite hard for many of us. Phoenix and Ledger gave us two completely different versions of one iconic role, and while we may prefer one over the other, each will always carry it’s own version of the Joker.